Bill Totten said he is proof that foreigners can crack the Japanese market with the same formula that works elsewhere: hard work and concern for customers.
But the computer software executive said those who succeed generally keep quiet, not wanting to invite competition.Mr. Totten, in contrast, has been contributing articles to major newspapers and magazines overseas and appearing on Japanese television to challenge the commonly held belief that Japan is a closed market.
"My experience has been that this has been a very open country," contended the American, who has lived in Tokyo 21 years and speaks Japanese.
Far from encountering any trade barriers, he said, "I've found it easier to do this business in Japan than to do it in my own country or for a Japanese to do it here."
He is president of one of Japan's largest software firms, K.K. Ashisuto, which reported sales of more than $59 million in 1989 and claims a 50 percent share of the independent software market.
"Go talk to Coca-Cola, who sells 70 percent of the soft drinks sold here in Japan, and find out what bad things they say about Japan. Go talk to Du Pont and ask what their complaints are. Schick sells 70 percent of the razors sold in the country. Do they bad-mouth the Japanese?" he said in an interview.
Mr. Totten arrived in 1969 as the representative for a U.S. software company. But after its headquarters rebuffed his attempts to sell packaged software to the Japanese, he quit and started his own company with two Japanese partners in 1972.
Mr. Totten said he never studied much about doing business with the Japanese. But he has sweated to make all his products usable in the Japanese language and adapted them to Japanese tastes.
The 6-foot-4 American puts in 12 hours at work most days and calls on hundreds of customers a year.
Last fall Mr. Totten's company plunged into the market for personal computer software with five packages at $60 each, a fraction of the cost of competing brands. More than 160,000 packages have been sold, and all five types are on the best-seller lists.
Mr. Totten, who so far has been mainly distributing American-made software after adapting it for the Japanese market, said he fears that the U.S. software industry may be beginning to lose its edge.
Ashisuto revenues' dependence on imports from the United States fell from 99 percent in 1988 to 95 percent last year, and is expected to decline to 80 percent this year, he said.
Mr. Totten said American companies have refused to spend time adapting or marketing their products in Japan, and are getting pushed out by a new generation of high-quality Japanese products.
U.S. and Japanese government negotiators have been busy in recent months in talks on opening Japan's market wider to American supercomputers, satellites and forest products, and on changing deep-seated business practices.
Japan has promised, among other things, to make it easier to open large stores in Japan, spend more on public works, pressure corporate groups to reduce the emphasis on personal ties in making purchasing decisions, and try to solve soaring land costs.
To Mr. Totten, however, such trade frictions only reflect "two silly governments fighting with each other." He said private citizens should become involved before the two countries are at each others' throats.
"I consider both countries my country. I love the United States, and I love Japan," he said.