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When Japanese tourists travel to the United States, many flock to shopping malls to stock up on American goods that are in short supply in Japan, especially computer and entertainment products. Thus it should come as no surprise that a growing number of U.S. exporters are vying for Japanese consumer business through retail shops on the World Wide Web. But according to a new study, if Web entrepreneurs hope to be successful, they had better pay close attention to the special requirements of Japan’s Web users.

The Internet is often thought to have a unique culture that supersedes local or ethnic distinctions. But in Japan, economic conditions have had a major impact on the evolution of Japanese cyberculture, according to a report published by market researchers TK Associates International of Portland, Ore., and Yahoo Japan and Nikkei Research in Japan. The report (available on the Web at www.tkai.com) suggests that while many U.S. Net enthusiasts surf the Web for hours on end, sampling sites jammed with information and elaborate graphic images, a less freewheeling cyberculture has evolved in Japan.

The main reason for this difference is the high cost of connectivity in Japan, says Tim Clark, president of TK Associates. In fact, he says, a typical Japanese Internet user pays about $100 a month to spend an hour a day online. This charge includes about $40 per month for Internet service, $15 per month for basic phone service, and $48 for 30 hours of telephone time (at 8 per 3 minutes of local calling). In the United States, users spend less than half that much for unlimited access. The major difference is that although U.S. users typically pay a flat monthly telephone service fee of around $25 and about $20 per month to an Internet service provider (ISP), the phone company allows them to make unlimited local phone calls and spend as much time online as they wish at no extra charge.

Japan’s high phone rates have not diminished Japanese fascination with cyberspace, however. The world’s second-largest economy also ranks next to the United States in total numbers of Internet users. And the future looks bright for Japanese Web commerce. Approximately 23 percent of the Nikkei-Yahoo survey group have bought products on the Web, the most popular of which include personal-computer software as well as games, books, compact disks, videos, and apparel. And two-thirds of PC owners in Japan who haven’t shopped on the Web say they would like to buy an item online. Perhaps most encouraging for U.S. Web marketers, a TK Associates survey of 1,100 Japanese Internet shoppers found that 60 percent have purchased products from cyberstores based outside of Japan.

Some U.S. Web merchants are already building a loyal base of Japanese customers. Cyberian Outpost, an online computer retailer in Connecticut, is registering $300,000 in sales and attracting nearly 50,000 visitors a month from Japan. Bargain America, a Web distributor that offers products from some 250 firms, is drawing 50,000 Japanese visitors a month, says William Brissman, vice-president for marketing. The company, rated in 1996 by Japan’s Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun, a daily business newspaper, as the most popular U.S. commercial Web site in Japan, has received more than 100,000 catalog requests from Japanese consumers in the past year, and generates a daily order volume “in the four-figure range,” Brissman says.

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