Akio Morita (born 1921), along with a few other entrepreneurs, embodied the postwar recovery and growth of Japanese industry. Morita and Sony Corporation, which he cofounded with Masaru Ibuka, challenge conventional notions about Japan's "economic miracle." The energy and inventiveness of small, independent companies like Sony, not keiretsu (industrial conglomerate arrangements) or the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), were the impetus for Japan's postwar economic development; their dependable high technology products changed the image of Japanese exports abroad.
Akio Morita was born January 26, 1921, the first son and fifteenth-generation heir to a sake-brewing family in Kosugaya village near Nagoya. Influenced as a boy by his mother's love of classical music (his family was one of the first to own an RCA Victrola in Japan), Morita developed a keen interest in electronics and sound reproduction. He became so engrossed in his electronic experiments, even building his own ham radio, that he almost flunked out of school; but after concentrating on his studies for a year, he entered the prestigious Eighth Higher School as a physics major. At Osaka Imperial University he assisted his professor in research for the Imperial Japanese Navy. Rather than be drafted, he signed up with the navy to continue his studies. After his graduation in 1944, Lieutenant Morita supervised a special project group of the Aviation Technology Center on thermal guidance weapons and night-vision gunsights. There he met Masaru Ibuka, an electronics engineer 13 years his senior. The two became close friends and eventually cofounded Sony Corporation. After World War II, Morita became a physics professor while working part time in Ibuka's new telecommunications lab.
In March 1946 Morita and Ibuka established Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, or Totsuko, with only $500 capital and roughly 20 employees, in a rented office in a burned-out department store in Tokyo.
To find a niche in a market that would be highly competitive when large prewar electronics manufacturers returned, Ibuka decided to produce completely new consumer products. Sony's most significant development was a high frequency transistor radio that not only established the company's reputation but also revolutionized the consumer electronics industry. The project, however, was launched following a drawn-out approval by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). After Morita reached agreement with Western Electric on the transistor technology in 1953, MITI officials dallied six months before finally remitting the foreign exchange for the licensing fee. Although the relationship between government and industry is one of trust, Morita observed, government often impedes innovative change and developments by excessive intervention and obsolete regulations. By investing six to ten percent of its annual sales in research and development, Sony took the lead in developing new consumer products independently of government help or keiretsu support. A pioneer of products ranging from transistorized radios to solid-state television sets to the Walkman and Discman to VCRs, by 1990 Sony employed more than 100,000 workers and was the world's leading maker of consumer, non-consumer, industrial, and professional electronics and entertainment software.
Morita was a pioneer in marketing as well. His initial failure to sell tape recorders developed in 1950 convinced him that market creation must accompany product development. On his first trip to Europe in 1953, he was deeply impressed and encouraged by the success of N.V. Philips, which had grown from a small light bulb maker in a rural Dutch town into the world's leading electronics maker. Morita then decided to target the world market, particularly the affluent U.S. market, rather than the poor and congested Japanese domestic market. Recognizing the importance of establishing company identity in the world market, Morita adopted "Sony" (finding a Western root from the Latin sonus, meaning "sound," and combining it with the English nickname "Sonny"), a name that foreign customers could easily remember, as his company's trademark in 1955. Totsuko became Sony Corporation in 1958.
In the mid 1950s most Japanese producers relied on giant Japanese trading companies to export their goods, but Morita decided to build his own distribution route in which the message of the new technology and its benefits could be directly passed on to the consumer. In 1960 Morita established Sony Corporation of America and Sony Overseas S.A. (Switzerland) as its sales arms. In 1961 Sony became the first Japanese company to offer its stock in the United States in the form of ADRs (American Depositary Receipts). In February 1960, Sony established the Sony Corporation of America; and in less than two years, they became the first Japanese company to offer its stock in the United States. Sony felt that moving much of its manufacturing and sales to the United States and Europe would only improve its business, something other Japanese companies had yet to discover. Sony subsequently expanded its sales force and production facilities into an international network, with a few hundred subsidiaries and affiliated companies worldwide. Sony acquired CBS Records in 1988 and Columbia Pictures and Tri-Star film studios in 1990 (now Sony Pictures Entertainment) to expand its business in entertainment. Beginning in 1986, in response to changing world market conditions, Sony expanded into the nonconsumer sector, such as broadcasting equipment, semiconductors, video communications, and computers. In 1987, Morita wrote Made In Japan, a historical biography detailing his rise to success that, according to Inc., Stanford graduate school professor Jim Collins recommends to students for best learning from those who have forged the trails.
