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Morita, Akio - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Akio Morita

sony japan company products

(1921-)
Sony Corporation

Overview

As cofounder and chairman of the Sony Corporation, Akio Morita became one of the most influential businessmen in the world. He introduced consumers to innovative products including the hand-held transistor radio, the video cassette recorder (VCR), the Walkman portable audio cassette player, and the Diskman portable compact disk player. At the same time, he helped establish Japan’s reputation as a source of high quality products.

Personal Life

Akio Morita was born on January 26, 1921, the first son of Kyusaemon and Shuko Morita, in the small village of Kosugaya near Nagoya, Japan. If he had followed the traditional family occupation, he would have been the fifteenth-generation heir to his family’s sake brewing business. Influenced by his mother’s love for classical music, he became interested in electronics and sound reproduction while listening to her RCA Victrola record player. Morita became so interested in electronics that he built his own ham radio and almost flunked out of school due to his disinterest in anything but electronics. After returning diligently to his studies for a year, he entered the very prestigious Eighth Higher School as a physics major.

Rather than be drafted at the beginning of World War II, Morita entered Osaka Imperial University, agreeing to serve in the navy following his graduation. At the university, he assisted his professors in research for the Japanese Imperial Navy. In 1944, Morita earned a degree in physics and was immediately commissioned as a lieutenant in the engineering corps for the Japanese Imperial Navy.

While in the navy, he conducted research at the Aviation Technology Center into thermal guided weapons and night-vision gunsights. There he met Masura Ibuka, an electronics engineer that was 13 years his senior. They became good friends and would eventually co-found Sony Corporation. Morita married Yoshiko Kamei on May 13, 1950; they had three children: Hideo, Masao, and Naoko.

In 1987, Morita wrote Made In Japan, a historical biography that was considered to be one of the greatest resources for students considering a career in business. Two years later, he co-authored The Japan That Can Say “NO,” a book that drew a great deal of criticism in the United States. In addition to commenting on the quality of American products, Morita also criticized the U.S. education system and what he saw as the short-term focus of U.S. business practices. Right-wing politician and coauthor Shintaro Ishihara contributed more extreme, nationalistic chapters to the book, which suggested that Japan should not make any concessions to American demands for a balanced trade relationship. Morita distanced himself from this position in magazine articles written for publications such as The Atlantic Monthly. He asserted that he did not support Ishihara’s position; rather, he sought the deregulation of the Japanese economy.

In November 1994, a year after Morita had surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage, he retired as CEO of Sony. His retirement had been anticipated, and his hand-picked successor, Noria Ohga, took over leadership of the company. Morita was now physically impaired and confined to a wheelchair. He was subsequently named honorary chairman, replacing co-founder Ibuka, who took the title of chief advisor to Sony Corporation unitl his death in 1997.

Career Details

Following World War II, Morita worked as a physics professor until, in 1946, he borrowed money from his father to start a new business with Ibuka. With $500, they created Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Tokyo Telecommunication Engineering Corporation), with 20 employees sharing a rented office in a burned-out Tokyo department store.

The company’s first products included manufacturing amplifiers, vacuum-tube voltmeters, and communications devices for the Japan Post Office and the Japan Broadcasting Company. Their first product aimed at the consumer market was a bulky $500 tape recorder that failed to attract much interest and was sold to schools instead. In 1947, the company had grown marginally and moved its 50 employees into some former army barracks on the outskirts of Tokyo. In 1953, Morita bought the rights to the transistor, a miniaturized electronic circuit which had been developed by an American company, Bell Laboratories, and whose patent was owned by another American company, Western Electric.

Transistors were initially thought to be impractical for most consumer products with the exception of hearing aids. But, Morita’s purchase of the patent would prove to be a watershed for his company. His company would go on to produce many firsts: the AM transistor radio (1955); the pocket-sized transistor radio (1957); the two-band transistor radio (1957); the FM transistor radio (1958); the all-transistorized television set (1959); the alltransistorized video tape recorder (1960); and the small-screen transistorized television set (1961).

