Japan's exports rose in April from a year earlier led by US-bound shipments of cars. 

But the monthly pace of growth slowed from March - a worrying portent for external demand as a slowdown in the economies of China and the US clouds the outlook. 

Ministry of Finance data published today showed exports grew 8% year-on-year in April, compared to a 6.4% gain seen by economists in a Reuters poll, slowing from a 8.5% gain in March. 

Compared with March, shipments fell 1.5% in April, today's figures show. 

A slowdown in export growth could hold back the economy's recovery from last year's recession, after last week's data that showed the economy posted two quarters of moderate expansion in a row. 

Policymakers count on exports as a key driver of corporate activity, which could help boost wages and spur private spending to generate a virtuous growth cycle needed to shake off years of deflation. 

Shipments to China, Japan's largest trading partner, rose 2.4%, slowing from a 3.9% gain in March, the data showed. China-bound car exports halved in the year to April. 

Exports to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan's shipments, grew 6%, again slowing from a 6.7% gain in March. Analysts said the slowdown probably reflected weakness in Thailand and other ASEAN economies.

Exports to the US rose 21.4% in the year to April, keeping the pace of gains in the previous month with brisk shipments of cars and vehicle engines.

Imports fell 4.2% in the year to April, a fourth month in a row of annual declines, mainly due to a sharp fall in crude oil prices.

The fall was deeper than the median estimate for a 1.5% drop.