Standing in front of a brand-new NEC computer in Tokyo's electronics mecca, the Akihabara store, university professor Kazuto Matsumura hesitates.
"I came to this store just to see how much PCs cost nowadays," he says. He'd like to upgrade from his 486-class to a Pentium-class personal computer, but he's not sure yet.
That's the way it's going with Japanese consumers these days. After a sales boom in late 1995 and 1996, fueled by the introduction of the Japanese version of the popular operating software called Windows 95, PC sales have fallen dramatically here. From July through September of this year, for example, shipments were actually down 6 percent compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Japan Electronic Industry Development Association.
While the trade group still expects a 4 percent rise for the year overall, that's a huge retreat from initial forecasts of 22 percent. Other analysts are more pessimistic about the immediate outlook.
Why? The main complaint is universally familiar: PCs are just too hard to operate, Japanese users say. And they have more reason to grouse than their American counterparts.
Take the keyboard. Because Japanese is a character-based language, PC typists have to translate as they go. They type out the sound of the character with the Western alphabet, then the machine translates the letters into a character. But several characters have the same sound, so users often have to pick from a list of options. The process takes longer than Western-style touch-typing (a skill Japanese typically don't learn in school).
"I forced myself to get used to it, and I did," says a Tokyo accountant, scanning the shelves of an Akihabara store.
"It's not so much the keyboard or the mouse," says Ryo Nakagawa, another Akihabara browser. "It's the terminology." If US users find the error messages of PCs baffling, it is doubly so for Japanese, many of whom struggle with English. "I think the boom will come back when the manufacturers realize what a user-friendly PC is," Mr. Nakagawa says.
Other users complain about the size of the units (they're often too bulky for small Japanese homes) and wonder how useful a PC really is.
"It's not that people don't have enough money to buy one," says Tadayasu Sugita, head of Jujitsu's personal systems business group. "There's not enough incentive to continue purchasing such PCs."
Ironically, while Japanese consumers reassess whether they really need a computer, Japanese companies are moving full speed ahead on development. "There is a widespread recognition that the reason Japan is behind the US is because of information technology" - or rather, a lack of it, says Masataka Kimura, a marketing manager for Hitachi Ltd.
"Productivity in Japan will expand as the PC market expands," says Kousuke Aoki, director of the Multimedia Research Institute, a private information-technology research firm here.