Based on the average exchange rate for 2021, the Japanese yen has appreciated by 2.2% against the US dollar since 2017 but decreased by -2.8% from 2020 to 2021. Japan’s weaker local currency since 2020 made exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive in 2021. In contrast, Japan’s exports were relatively costlier from 2017 to 2021 for international buyers starting from the weaker US dollar in 2017.
Japan’s 5 biggest export products by value in 2021 were cars, electronic circuits and microassemblies, automotive parts or accessories, semiconductor-making machinery, and heavy machinery such as bulldozers, excavators or road rollers. In aggregate, that quintet of major exports account for about one quarter (25.5%) of overall export sales from Japan. That group of commodities suggests a relatively diversified range of exported goods.
Japan ranks among world-leading nations for exporting cars and automotive parts or accessories and is a major competitor among Asian nations in the international trade of electronic circuits.
From a continental perspective, 60.9% of Japan exports by value were delivered to fellow Asian countries while 20.5% were sold to importers in North America. Japan shipped another 12.5% worth of goods to Europe.
Smaller percentages went to Oceania (2.6%) led by Australia, Latin America (2.2%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, then Africa (1.3%).
Given Japan’s population of 125.8 million people, its total $756 billion in 2021 exported products translates to roughly $6,000 for every resident in the East Asian island nation. That per-capita dollar amount compares with an average $5,100 one year earlier in 2020.
Japan’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups categorize the highest dollar value in Japanese global shipments during 2021. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from Japan.
- Machinery including computers: US$147.1 billion (19.5% of total exports)
- Vehicles: $137.8 billion (18.2%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $117.9 billion (15.6%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $43 billion (5.7%)
- Iron, steel: $34.6 billion (4.6%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $30.3 billion (4%)
- Organic chemicals: $18.3 billion (2.4%)
- Other chemical goods: $14.6 billion (1.9%)
- Gems, precious metals: $14.3 billion (1.9%)
- Copper: $12.9 billion (1.7%)
Japan’s top 10 exports accounted for roughly three-quarters (75.5%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Iron and steel as materials represent the fastest growers among the top 10 export categories, up by 51.9% since 2020.
In second place for improving export sales was copper which appreciated 37.7%.
Japan’s shipments of organic chemicals posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 22.8% year over year.
The most modest increase among Japan’s top 10 export categories belongs to gems and precious metals thanks to a 7.1% improvement.
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of Japan’s Most Valuable Export Products further down near the bottom of this article.
The following types of Japanese product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus for 2021. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
1. Vehicles: US$114.7 billion (886.3% of total exports)
2. Machinery including computers: $75.9 billion (586.8%)
3. Iron, steel: $26 billion (201%)
4. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: $14.8 billion (114.2%)
5. Plastics, plastic articles: $13 billion (100.3%)
6. Copper: $9.5 billion (73.4%)
7. Ships, boats: $8.9 billion (68.7%)
8. Other chemical goods: $7.1 billion (55.1%)
9. Photo/cinematographic goods: $5.1 billion (39.5%)
10. Rubber, rubber articles: $4.9 billion (38.1%)
Japan has notably positive net exports in the international trade of automobiles thanks to world-leading automotive corporations including Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. In turn, these cashflows indicate Japan’s strong competitive advantages under the vehicles product category.
Japan incurred an overall -$12.9 billion trade deficit for 2021, reversing $6.3 billion in black ink in 2020.
Below are exports from Japan that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country Japan’s goods trail Japanese importer spending on foreign products.
- Mineral fuels including oil: -US$143.4 billion (Up by 46.4% since 2020)
- Ores, slag, ash: -$33.5 billion (Up by 59.2%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$29.6 billion (Up by 40.1%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$12.2 billion (Up by 3.9%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$11 billion (Down by -6.3%)
- Wood: -$10.7 billion (Up by 25.8%)
- Meat: -$10.4 billion (Up by 4.6%)
- Gems, precious metals: -$9.6 billion (Up by 273.2%)
- Fish: -$8.9 billion (Up by 4.1%)
- Furniture, bedding, lighting, signs, prefabricated buildings: -$8 billion (Up by 10.7%)
Japan has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil, petroleum gases and coal.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate Japan’s competitive disadvantages in the international fossil fuel market, but also represent key opportunities for Japan to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
Japanese Export Companies
Wikipedia lists many of the larger international trade players from Japan.
- Toyota Motor (cars, trucks)
- Japan Tobacco (tobacco)
- Denso (automotive parts)
- Canon (business products, supplies)
- Takeda Pharmaceutical (pharmaceuticals)
- Hitachi (electronics)
- Fanuc (industrial products)
- Panasonic (electronics)
- Astellas Pharma (pharmaceuticals)
- Nippon Steel (iron, steel)
- Mitsubishi Electric (electrical equipment)
According to global trade intelligence firm Zepol, the following companies are also examples of leading Japanese exporters.
