TOKYO, FEB. 4 -- Democratic presidential candidate Richard A. Gephardt is speaking "with a modicum of ignorance" when he suggests that Japan is to blame for an Apple computer costing twice as much here as in the United States, according to the head of Apple Computer in Japan.
Alexander D. Van Eyck, president of Apple Computer Japan Inc., acknowledged that the Apple Macintosh computer costs much more here than in the United States. But he said the price difference has nothing to do with unfair Japanese trade practices, as Gephardt has charged in his campaign.
Instead, he said, the Macintosh is more expensive here because Apple chooses to raise its price to the level that competing computer makers charge. In addition, he said, the Macintosh sold in Japan is a more complicated machine designed for Japanese-language word processing, and thus costs more to develop and produce than the U.S. version.
"We're taking an English product and turning it into a Japanese product," he said. "Representative Gephardt is talking about a product that exists in the U.S. and is subject to a different economic environment."
The case of the Apple computer shows that trade frictions, aggravated by a $50 billion trade deficit, are often more complex than they appear to politicians on either side of the Pacific.
In an article last month in The Washington Post, Gephardt wrote that his tough rhetoric toward trading partners is justified because unfair trade practices in Japan and other countries make it difficult to sell U.S. products in their markets.
"In fact, because of unfair trade practices, we are already losing the industries of the future. An Apple computer that costs $1,500 in the United States costs $3,000 in Japan. No matter how hard Americans work, no one will buy a computer for twice what it is worth," he wrote.
"I'm tired of the tactic of labeling as 'protectionist' any measure to defend ourselves from foreign practices that raise impassable barriers to American exports," he wrote. He also wrote: "It does not matter how cheap you make U.S. goods if foreign barriers keep them out or reinflate their cost."
Van Eyck declined to offer specific financial data to explain the details behind the high sticker price of a Macintosh. But others familiar with Apple and the sale of U.S. personal computers here supported his comments.
"It is a correct statement to say a Mac costs much more, but it is not due to Japanese government interference or a conspiracy to keep it out of the market. It is purely a matter of pricing," said John Stern, executive director of the U.S. Electronics Industry Japan office.
Stern, whose organization monitors such price issues, said that -- although the dollar has dropped dramatically over the last two years, which in principle should make U.S.-manufactured products much cheaper here -- many U.S. companies have failed to cut prices accordingly.
Instead of trying to increase their shares of the Japanese market, he said, some companies are only interested in reaping greater profits because Japanese consumers seem willing to pay the price.
"It's a calculation of short-term high profits instead of big market share," he said. "In fact, most U.S. computer products are much more expensive here. They could charge the U.S. list price and they don't."
The strategy contrasts sharply with that of many Japanese firms overseas, which are willing to take deep losses to develop and protect their market share. U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield has chastised publicly U.S. companies here for failing to take advantage of the falling dollar.
Some business executives here maintain that cutting prices actually discourages sales because Japanese consumers value prestige brands and are leery of buying anything that seems too cheap. Van Eyck suggested that such thinking is a factor in Apple's pricing strategy.
But one Apple salesman here said Japanese distributors have tried to convince Apple to let them sell the computers at a discounted price but that Apple has refused.
"Apple's attitude is that they don't have to sell a lot of machines, they don't have to compete with NEC," said one salesman, referring to one of Japan's largest computer and electronics producers. "They say they are a 'prestige' product. They want to be more like a BMW, not a Toyota."
In Japan, the list price for the Macintosh computer is 398,000 yen, or about $3,184. An English-language machine with otherwise similar capacity sells in the United States for $1,400 to $1,500.
According to John Boyd, a computer columnist for the Japan Times, Apple sales account for less than 1 percent of the burgeoning personal computer market here.