Morita was often a spokesman for Japanese management. In articulating his own ideas, he emphasized the importance of teamwork and of motivating people by providing challenging work in a family-like environment; engineers in industrial companies particularly need targets for their creativity. Above all, management must treat workers not as tools but as fellow human beings. Morita argued that manufacturing determines the strength of the economy and blamed excessive financial dealings to create paper profits for undermining this base. Morita praised familialism and loyalty to the company as facilitating long-range planning and investment. He often criticized American management's preoccupation with quarterly profits and dividends and its tendency to postpone investment in equipment.
Morita was also outspoken on U.S.-Japanese relations. He warned, for example, against "hollowing out" the economy in the United States by moving manufacturing plants overseas to exploit cheap labor. In 1989 an unauthorized translation of A Japan That Can Say "No", a book based on conversations between Morita and Shintaro Ishihara, Liberal Democratic Party member of the House of Representatives in Japan, caused a stir in the United States. Although most of the controversial statements were credited to Ishihara, some critics blamed Morita for his arrogance. Morita, however, praised the openness of American markets and, in his efforts to reciprocate it, established in 1972 the Sony Trading Company, whose mission is to promote U.S. exports to Japan.
Morita became executive vice-president of Sony Corporation in 1959, president in 1971, chairman and chief executive officer in 1976. In 1972, Sony was awarded an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for the development of Trinitron—the first time an Emmy had been given for a product. In 1976, with Morita as CEO, Sony received another Emmy for the U-Matic video tape recording system. Sony's third Emmy was awarded for their one-inch helical-scan videotape recording; and it's fourth came in 1984, for a new video recorder with mass image storage capability specially suited for computer graphics. In 1985, Billboard gave Sony its Trendsetter Award for their revolutionary small D-5 compact disc player. Morita, himself, received the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts "for outstanding contributions to technological and industrial innovation and management, industrial design, industrial relations and video systems, and the growth of trade relations." Morita became chairman of the board in 1989. As vice-chairman of Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) and chairman of the Council for Better Corporate Citizenship within Keidanren, Morita was active in educating Japanese companies abroad to become good citizens of local communities. He addressed a letter to the G-7 leaders meeting in Tokyo—the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Canada—encouraging them to seek ways to lower all economic barriers between North America, Europe, and Japan to forge a new world economic order.
On November 30, 1993 at the age of 72, Morita suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Sony, struggling at that time due to a decrease in profits, now had to worry about whether Noria Ohga, Morita's handpicked successor and president/chief executive officer as well as the chair of Sony Software Corporation and Sony Corporation of America, would be able to fill Morita's shoes. Ohga has been blamed for a $3.2 billion loss in Sony Pictures Entertainment's performance. Besides the Sony Corporation's concerns, much of Japan worried about what the loss of Morita from the helm would mean for the country. Jolie Solomon and Peter McKillop wrote in Newsweek that Morita is seen as "the epitome of the transnational executive," or, as General Electric chairman Jack Welch calls him, "spiritually global." After years as a maverick who was more beloved abroad than at home, Morita has lately been acknowledged even in Japan as the country's "most powerful and persuasive voice"
In recognition of "his distinguished corporate leadership and for a lifetime of innovative contributions in bringing advanced technologies to consumer electronics products," The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) presented Akio Morita with its Founders Medal less than a year after his stroke. The award was accepted by his wife and one of his sons, as Morita was still in recovery stages. On November 25, 1994, three months after being honored by IEEE and almost exactly a year after his stroke, Morita decided it was time to step down as chair of Sony, still debilitated from his brain hemorrhage. His resignation secured the Sony position for Noria Ohga, who still intended to retain his other Sony responsibilities.
