A nationwide study was undertaken to determine the susceptibility to penicillin and serotypes of Streptococcus pneumoniae in Japan. S. pneumoniae was isolated from 114 adult patients with community-acquired pneumonia over 22 months at 20 hospitals and medical centres in different regions in Japan. All but five isolates were from sputum. Forty-eight isolates (42·1%) were susceptible, 40 (35·1%) showed intermediate resistance (MIC, 0·12–1·0 μg/ml) and 26 (22·8%) were resistant (MIC, [ges ]2·0 μg/ml) to penicillin G. All isolates were susceptible to ceftriaxone (breakpoint 1 μg/ml), imipenem (4 μg/ml) and vancomycin (4 μg/ml). Most were resistant to erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin; only two were resistant to levofloxacin. Differences were found in the distribution of serotypes among isolates showing susceptibility to penicillin (predominant types 3, 6B, and 19F), intermediate resistance (6B, 14, 19F, and 23F) and full resistance (19F and 23F). PFGE typing showed that 14 of the 25 strains of serotype 19F had a single DNA profile, pattern A, a pattern closely similar to that of the Taiwan multidrug-resistant 19F clone. Twelve pattern A strains were not susceptible to penicillin but carried the macrolide resistance gene mef(A). The DNA profiles of the 15 strains of 23F were also heterogeneous but six were highly similar (pattern b) yet distinct from the Spanish multidrug-resistant 23F clone although possibly related to the Taiwan multidrug-resistant 23F clone. The pattern b strains were not susceptible to penicillin and also harboured either mef(A) or erm(B). Our results indicate that multidrug-resistant pneumococci are spreading rapidly in Japan. Efforts to prevent the spread of the pandemic multidrug-resistant serotypes should be intensified.