Japan's trade surplus in August fell sharply for the first decline in 14 months as higher costs for imported oil combined with weaker export growth, prompting concerns about the country's economic outlook, the finance ministry said today.

The surplus fell 26% from a year earlier to 576.1 billion yen ($5.2 billion), coming in far below consensus forecasts for a surplus of 833.4 billion yen.

Imports jumped 18.4% to 4.21 trillion yen, the second highest total ever, as crude oil hit $37.6 a barrel, up from $28.4 a year earlier, the ministry said. Exports rose 10.4% to 4.78 trillion yen.

The trend of declining growth in exports, following a fall of 14.3% in July, when the trade surplus totalled 1.14 trillion yen, and 19.4% in June, has some economists worried about Japan's overall recovery.

'The August data implies that exports will most likely gradually lose their ability to strongly lead economic growth in Japan as demand in China and the US is slowing down,' one economist said. Another said that exports were seen easing as US economic growth slowed - but the impact of high oil prices on imports was also seen declining in the months ahead.