Morita took over from Masaru Ubuka as honorary chair of Sony, Billboard reported, as well as being formally recognized as founder of the corporation. Ibuka was named founder in 1990 and will continue in that role and has also been named chief advisor. Steve McClure noted in his Billboard article that in Japan, such titles (which indicate the friends' joint role in starting Sony) are often awarded to executives who have essentially retired from their companies.
Morita's 1993 stroke left him partially paralyzed. He left for his Hawaii condominium in the fall of 1994 to recuperate. Fortune magazine reported that although his spirits were good and his mind lucid, he often had trouble speaking and moving. Part of his therapy involved his speaking in Japanese and English on alternate days. Morita gave up his honorary chair position, but is still considered "Sony's patriarch," Brent Schlender and Cindy Kano said in Fortune, still maintaining contact with his Japanese protegés by phone and fax. Sony executives make stops in Hawaii to see Morita on trips between Japan and the United States. His power and influence are still prominent factors in Sony's efforts. When Ohga reached his 65th birthday, an age at which he and Morita had previously decided was when one should relinquish the presidency of Sony, he met with Morita to get approval for appointing Nobuyuki Idei— someone with no engineering experience, unlike the usually Sony régime—as the next commander-in-chief. Idei, who began work with Sony in 1960, caught Morita's attention early on. He spent over ten years in Europe where he founded Sony's French subsidiary. When he returned to Japan, he was made general manager of Sony's audio division in 1979, where he was in charge of marketing such products as the Walkman and helped Ohga promote the audio CD. In the 80s, he ran Sony's home-stereo component group, and the video group when he helped with the promotion of the 8mm camcorder. By 1990, Idei had secured Ohga's former position of director of Sony's Design Center and was responsible for Sony's merchandising and product promotion. In 1993, he took over corporate communications, making Idei Sony's most visible senior executive. In many ways, Schlender and Kano reported, Idei had more direct involvement in much of Sony's business than anyone else with the company. Believing that Idei's marketing experience, his resourcefulness, and his enthusiasm for technological advancement, Morita agreed that Ohga's selection was appropriate.
Akio Morita was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Williams College and various medals of honor in Japan, Great Britain, France, West Germany, Austria, and Brazil, among others. In 1995, he was presented with the Japan Society Award for outstanding contributions to better United States-Japan understanding.
Throughout his career Morita remained an avid sportsman. He played golf for over 40 years. At age 55 he took up tennis; at 60, downhill skiing; at 64 he resumed water skiing; and at 68, scuba diving. Morita and his wife, Yoshiko, have two sons and a daughter.
Further Reading on Akio Morita
The most comprehensive biographical account is Akio Morita, Edwin M. Reingold, and Mitsuko Shomomura, Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony (1986). For information about his life and thoughts, see Akio Morita, Gakureki muyo-ron (Never Mind School Records) (Tokyo: 1987); Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara, No to ieru Nippon (A Japan That Can Say "No") (Tokyo: 1989); Akio Morita, "When Sony Was an Upand-Comer," Forbes (October 6, 1986); Akio Morita, "Technological Management Will Be the Key to Success," Research Management (March/April 1987). On history of the Sony Corporation, see Genryu: Sony 40th Anniversary (Tokyo: 1986) and its English translation, Genryu: Sony Challenges 1946-1986. Also see: Larry Armstrong, "Sony's Challenge," Business Week (Industrial/Technology Edition) (June 1, 1987); and Yoko Konaga, "Sony Corp.: New Fields, New Strategies," Tokyo Business Today (June 1989); "What am I in for?" Inc. (July 1992); Akito Morita, "Toward a New World Economic Order," Atlantic Monthly (June 1993); Jolie Solomon and Peter McKillop," We Have Lost a Very Important Player,"' Newsweek (December 13, 1993); William Livingstone and Bob Ankosko, "Awards and Prizes," Stereo Review (August 1994); "Akio Morita," US News and World Report (December 5, 1994); Steve McClure, "Ohga Now Stands Alone Atop Sony Corp.," Billboard (December 17, 1994); Brent Schlender and Cindy Kano, "Sony On the Brink," Fortune (June 12, 1995); and Bob Ankosko and William Livingstone, "Morita Honored," Stereo Review (January 1996). Online information may be obtained via http://www.digitalcentury.com/encyclo/update/sony.