People shop daily nessesities at a market in Tokyo
People shop daily necessities at a market in Tokyo, Japan March 3, 2023. Reuters

Japan's consumer inflation held steady above the central bank's target in March and an index excluding fuel costs rose at the fastest annual pace in four decades, data showed, indicating broadening price pressure in the world's third-largest economy.

The data may keep alive market expectations that the Bank of Japan (BOJ) could phase out later this year a massive stimulus programme that has drawn public criticism for distorting bond markets and crushing financial institutions' margins.

"Inflationary pressure is proving stronger than expected and could last for longer than thought," said Shinke Yoshiki, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

"But there's still a lot of uncertainty on whether wages will rise durably and underpin consumption, which may keep the BOJ in a holding pattern."

The core consumer price index (CPI), which excludes volatile fresh food, but includes energy costs, rose 3.1% in March from a year earlier, government data showed on Friday, matching a median market forecast.

It followed February's increase of 3.1%, which was a sharp slowdown from January's 41-year high of 4.2%, due largely to the effect of government subsidies to soften the cost of utility bills for homes.

An index stripping out the effect of both fresh food and energy, which is closely watched by the BOJ as a better gauge of underlying price trends, rose 3.8% in March from February's 3.5% and accelerated for the 10th straight month.

The year-on-year rise in the so-called "core core" index was the fastest since December 1981, when Japan was experiencing an asset-inflated bubble economy.

While government subsidies kept utility bills down, prices rose for various daily necessities and food such as fried chicken, which rose 12% and laundry detergent, up 18%, the data showed.

Services prices rose 1.8% in March year-on-year, faster than a 1.5% gain in February, with restaurants charging 7.6% more than year-before levels.

Persistent rises in global commodity prices have prodded many Japanese companies, long reluctant to hike prices, to finally pass on their higher costs to consumers, pushing up consumer inflation to well above the BOJ's 2% target.

New BOJ Governor Kazuo Ueda has vowed to keep monetary policy ultra-loose until there is more evidence the rise in inflation has become sustainable and driven by strong demand rather than supply pressures.

At Ueda's first policy-setting meeting next week, the BOJ is widely expected to make no major changes to its bond yield control policy, say sources familiar with its thinking.

Markets are focusing on the BOJ's quarterly outlook report due after the meeting, which will include inflation forecasts extending through fiscal 2025.