By Leika Kihara

TOKYO (Reuters) -The Bank of Japan on Thursday maintained its massive stimulus programme and a pledge to keep interest rates ultra-low, reinforcing its resolve to support a fragile economy even as sharp rises in raw material costs push up inflation.

The central bank also said it will offer to buy unlimited amounts of 10-year government bonds to defend an implicit 0.25% cap around its zero target every market day, unless it becomes clear such an offer would draw no bids.

“The BOJ expects short- and long-term policy interest rates to remain at their present or lower levels,” the bank said in a statement, leaving unchanged the guidance from the previous meeting in March.

The BOJ’s commitment to its zero-rate programme puts it at odds with major economies that are shifting toward tighter monetary policy, although inflation in Japan is expected to creep up towards the central bank’s 2% target.

In fresh quarterly forecasts, the central bank projected core consumer inflation to hit 1.9% in the current fiscal year that ends in March 2023.

It then expects inflation to moderate to 1.1% in fiscal 2023 and 2024, a sign it sees current cost-push price rises as transitory.

As widely expected, the BOJ left unchanged its -0.1% target for short-term interest rates and a pledge to guide the 10-year bond yield around 0%.

Speculation has been rife the BOJ could allow long-term rates to rise more or tweak its dovish policy guidance to combat yen declines, as some lawmakers fret further falls in the currency could hurt the economy by inflating import costs.

Markets are focusing on Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s remarks at his post-meeting briefing for clues on whether and how soon the BOJ could modify its dovish policy guidance.

Japan’s economic growth likely stalled in the first quarter and is seen only rebounding modestly in April-June, as caution over the pandemic and rising living costs hurt consumption.

Core consumer inflation, which hit 0.8% in March, is set to accelerate to around 2% from April, though the rise will be driven largely by rising fuel costs and the dissipating effect of past cellphone fee cuts – rather than from higher wages, or underlying demand.

(Reporting by Leika Kihara; Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto, Daniel Leussink and Kantaro KomiyaEditing by Shri Navaratnam)