Apple launched the Japanese version of its iTunes Music Store on Thursday morning, bringing to 20 the number of countries in which the service is available.

"We're super excited about this," said Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the launch event in Tokyo. "We've been working on it for a long time."

The event also featured a live performance by three- time Grammy award winner Beck.

The Japanese launch comes over two years since Apple started offering the service in the US. The launch was delayed by protracted negotiations with local record companies, Jobs told IDG News Service on the sidelines of the event.

"We are ushering in a whole new age of digital music," Jobs explained during the launch. "We think this is going to change the experience of discovering and buying and enjoying music in Japan.''

At launch the service features one million tracks from both Japanese and international record companies.

"This will continue to improve over the next several months," said Jobs.

Perplexing prices

While the timing of the service launch in Japan has been the subject of speculation by users and the local media for some time, perhaps more attention has been paid to the price.

Apple's charges $0.99 in the US and £0.79 in the UK. These are relatively low prices in comparison to those charged by Japanese services which typically charge between ¥200 and ¥300 per song ($1.80 and $2.70).

So it was with some disappointment, judging by the murmurs heard, that the audience of Apple users, staff and customers greeted Job's announcement of a ¥200 per song.

Jobs followed this up by revealing the price applied to only 10 per cent of the catalogue, which cost ¥150 per track. This was greeted with applause.

"I'm very satisfied with the price, it's considerably cheaper than anything else in the market," Jobs told IDG News Service later.

Local repertoire

The Japanese service includes many of the features iTunes users expect. These include exclusive tracks from local artists, box-sets and music videos. Among the specials highlighted by Jobs was a 341-song set of songs by "B'z," a very popular Japanese rock group, that includes early and hard-to-get recordings and can be purchased for ¥18,800.

Apple has assembled a roster of local Japanese artists for the local market, including iTunes Originals from globe and Ulfuls, exclusives from Def Tech, Crazy Ken Band, Chara, Little Creatures and Chie Ayado.

Apple is hosting live music performances throughout August at all four retail locations in Japan, including the new Apple Store Shibuya which opens August 6.

Apple is also offering Japanese-language audio-books and has teamed up with local radio broadcasters and others to offer a library of podcasts.

Gift cards that can be used against music purchases are also available from Thursday in several major electronics and entertainment retailers in denominations of ¥2,500, ¥5,000 and ¥10,000.

Despite the delay, Apple's iPod is the top-selling hard drive-based digital music player in Japan and a succession of products from rival makers including Sony and Toshiba hasn't been able to push it off the number one position.

Apple enjoys a 36 per cent market share in Japan, according to data presented by Jobs. Sony is in second place with 22 per cent followed by Rio-brand players at 12 per cent, iRiver players at 8 per cent and Creative Technologies players at 7 per cent, he said.