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Preventing Culture Clash on the World Wide Web

November 1, 1997

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 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.

Web-based distributor Virtual Vineyards has attracted a significant level of business from Japanese consumers thanks to favorable articles appearing in Japanese periodicals, according to marketing manager Carolyn Sproule. She says Japanese customers typically place larger orders than U.S. consumers, in part to offset the per-bottle costs of shipping the California company’s products across the Pacific.

While companies are understandably reluctant to divulge detailed marketing strategies, these entrepreneurs offer a few basic rules for reaching the Japanese market. One is to avoid creating Web sites with memory-hogging images that slow down loading time. Because of the high phone charges, “fast-loading pages is the Japanese Web surfer’s number one requirement for a compelling Web site,” says Clark.

Another key is for retailers to address Japanese buyers in their own language. “All Japanese take six years of English in school, but many are rusty in the language,” Brissman says. Bargain America has a Japanese-language Web site, and Cyberian Outpost’s Web site offers Japanese-language descriptions, including a frequently-asked-questions page and guidelines for ordering products. The computer retailer also includes on its site a translation package that converts English into a variety of languages, including Japanese. And Virtual Vineyards posts pages that welcome first-time visitors and provide ordering information in Japanese.
Promoting Web sites in print has also proven an effective tactic. Both Cyberian Outpost and Bargain America have used banner ads on the Web, but they have found off-Web promotions to be of greater benefit in reaching customers. Both have purchased advertisements in print magazines, including those that review Japanese Web sites, and have had even greater success distributing e-mail newsletters to customers.

Quality of customer service is another key factor. Brissman says Bargain America finds Japanese consumers even more demanding than American shoppers regarding meticulous product condition and packaging. Ataru Onuma, a Tokyo business consultant who specializes in helping penetrate the Japanese market, concurs, adding that Japanese consumers want customer-service centers they can call to make complaints, track orders, or get product information from a company representative who speaks their language.

Clark of TK Associates cautions that U.S. companies should be careful not to project the irreverent tone that works so well in reaching American Web audiences. “Japan’s Internet is, for lack of a better phrase, relatively pure and innocent,’” he explains. “This is largely a reflection of Japanese culture; there is almost no political satire on TV and other media, for example.”

Still, it’s difficult for U.S. businesspeople to avoid cross-cultural miscommunications. Last October, Virtual Vineyards sent out a Halloween e-mail newsletter with a subject line reading “Boo!” Some Japanese customers misunderstood the reference, Sproule says, because they thought the word meant to pass gas.
Finally, Web retailers and market researchers alike advise reducing confusion over pricing and payment mechanisms. Onuma points out that Japanese consumers are afraid of risking unfavorable currency exchanges when dealing with international companies, so he recommends that online retailers offer a yen payment option that helps customers immediately grasp prices in their own terms.

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