TOKYO -- When discount stores here recently began selling cordless Panasonic telephones for one-eighth their usual price, their Japanese manufacturer was outraged.
True, the cheaper phones worked fine. And certainly, Japanese consumers seemed delighted to be paying $80 instead of $657.
But the cheaper cordless telephones had been made for the U.S. market, Matsushita Electric Co. officials said, and were not suitable for Japanese customers.
"The quality is not comparable with the high-quality models which we sell in Japan," a Matsushita spokesman said last week.
So Matsushita bought up every unsold made-for-export telephone it could find in Tokyo -- about 2,000 models, the spokesman said. The move prompted a wave of telephone calls from disappointed customers, according to salesmen at several stores.
The episode did not reach the level of high finance, but it illustrates some of the peculiar differences between the U.S. and Japanese economies that cause tensions in one of the biggest bilateral trading relationships in the world.
For years, Japanese manufacturers have earned a reputation in the United States as efficient producers who export the most reliable products at the cheapest possible price. That success has helped create a $60 billion trade imbalance in Japan's favor.
At home, though, the same firms often charge top-yen prices for similar products, forcing Japanese consumers to pay more -- or to shop abroad for bargains, even in Japanese-made goods. U.S. manufacturers often have accused the Japanese of subsidizing their trade wars abroad by reaping high profits in their relatively closed home market.
The Japanese firms say that Japanese consumers are more interested in quality than price -- whether the product be rice, beef or cordless telephones. U.S. companies here also often take a higher markup on their products.
Recently, however, there have been some signs that Japanese consumers would welcome bargains.
The cordless telephone case began late last year, when a Japanese trading company -- Matsushita said it does not know which -- reimported several thousand Panasonic KX-T3805 cordless telephones to Japan. Word spread quickly, and within a few weeks discounters like Big Camera and Sakuraya had each sold 500 or more, store managers said.
"Nobody told me I shouldn't sell it, so I sold it," a Big Camera salesman told a Japanese newspaper.
Officials at Matsushita, one of Japan's largest electronics manufacturers, said the made-for-export model had not been approved for use in Japan. A quasigovernmental association has set standards for such phones so they will not interfere with neighbors' radio or television reception, and the made-for-America models do not meet those standards, a spokesman said.
"In Japan, the law is very strict," the spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said. "Even if we wanted to sell this cheapest model, we couldn't."
In addition, the spokesman said, the U.S. model has a range of only 40 meters (about 120 feet), compared to 50 meters for the Japanese model. And the Japanese model can work on 89 channels, compared to 10 for the U.S.-market telephone. "The point of this case is that newspapers compare different qualities as if they were the same," the spokesman said.
Salesmen interviewed Friday, however, said that none of those differences seemed decisive to them or to many of their customers. Because the average Japanese home is smaller than the average U.S. home, they said the range of the cheaper model is adequate for most customers.
"The two models are not very different," said Minoru Nakajima, a salesman at Yodobashi Camera, from whom Matsushita bought 60 phones at one time. "It made people angry, and it made us angry. We want to sell things as cheaply as possible."
"It may be that manufacturers think it will sell here even if the price is high," added a Sakuraya manager.
Masaki Higuchi, a salesman at the main Sakuraya store, said he has received telephone calls from disappointed customers every day since Matsushita bought out his stock a week ago. No one is sure how many cheap telephones were sold and are in use, but in Sakuraya one remains -- now in use as the Sakuraya telephone.
So far, Higuchi said, there have been no problems with that phone.