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Nikkei rises to 3-week high as Fed minutes hurt yen, buoy exporters

* Weaker yen a tailwind to exporters - traders * Eyes on Jackson Hole - fund manager * Hardware equipment makers outperform on Goldman's rating hikes By Ayai Tomisawa TOKYO, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Japanese stocks rose to a three-week high on Thursday morning, clocking gains for the ninth consecutive day, as the weaker yen shored up exporters after minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve's July meeting raised the risk of an earlier rate hike.

The Nikkei share average climbed 1.0 percent to 15,601.99 in midmorning trade, the highest level since August 1. The nine-day winning streak was the longest since December.

The Fed minutes revealed a more active debate about whether an earlier hike in rates might be needed. Still, market participants also seemed reassured that the vast majority of the Fed's voting committee wanted to keep a pledge that rates would stay near zero for a considerable time after it stops buying assets, which is expected in October.

Traders said that Japanese companies base their assumptions on foreign exchange rates at around 101 yen, and therefore the current level is a tailwind for export manufacturers as the weaker yen lifts their competitiveness abroad as well as their profits when repatriated.

The greenback rose to its highest in over four months against the yen to 103.85, not far from the April peak of 104.13.

"People are excited about the yen's level, and optimism is rising as the next focused event, Jackson Hole, is nearing," said Takatoshi Itoshima, a chief portfolio manager at Commons Asset Management.

Itoshima was referring to the annual meeting of top central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which will be held from Thursday through Saturday.

Exporters soared, with Honda Motor Co gaining 2.7 percent, Fuji Heavy Industries up 2.5 percent and Nikon Corp jumping 3.9 percent.

Hardware precision equipment makers also outperformed after Goldman Sachs raised their ratings. Konica Minolta jumped 3.2 percent after it added the stock to its "conviction buy" list, citing stronger earnings. Hoya Corp added 2.1 percent after its rating was raised to "buy" from "neutral" on stable growth.

The broader Topix added 0.9 percent, and the new JPX-Nikkei Index 400 gained 0.9 percent to 11,754.52.

(Editing by Shri Navaratnam)