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Selling Apples to Japan: Complicated as a Nipponese typewriter

One day, a surprising market walked in the door

By Charles Eicher, 2 Dec 2010

I'm an artist who's always been fascinated by computers - ever since junior high math club.

My first computer was a plastic toy cogwork Turing machine called the DigiComp 1. I ran a mailing list on punchcards for the school newspaper. I used a PLATO IV - a PC before the era of microprocessors, whose storage ran on compressed air; and I built a Sol, which I restored a couple of years ago. I even got kicked out of Art School for doing computer graphics.

By 1985 I was one of the most successful salesmen in the Computerland store in Los Angeles, the biggest in the United States, with huge corporate customers like Disney. I'd sold Apple computers for years, and I was always seeking new Mac markets. One day, a surprising market walked right in my front door.

A young Japanese tourist walked in the store and in halting, stammering English, asked to buy the largest Macintosh system he could put on his credit card. Then he handed me a Tokyo University credit card with a $10,000 limit. I loaded up his card, and the system was delivered to his hotel.

A week later, another tourist arrived with the same request. This fellow spoke better English, so I asked him what was going on. He said that Mac systems were more expensive in Japan than in the US, so he could finance his whole vacation by buying a Mac in the US and then selling it in Japan. This was an odd sort of grey market deal, but these customers came in with regularity, and it wasn't against Apple's grey market prohibition.

So I started to become very interested in the local Japanese market. It was the 80s and the "bubble economy" meant Japanese corporations had more money than they could spend. They bought everything from fleets of Boeing 747s and Los Angeles skyscrapers to full corporate-wide networks of Macintosh systems. I was puzzled why these bankers, brokers and exporters preferred Macs - they were number-crunchers, where the PC traditionally ruled.

One of my corporate clients explained the problem. Japanese typewriters were monstrously complex, the technology having barely improved since the 1940s. A Japanese typewriter is essentially a tray of 2000 pieces of metal type. The typist would locate the character in the tray, then a mechanism would lift the metal type and hammer it into the paper. The process was more like typesetting than typing, and required highly skilled typists.

Only the most important documents were typed, primarily documents for external customers. Most internal documents were handwritten and sent between departments by fax, since Email did not support Japanese text.

Pick a key... a Japanese typewriter

Then my client showed me an Apple product I had never seen before: the Laserwriter-J and KanjiTalk. Apple produced the first personal computer systems with full Japanese language capability in 1986. But these products were only for sale in Japan.

They bought Macs from me, but they had to buy the Laserwriter-J in Japan and fly it to Los Angeles, and pay an import duty for a product that was manufactured in California. Then they bought the KanjiTalk version of the Mac operating system, and made bootleg copies for every Mac I sold them. They begged me, why can't they buy these products from me, here in the US?

So I asked Apple if we could get these products. The answer was a blunt no. They said that these were complex products that we could not support.

I protested that I was already supporting them. I sat down with the incomprehensible manuals, and just from the screenshots I learned how to demo KanjiTalk. I could input and display a few Japanese characters. I was already so familiar with the Mac menus, I knew where "Print" and "Save" were, even if I couldn't read the characters. All the shortcuts like Command-P and Command-S were the same in both languages.

Anything beyond that, my clients were already supporting themselves. My customers even gave me a bootleg copy of KanjiTalk, and I was successfully able to demonstrate its features to clients (who also begged me to sell it to them).


Japan was currently Apple's #2 market, but it was very costly to operate there, with too many middlemen. I proposed to cut out all the middlemen and sell directly to Japanese corporations in Los Angeles. My Apple regional rep reluctantly agreed that if I could produce a two-year business plan, they would consider it.

I went to my customers, who all committed to specific quantities of Macs and Laserwriter-J systems over two years. I estimated our store could sell $500,000 within two years, and we could afford a full-time Japanese-speaking technician after about six months.

I delivered a beautiful business plan. Of course we used our own best Mac DTP technologies to make our own documents look impressive. And then I heard nothing.

After two months, I thought I ought to take the initiative and see how my proposal was doing. I called and called, but nobody at Apple would get back to me. It was obvious they were avoiding me - I couldn't even get an appointment.

I finally decided to go to the regional office in person, without an appointment. I sat in the reception area for over an hour before they realized I wasn't going to leave. Finally, my Apple rep came out to speak to me briefly - ironically, she was a Japanese-American - and she said my proposal was declined. I asked why.

"Well, you don't speak Japanese!"

"Well, neither do you!" I said. "I sell spreadsheets, but I'm not a mathematician. I sell accounting software but I'm not a CPA. I already have orders for these products - all you have to do is ship some to me instead of Japan. They are the same Laserwriters we already sell and service, you just put different ROM chips in them."

But Apple would not budge. Well, not for me at least. Two months later, Apple announced its first Laserwriter-J/Kanjitalk dealership, a small computer store in Hawaii with total sales under $250k per year. And I was trying to sell $250k per year of these Japanese products as a sideline, probably about five per cent of my annual sales. I was infuriated.

Large corporations often don't realise the opportunities that are in front of them. Apple developed a breakthrough technology, but didn't know how to market it or maximize profits. They relied on their unique technology advantages, and let the market take care of itself.

Microsoft didn't support Japanese at all until 1993, when Windows 3.1J was released. Apple squandered its seven-year leadership, and Windows became the standard in Japan, just as it had worldwide. ®

Charles Eicher is an artist and multimedia producer in the American Midwest. He has a special interest in intellectual property rights in the Arts and Humanities. He writes at the Disinfotainment weblog.

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