A laborer works in a container area at a port in Tokyo
A laborer works in a container area at a port in Tokyo, Japan July 19, 2017. Picture taken July 19, 2017. Reuters

Japan's export growth slowed in March, according to Ministry of Finance data, dragged down by a drop in China-bound shipments of cars and steel in a slide that underscores concern about slowing global demand amid Western banking-sector jitters.

Import growth outpaced exports in March, due to the hefty cost of coal, crude and oil products, helping bring the annual trade deficit in the world's third-biggest economy to a record 21.7 trillion yen ($161 billion).

The yen's depreciation by 16.5% from the same month a year earlier also boosted the value of imports, rather than driving up external shipments as Japanese exporters have shifted production overseas during previous periods of yen strength.

Thursday's data showed exports rose 4.3% in March from a year earlier, logging a 25th straight month of increase, led by shipments of U.S.-bound cars. That was above economists' median estimate of a 2.6% gain, but below a 6.5% increase in February.

Imports rose 7.3% in the year to March, below the median estimate of an 11.4% increase and after the prior month's 8.3% gain.

The trade balance in March came to a deficit of 754.5 billion yen versus the median estimate for a deficit of 1.29 trillion yen in March, after a shortfall of 897 billion yen in February.

By region, exports to the United States grew 9.4% in the year to March, slowing from the 14.9% seen in the previous month.

Exports to China, Japan's largest trading partner, fell 7.7% year-on-year in March, a fourth straight month of declines, the trade data showed.

($1 = 134.7400 yen)