* April exports +7.5 pct yr/yr vs f'cast +7.8 pct Imports +15.1 pct yr/yr vs f'cast +14.8 pct
* Trade surplus with U.S. narrows
* Trump's trade protectionism clouds outlook
(Updates to add PIX to slug) TOKYO, May 22 (Reuters) - Japan's exports rose in April to mark their fifth straight month of gains, as shipments of semiconductors and steel expanded, signaling that more robust overseas demand could underpin a steady economic recovery. Exports rose 7.5 percent in April from a year ago, below the median estimate of 7.8 percent annual growth, finance ministry data showed on Monday. It followed a 12.0 percent rise in March. The data also showed Japan's trade surplus with the United States narrowed. Exports to the United States increased 2.6 percent in April from a year ago, gaining for the third straight month due to larger shipments of cars and auto parts. But Japan's trade surplus with the United States fell 4.2 percent in April from a year ago to 586.7 billion yen ($5.27 billion). Japan's exports are expected to continue rising as global economic growth gains momentum, but concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump's pledges to adopt protectionist trade policies cloud the outlook for export-reliant Japan. "Japan's exports will continue growing, and imports will probably also rise as domestic production picks up," said Norio Miyagawa, senior economist at Mizuho Securities. The drop in Japan's trade surplus with the United States, however, could take some pressure off Japan as it makes it more difficult for Trump to justify criticizing Japan for its trade practices. Japan's economy grew in the first quarter at the fastest rate in a year to mark the longest period of expansion in a decade, thanks to solid exports and a helpful boost from private consumption. In terms of volume, exports rose 4.1 percent in April from a year ago, the third consecutive month of gains, another sign of overseas demand picking up. Exports to China rose 14.8 percent on-year in April, the sixth straight month of gains, boosted by shipments of optical equipment, auto parts and steel. Japan's exports to Asia rose 12.2 percent on-year in April, also posting the sixth straight month of gains on increased shipments of semiconductors. Imports surged 15.1 percent versus the median estimate for a 14.8 percent increase, rising for the fourth straight month on rising energy costs. The overall trade balance came to a surplus of 481.7 billion yen ($4.33 billion), versus the median estimate for a 521 billion yen surplus.
($1 = 111.3700 yen)
(Reporting by Minami Funakoshi; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Eric Meijer)