Japan is about four years behind the United States in its consumer and business use of the Internet, said an economist who recently scouted Japan for investment opportunities.

Japan "is where we were in 1995," said Susan E. Woodward, chief economist and executive vice president of research at OffRoad Capital Corp. Ms. Woodward, a former chief economist at the Securities and Exchange Commission, recently took a one-week fact-finding tour through Japan at the behest of some of OffRoad Capital's Japanese investors.

The San Francisco-based broker-dealer finds high-net-worth individuals to invest over the Internet in established growth companies. OffRoad's first private equity offering will take place in the next two weeks.

Only about 15% of Japanese households have access to the Internet, and these Internet users are mainly young people, Ms. Woodward said. Estimates of the percentage of households with Internet access in the U.S. are at least double those figures.

One reason Japan has not leaped to the Internet faster is that about 90% of Web content is written in English, Ms. Woodward said.

Most Japanese banks are not prepared to encourage Internet use, she said. They are preoccupied with governmental deregulation that is restructuring the industry to more closely align the banking, securities, and insurance industries.

Though Japan has a work force proficient in technology, the population is generally weak on basic business skills, she said.

Some large U.S. companies, such as Yahoo Inc., Charles Schwab & Co., and E-Trade Group, have launched Web sites in Japan on their own or through Japanese affiliates.

Reuters reported that Softbank Corp., a Tokyo-based software developer that owns Yahoo Japan and E-Trade Japan, said last week that it expects the number of Internet users in Japan to more than triple to 40 million to 50 million by 2003.

"Japan's e-commerce growth potential is huge," Yoshitaka Kitao, executive vice president of Softbank, told an Internet Japan conference sponsored by Lehman Brothers.

Softbank plans to set up four Internet finance-related companies, Mr. Kitao said, including a consumer financing firm and a brokerage that will deal in shares of unlisted companies.

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