American Express International is trying to change the widely held perception in Japan that only affluent customers use American Express, and only for overseas travel.

“Traditionally we have focused on the upper-end segment, very much travel, and entertainment,” American Express International Inc., Japan President Ian Marsh said in a recent interview. “That in a way excluded us from a large part of the market. (There was) no real reason to use an American Express card to make purchases in the domestic market . . . Something had to change.”

That something came earlier this month, when Amex and JCB Co. — the leading Japanese credit card issuer — announced June 14 that they will share merchant networks both in Japan and abroad.

American Express does not disclose the number of merchants that accept its cards. The Nilson Report, a U.S.-based trade publication covering consumer payment systems, however, estimates the firm’s worldwide merchant network at some 6.4 million. JCB has about 6.8 million merchants in 167 countries.

The deal with JCB, the first of its kind in the card industry, will be implemented in stages from next spring. It shows the resolve of American Express to break stereotypes and expand its customer base, Marsh said, adding that the firm also wants to expand card access eventually to such everyday shopping venues as convenience stores and small supermarkets.

Marsh denied the possibility that JCB’s expanded access to overseas outlets will prompt American Express card holders here to switch to the Japanese brand. Card holders from both sides are very loyal because of reward programs, he said.

He also said that while the transaction with JCB will enhance the usability of his firm’s cards in the real world, the firm is very active in promoting the use of cards in the cyber world as well.

“It’s a new beginning, and it’s changing the industry dramatically,” Marsh said. “American Express wants to be very much a part of that world so our customers feel comfortable using our card (online).”

In the United States, American Express has launched an interactive Web site where card holders can check their transactions, account balances, mutual fund performance and trade stocks and funds. They can also make hotel and air ticket reservations and check their reward program points via the Web.

Marsh said that he hopes to bring the same kind of interactive Web site to Japan before the end of this year.

The company plans to introduce a card with an IC chip aimed at heavy Internet users in Japan. American Express has already launched such cards in the U.S. that include a card reader which can be hooked up to a personal computer.

Such cards ensure more secure Internet shopping because users do not have to punch in their credit card numbers every time they buy something via the Internet, Marsh said, while refraining from specifying the timing of the system’s Japan debut.

Marsh expressed confidence that the proliferation of the Internet will steer people away from cash and toward more buying on credit.

“As you become more and more familiar with (making Internet purchases), it will change your spending behavior and slowly the cash will go out of your wallet.”