In 1958, the Tokyo Telecommunication Engineering Corporation changed its name to the Sony Corporation, and Morita moved to New York City to set up an office for operations in the United States. Five years later, Sony became the first foreign-owned business to offer stock for sale in the United States and, in 1970, it became the first Japanese company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Sony Corporation continued to introduce new inventions: the first home video tape recorder priced within reach of most consumers (1965); a color video tape recorder (1966); the first integrated circuit radio (1966); its own tape for color video recording (1967); the first seven-inch color television set (1967); and a portable, battery-operated video tape recorder and camera (1967).

Morita went on to become executive vice-president, president, chairman, and, finally, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sony. His last major decision on behalf of Sony was the purchase of CBS Records and Columbia Pictures Entertainment (which became Sony Pictures Entertainment) in the late 1980s.

Social and Economic Impact

While Morita credited his partner Masura Ibuka as being Sony’s technical genius, Morita served as the company’s more visible spokesperson and promoter. He created the name “Sony” (easy to remember and say), and later replaced model numbers with the equally catchy product names Walkman, Handycam, and Watchman. It was Morita who learned English and traveled the world unveiling Sony prototypes, and it is he who has become most closely identified with the company.

In his starring role, Morita introduced an astounding number of innovative products. Speaking in Fortune, Morita explained, “Our basic concept has always been…to give new convenience, or new methods, or new benefits, to the general public with our technology.” Following this guideline, Sony engineers developed electronic devices that were revolutionary at the time of their inception and are accepted as must-have products today: the hand-held transistor radio, the battery-powered television, the VCR, the camcorder, the compact disk player, and the Walkman portable cassette player. The Walkman and the Trinitron television set have been Sony’s greatest successes; the Trinitron’s exceptional picture quality garnered it an Emmy Award in 1972.

Morita not only shared responsibility for creating perhaps the most inventive electronics company in the world, but he also led the way in establishing Japan’s reputation as a source of high quality products. He recalled an earlier time in New Scientist: “When I made my first trip to Europe in 1953 I couldn’t see any Japanese industrial products being exported to Europe. ‘Made in Japan’ was regarded as meaning very cheap, poor quality. When we started up our exports…we had to put, ‘Made in Japan’ on them. We were ashamed so we made the label as small as possible.” Ironically, Morita later found that when his company began building factories outside of Japan that customers expressed a preference for Sony products with the Japanese label.

The Sony reputation for excellence and Morita’s active participation in the debate over economic policy combined to make him one of the most notable businessmen of his time. Writing for the New York Times, James Sterngold noted, “[Morita’s retirement] is a milestone in the business history of Japan and the West . . . [marking] the end of a career that symbolized Japan’s transformation from a low-cost industrial imitator into a highly competitive global innovator. Along the way, Mr. Morita became Japan’s most influential business diplomat.” But for his illness, Morita would have become the chairman of Keidanren, the most powerful business lobby in Japan.

Chronology: Akio Morita

1921: Born.

1944: Earned degree in physics at Osaka Imperial University.

1946: Cofounded Tokyo Telecommunication Engineering Corporation.

1953: Bought rights to the transistor.

1958: Changed company’s name to Sony Corporation.

1960: Set up American office for Sony.

1972: Sony awarded an Emmy for Trinitron television set.

1982: Awarded Medal of Honor with Blue Ribbon, Royal Society of Arts Albert Medal.

1984: Awarded Legion d’Honneur, Government of France.

1987: Wrote Made In Japan.

1989: Co-authored The Japan That Can Say “NO.”

1991: Awarded First Class Order of Sacred Treasure, His Majesty the Emperor of Japan.

1992: Awarded Honorary Knight Commander of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

1994: Resigned as CEO of Sony.

Described in New Scientist as having an “un-Japanese frankness,” Morita was outspoken at home and abroad regarding trade issues. Unlike most other Japanese business leaders, he admitted that Japan’s economy was essentially closed and expressed the opinion that his country’s policies should be changed. At the same time, however, he criticized the quality of some American products and charged that this was also an important factor in the Japanese trade surplus in the United States.

Moron, Alonzo G.(1909–1971) - College president, First Black President of Hampton Institute, Chronology, Returns to the Virgin Islands [next] [back] Mori, Hanae

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