BEIJING (AP) — Japanese stocks surged to their highest level this year as Asian markets rose Thursday on optimism a new Japanese government will stimulate its sluggish economy.

Oil gained in Asian trading to stay above $90 a barrel as markets in Hong Kong and Australia reopened after a two-day Christmas break.

Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei 225 index rose 1.3 percent to 10,368.5. That added to Wednesday's 1.5 percent gain and took the Nikkei to a 22 percent increase for the year. Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.6 percent to 22,677.7, while Shanghai climbed 0.2 percent to 2,223.95.

Incoming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for more public works spending to reinvigorate the economy. He wants the Bank of Japan to raise its inflation target from 1 to 2 percent to drag the country out of two decades of deflation, or steadily declining prices that have deadened economic activity.

To help exporters, Abe also has urged the central bank to take steps to dampen Japan's yen. A strong currency has hurt big exporters such as Toyota by making Japanese products more expensive overseas.

"The message from Japan is clear at the moment, the incoming government will do everything in its power to weaken the yen and stimulate the economy," Australia's IG Markets said in a report.

Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan's Taiex gained 0.2 percent to 7,648.92 and Sydney's S&P ASX 200 added 0.2 percent to 4,645.3.

Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines also rose. South Korea's Kospi was the only major decliner, shedding 0.1 percent to 1,979.39.

On Wednesday, U. S. stocks fell for a third session as trading resumed after the Christmas break. Disappointing holiday sales weighed heavy on retail companies and investors worried about the impending "fiscal cliff" — automatic tax and spending cuts due to take effect if the White House and Congress fail to agree on a budget deal. Economists worry that could push the economy into recession.

The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 24.49 points to 13,114.59. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 6.83 to 1,419.83 and the Nasdaq composite lost 22.44 to 2,990.16.

Benchmark oil for February delivery rose 9 cents to $90.89 in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract closed down 5 cents to $88.61 a barrel on the Nymex on Monday.

In currencies, the euro rose to $1.3230. The dollar gained to 85.68 yen.


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