Japan shares fall on weak export data, profit taking

TOKYO, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Japanese shares ended lower on Wednesday, after data showed that the trade-reliant economy’s exports shrunk for the 12th straight month amid the Sino-U.S. tariff war, raising the risk of a fourth-quarter contraction, and as investors booked profits.

The Nikkei index ended down 0.55% at 23,934.43, with the industrial and healthcare sectors leading the declines. The index had slipped 0.61% earlier in the session, its biggest intraday percentage loss since Dec. 4.

The Nikkei touched its highest since Oct. 4, 2018 on Tuesday.

Traders are trying to look beyond the disappointing export data as a de-escalation in the U.S.-China trade dispute and an improving U.S. economy fuelled expectations that Japan’s exports will recover next year.

“There are expectations that the economic outlook will improve and we have some positive U.S. data, so the fundamentals look solid. There is no reason to aggressively sell stocks,” said Shusuke Yamada, head of forex and Japan equity strategy at Merrill Lynch Japan Securities Co in Tokyo.

Sentiment was supported by following U.S. data that showed a rebound in manufacturing and a bigger-than-expected increase in U.S. housing starts, lifting Wall Street to a record high on Tuesday.

There were 62 advancers on the Nikkei index, against 158 decliners.

The largest percentage losers in the index were drugmaker Daiichi Sankyo Co Ltd down 5.58%, followed by industrial equipment maker IHI Corp losing 3.53%, and shipping company Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd down by 3.43%.

The largest percentage gainers in the index were industrial conglomerate Hitachi Ltd up 3.14%, followed by Nippon Electric Glass Co Ltd gaining 2.83%, and Taiheiyo Cement Corp up by 2.58%.

After the closing bell, Hitachi said it will sell a stake in its listed unit Hitachi Chemical Co to Showa Denko for 494 billion yen ($4.55 billion).

Isuzu Motors Ltd’s shares ended up 1.54% after a media report that it will cooperate with Sweden’s Volvo AB on next-generation trucks. The automakers officially announced the tie-up after the market closed.

The broader Topix index fell 0.5% to 1,738.40. On Tuesday it reached the highest since Oct. 10, 2018.

The volume of shares traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s main board was 1.28 billion, compared with an average of 1.22 billion shares in the past 30 days.

$1 = 108.6400 yen Reporting by Stanley White; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips and Rashmi Aich