- Honda Motor (vehicles, automotive parts)
- Nissan Motor (vehicles, automotive parts)
- Kubota (tractors, excavators, other heavy equipment)
Searchable List of Japan’s Most Valuable Export Products
At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, the following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from Japan during 2021. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2020.
|Rank||Japan's Export Product||2021 Value (US$)||Change|
|4||Machinery for making semi-conductors||$30,491,134,000||+29.3%|
|5||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$11,439,273,000||+43.7%|
|6||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$10,701,509,000||+63.2%|
|7||Solar power diodes/semi-conductors||$10,244,803,000||+14.6%|
|10||Cruise/cargo ships, barges||$9,588,246,000||-10.3%|
|12||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$8,294,499,000||+17%|
|15||Processed petroleum oils||$7,194,163,000||+29.5%|
|16||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$6,817,133,000||+13.1%|
|17||Piston engine parts||$6,799,302,000||+23.1%|
|18||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$6,224,879,000||+18.3%|
|20||Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)||$5,833,117,000||+11.7%|
|21||Flat-rolled other alloy steel products||$5,729,060,000||+68.6%|
|22||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$5,666,317,000||+20.8%|
|23||Air or vacuum pumps||$5,651,836,000||+16.1%|
|24||Electric storage batteries||$5,585,929,000||+23.3%|
|25||Other measuring/testing machines||$5,512,100,000||+25.3%|
|26||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$5,402,759,000||+18.4%|
|27||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$5,215,047,000||+26.7%|
|29||Electrical converters/power units||$5,025,012,000||+15.3%|
|30||Rubber tires (new)||$5,020,804,000||+23.8%|
|31||Physical/chemical analysis tools||$4,918,070,000||+11.7%|
|32||Chemicals used in electronics||$4,575,505,000||+13.4%|
|34||Ball, roller bearings||$4,560,062,000||+31.9%|
|35||Chemical industry products/residuals||$4,539,930,000||+25.5%|
|36||Medication mixes in dosage||$4,514,640,000||-7.8%|
|37||Optical fiber cables, sheets, plates||$4,332,682,000||+4.8%|
|39||Liquid pumps and elevators||$4,110,838,000||+14.8%|
|40||Oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers||$4,051,366,000||+19.5%|
|41||Electric motors, generators||$3,981,949,000||+28%|
|43||Iron or steel scrap||$3,613,438,000||+35.7%|
|45||Liquid crystal/laser/optical tools||$3,372,987,000||+1.4%|
|46||Electric ignition/start equipment||$3,336,488,000||+21.4%|
|47||Precious metal compounds||$3,312,759,000||+95.9%|
|48||Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels||$3,304,178,000||+20.3%|
|51||Table games, bowling equipment||$3,162,388,000||+9.8%|
|52||Self-adhesive plastic in rolls||$3,156,830,000||+16.8%|
|53||Electric circuit parts, fuses, switches||$3,106,329,000||+18.9%|
|55||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,970,463,000||+16.1%|
|56||Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers||$2,922,196,000||+22.8%|
|57||Phone devices including smartphones||$2,916,101,000||+10.2%|
|59||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$2,807,404,000||+40.5%|
|61||TV receiver/transmit/digital cameras||$2,640,229,000||+10%|
|62||Rubber/plastic article making machines||$2,547,144,000||+10.9%|
|65||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$2,387,747,000||+38.8%|
|66||Miscellaneous plastic items||$2,366,464,000||+11.7%|
|67||Copper waste, scrap||$2,337,137,000||+85.4%|
|70||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$2,275,850,000||+16.9%|
|72||Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips||$2,181,260,000||+21.9%|
|73||Lenses, prisms, mirrors||$2,142,485,000||+33.2%|
|74||Interchangeable hand/machine tools||$2,132,910,000||+10.1%|
|75||TV/radio/radar device parts||$2,123,150,000||+21%|
|77||Oxometal/peroxometal acid salts||$2,061,494,000||+13.6%|
|78||Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)||$2,024,554,000||+42.9%|
|79||Iron or steel tubes, pipes||$2,008,746,000||-17.8%|
|81||Paint/varnish non-aqueous solution||$1,908,230,000||+7.9%|
|85||Computer parts, accessories||$1,782,711,000||+4.7%|
|86||Vinyl chloride polymers||$1,769,170,000||+31.5%|
|87||Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$1,751,272,000||+70.5%|
|89||Unrecorded sound media||$1,658,341,000||+4.4%|
|90||Electric motor parts||$1,647,136,000||+32.9%|
|91||Copper plates, sheets, strips||$1,632,110,000||+54%|
|92||Computers, optical readers||$1,621,715,000||+2.4%|
|96||Vulcanized rubber items||$1,580,079,000||+18.6%|
|97||Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)||$1,540,406,000||+34.6%|
|98||Electrical lighting/signaling equpment, defrosters||$1,520,412,000||+14.6%|
|99||Other machine parts, accessories||$1,520,244,000||+17.9%|
|100||Liquid/gas checking instruments||$1,449,005,000||+39.6%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$548.8 billion or 72.6% by value for all products exported from Japan during 2021.
In macroeconomic terms, Japan’s total exported goods represent 13.4% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2021 ($5.634 trillion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 13.4% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2021 is higher than the 12.3% in 2020. Those percentages suggest Japan’s relatively increasing reliance on products sold on international markets for Japan’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. Japan’s unemployment rate was 2.775% at October 2021, down from an average 2.792% for 2021 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also Japan’s Top 10 Imports, Japan’s Top Trading Partners, Top Japanese Trade Balances and Japan’s Top 10 Major Export Companies
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International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on March 15, 2022
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on March 15, 2022
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Wikipedia, List of Companies of Japan. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on March 15, 2022
Zepol’s company summary highlights by country. Accessed on March 15, 2022