Japan's prime minister called his trade chief careless on Monday for revealing GDP figures in a speech to business executives ahead of their official release, a slip that raised doubts about government handling of sensitive information.

The third-quarter growth figures were much stronger than expected and caused Japanese bond prices to dip, although they later recovered as analysts warned the outlook was less than rosy. [JP/]

Trade Minister Masayuki Naoshima said he mentioned the GDP figures in a speech to oil industry officials just after 8 a.m. (2300 GMT on Sunday) because of concerns about the economy and did not know the data had not yet been announced.

I'm sorry. I honestly didn't know it was due to be released at 8:50 a.m. so I thought it would be OK to talk about it, Naoshima told reporters.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called the incident regrettable and the chief cabinet secretary said he had severely reprimanded Naoshima over the phone.

I think Naoshima was careless, Hatoyama told reporters. Even though it was a matter of 30 minutes, the release time is important and needs to be maintained.

The figures showed Japan's economy grew 1.2 percent in the third quarter, its fastest pace in more than two years as government stimulus steps lifted consumer spending and capital spending bottomed out. 

It was the first GDP data released since Hatoyama's new government took office in mid-September after an August election that ousted the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

They still haven't got out of the habit of being an opposition party, said Kyohei Morita, chief economist at Barclays Capital Japan, adding that Hatoyama's Democratic Party needed to learn more about communicating with financial markets.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said it was a major problem but downplayed suggestions the minister should resign. He acknowledged the incident could cast doubt on the government's ability to handle sensitive information.

Leaks of GDP data are not new in Japan.

The previous government under the LDP became more careful in handling GDP after a newspaper reported the figures ahead of their release a decade ago, forcing policymakers to confirm them.

Japanese media were covering the meeting, but a government official said it appeared the figures were not reported before the official release time.

It was unclear if the incident would affect public support for Hatoyama, which slipped to 62 percent in a poll published by the Asahi newspaper on Monday, down from 65 percent a month ago.