Until Monday, Japan could not be found on the Mondex world map.

Now that Mondex International Ltd. of London officially has a franchise in that key country, leaders of the global smart card organization are talking about significance far beyond the signing of two initial members.

Sanwa Bank Ltd. of Osaka and JCB Company Ltd., a Tokyo-based charge card venture that Sanwa founded in the 1960s, took the first ownership slots in Mondex Japan. MasterCard International, which owns 51% of Mondex International and pieces of U.S. and other regional franchises, also bought a minority of Mondex Japan.

Mondex said other Japanese owners will follow, with Asahi Bank and Sakura Bank likely to be among them.

Mondex chief executive officer Michael Keegan said it was a long struggle to reel the banks in, yet Japan always showed signs of being a Mondex hotbed. Japan-based card and technology vendors Dai Nippon Printing, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Oki Electronics, and Panasonic were all close to Mondex or had a part in Maosco Ltd., the affiliated consortium that oversees the Multos multiple-application operating system.

The Japanese banks intend to employ Multos to combine payment, transit, health care, and other functions on a single card, Mondex said.

Mr. Keegan pointed out that Sanwa and JCB will be taking equity positions in Mondex International, solidifying their link to a global community that includes major banks in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Asia, and Latin America.

JCB, a 40-million-card brand that has MasterCard- or Visa-like status in Japan, joins MasterCard and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.'s Discover card as supporters of the Mondex electronic purse, Mr. Keegan said.

Those organizations, American Express, and MasterCard's European affiliate Europay are all behind Multos. That amounts to "powerful distribution muscle" and helps Mondex lay claim to setting a global technical standard, Mr. Keegan said.

Visa International is making a strong bid for the Japanese smart card market, including involvement in the extensive Smart Commerce Japan project. But the MasterCard-Mondex-JCB trio is talking tough.

"Sanwa decided to take Mondex because it is likely to be a de facto standard in Japan," said Shinichi Sugiyama, the $431 billion-asset bank's deputy general manager of retail banking and planning. He called Mondex "the best e-cash scheme with the highest valuation globally."

"Mondex is the only e-cash system that operates the same way across the world," said Atsushi Gondo, JCB's senior vice president and general manager, electronic commerce. "Worldwide compatibility will allow Japanese consumers to join the developing global e-cash market. ... Mondex enables our affinity cards to be reborn as 'hyper smart cards.'"

Compatibility has been a major selling point for Mondex. Visa's 23 million chip cards are on several different technical platforms; the 500,000-plus Mondex cards and two million more on order have commonality.

Mondex still has some geography to cover, particularly in continental Europe. Mr. Keegan said of the seven leading industrial nations, Mondex has positions in the U.S., U.K., Japan, Canada, and France, but not yet Germany and Italy.

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