updated 5/19/2009 8:16:19 PM ET 2009-05-20T00:16:19

Japan's economy contracted at the fastest pace since 1955 as exports plunged and companies slashed production.

Japan's real gross domestic product, or the total value of the nation's goods and services, shrank at an annual pace of 15.2 percent in the January-March period, the government said Wednesday.

The result represents the steepest decline since Japan began compiling GDP statistics more than five decades ago. It also marks the fourth straight quarter of decline after the GDP fell 12.1 percent in the October-December period.

On a quarterly basis, GDP fell 4.0 percent from the previous three-month period, according to the Cabinet Office's preliminary data.

Japan's first quarter results were markedly worse than other major economies, outpacing the euro zone's 2.5 percent quarterly decline and a 1.6 percent contraction in the U.S.

The world's second-biggest economy relied heavily on the rest of the world to buy its cars and gadgets to drive economic growth. Like the rest of Asia, it has been pummeled by the unprecedented collapse in global demand triggered last year by the U.S. financial crisis.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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