A new agreement with American Express Co. could help ease the Japanese card giant JCB Co. into the U.S. market - if it decides it wants in.

The reciprocal arrangement announced last week provides, among other things, that Amex point of sale terminals in this country and several others will be adapted to accept JCB cards.

The Japanese company's immediate aim is to help Japanese visitors use their JCB cards abroad, said Dwane Krumme of JCB International Credit Card Co., the company's U.S. subsidiary.

But the arrangement also "creates a more positive environment" for JCB to issue cards here or in other new markets if it decides to put more emphasis on doing so, said Mr. Krumme, who is executive vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles-based unit.

"Our primary impetus, certainly in the United States, is to create a merchant infrastructure for Japanese travelers," Mr. Krumme said. He added, however, that "there is a desire for JCB to start issuing cards to other countries' citizens."

In the United States, JCB would remain responsible for its own servicing and merchant agreements, Mr. Krumme said. The company has business relationships in the United States with acquirers such as First Data Corp., he said.

Tokyo-based JCB offers credit cards in 16 countries, mostly in the Far East, and is the largest issuer in Japan. The few cards it issues in the United States and Europe are mainly for Japanese expatriates.

The other countries covered in the agreement are Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, where travel and entertainment merchants and high-volume retailers on the American Express network will be able to accept JCB cards. Amex will also become the merchant-acquirer for JCB in these markets.

The agreement, which will be implemented in phases beginning in 2001, will also increase American Express card acceptance in Japan, where Amex's coverage has been primarily through travel and entertainment merchants, an Amex spokeswoman said.

American Express said it has been working around the world to increase its acceptance at businesses such as grocery stores, dry cleaners, and health-care facilities. Its relationship with JCB will give it the opportunity in Japan "to do that in a much more timely manner and a much more cost-effective manner," the spokeswoman said.

In Japan, JCB merchants that do not accept American Express cards will be given the opportunity to begin doing so. JCB will also become a merchant acquirer for Amex in Japan, handling processing and servicing for new Amex merchants, and over time taking over responsibility for its existing merchants.

JCB said its cards are accepted at 4.5 million merchants around the world, but the company would not break the numbers out for different regions or countries.

Mr. Krumme said JCB cardholders, especially those traveling outside Japan, tend to have profiles similar to those of Amex cardholders.

"Our cardmembers' shopping patterns tend to be highly coincidental with Amex-type merchants," Mr. Krumme said. "Japanese members are very brand-conscious, very conscious of high-end products and merchants. So the Amex merchant network naturally lends itself to much improvement for us."

James Cracchiolo, president of American Express International, said the arrangement with JCB "represents an important step in our effort to grow our international business both organically and by partnering with others in key markets."

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