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UPDATE 1-Japan export growth accelerates, underscores steady economic recovery

recovery@ (Adds detail, context)

* Nov exports +16.2 pct yr/yr vs forecast +14.6 pct

* Imports +17.2 pct yr/yr vs forecast +18.0 pct

* Trade balance +113.4 bln yen vs f'cast -54.9 bln yen

* Exports a key driver of Japan's economic growth

TOKYO, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Japan's export growth accelerated in November to mark a full year of annual gains, underscoring the strength of external demand that has led the economy to its second-longest run of postwar growth. The 16.2 percent export growth in November handily beat a 14.6 percent annual gain expected by economists in a Reuters poll, accelerating from a 14.0 percent year-on-year increase in the previous month, according to the Ministry of Finance (MOF). In volume terms, Japan's exports rose 5.5 percent in November from a year ago, the 10th consecutive month of rises, led by robust shipments to China and Asia, the data showed. The data backs the Bank of Japan's optimistic outlook for the Japanese economy, the world's third largest. The central bank holds a two-day policy setting meeting that ends on Thursday. With inflation stubbornly low despite more than four years of aggressive monetary stimulus, many analysts expect the central bank to stand pat on policy at least for now. Economists expect brisk Asia-bound shipments of electronics and solid capital investment in advanced economies will underpin Japan's export performance in coming months. The value of exports to China, Japan's largest trading partner, rose 25.1 percent year-on-year in November to 1.38 trillion yen ($12.24 billion), the highest amount on record, led Shipments to Asia, which account for more than half of Japan's exports, grew 20.4 percent in the year to November to 3.89 trillion yen, the record amount. The gain was driven by China-bound shipments of LCD manufacturing equipment, exports of steel to Thailand and hybrid cars for South Korea. Exports to the United States rose 13.0 percent in the year to November, led by cars and excavators, following a 7.1 percent gain in the previous month. Japan's trade surplus with the United States rose an annual 13.7 percent in November to 660 billion yen, a source of concern as President Donald Trump seeks bilateral deals to fix trade imbalances under his "America First" policy. Monday's data marked the fifth straight month of annual growth in Japan's trade surplus with the United States. Imports rose 17.2 percent in the year to November, versus the median estimate for a 18.0 percent annual increase, led by cell phones from China and crude oil. The trade balance resulted in a surplus of 113.4 billion yen, against the median estimate for a 54.9 billion yen shortfall, marking the sixth straight surplus month.

($1 = 112.7200 yen)

($1 = 112.7500 yen)

(Reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto; Editing by Eric Meijer)