* Nov exports +18.4 pct yr/yr vs f'cast 17.9 pct * Trade gap widens as weak yen pushes up imports * BOJ likely to keep policy steady on Friday By Tetsushi Kajimoto TOKYO, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Japan's exports rose for a ninth consecutive month in November, led by car shipments to the United States and China, a sign the weak yen and a recovery in global demand are energising a major growth driver in the world's third-biggest economy. The volume of cars shipped to China and the U.S. rose by 185 percent and 13.2 percent respectively, with the jump in China sales occurring a year after a boycott of Japanese products in China in a row over disputed islands in the East China Sea. A steady recovery in the U.S. economy boosted demand for Japanese cars there, with the weak yen giving a competitive edge to exporters such as Toyota Motor Corp, analysts said. "The weak yen is having its effects on Japanese exports albeit slowly, giving carmakers some room to cut prices," said Taro Saito, senior economist at NLI Research Institute. "As for China, you cannot expect demand there to accelerate from now on as the Chinese economy is heading for a stable slowdown," Saito said. The 18.4 percent rise in exports matched the median estimate of a 17.9 percent increase from a Reuters poll of economists, and followed an 18.6 percent gain in October, Ministry of Finance data showed on Wednesday. While the yen has fallen around 16 percent against the dollar this year, export growth has so far largely fallen short of early expectations, falling 0.2 percent in November from the previous month on a seasonally adjusted basis. "Demand from Asia helped Japanese exports in November. The data confirmed a continued pickup in Japan's exports reflecting a gradual recovery in global economy," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute. "It was a positive reading although the pace is unlikely to accelerate as global recovery remains tepid." WIDENING TRADE GAP The weak yen took its toll on Japan's trade balance, as it inflated the cost of imported fuels resulting in a widening trade gap -- a source of concern for policymakers. Imports rose 21.1 percent in the year to November, versus a 21.4 percent rise expected, due to the weak yen and imports of fossil fuel to make up for energy lost since the nuclear shutdown following 2011's Fukushima disaster. The resulting November trade deficit of 1.29 trillion yen ($12.56 billion), against a 1.319 trillion yen deficit expected by economists, marked a record 17 straight months of deficits. It was the widest deficit since January's record 1.6 trillion yen. A rush to buy ahead of a national sales tax hike next April is also boosting imports. "Japan's trade deficits may widen further towards March next year. They will then narrow when domestic demand peaks from April," said Norinchukin's Minami. "But Japan's trade deficits will persist unless the nuclear reactors are restarted and global recovery accelerates suddenly, neither of which are likely to happen anytime soon." Weak net exports were the main reason Japan's economic growth slowed in July to September as growth faltered in Japan's Asian trading partners. Economists expect growth to pick up heading into the new year, but many warn Japan will have to rely more on domestic demand for growth as net exports could remain weak. The Bank of Japan is expected to keep monetary policy steady at its meeting ending on Friday, encouraged by an upbeat business sentiment survey that added to signs the BOJ's stimulus campaign is spreading more broadly across the economy.