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Morita Akio

Ethan Hoffman
BORN: Jan. 26, 1921, in Nagoya, Japan
1946: Founds Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. with Ibuka Masaru
1955: Tokyo Telecom introduces Japan's first transistor radio
1958: Company changes its name to Sony
1960: Sony introduces the world's first transistor TV, establishes U.S. unit, lists shares in New York in 1961
1968: Sony starts CBS/Sony music record venture
1975: Introduces the Betamax VCR
1979: Unveils the Walkman
1993: Morita suffers a debilitating stroke
1999: Died Oct. 3 in Tokyo

In 1950, Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. faced a dilemma. It had developed Japan's first tape recorder, making a tape by grinding up magnets and sticking the powder to strips of paper with rice paste. Now it had a product, but hardly anyone had a use for it - until a number of educators thought this new-fangled and little-understood gadget had possibilities in the classroom. The company responded enthusiastically, putting educational radio programs on tape to suit teaching curriculums. It visited schools to lecture on how to use the new audio aids. Sales began to take off. Tokyo Telecom had learned its first valuable lesson in commercial life - don't just create a product to fill a market need; create the market with the product. It was an insight that co-founder Morita Akio would apply over the years as the tiny company grew to become the world giant Sony.

Morita used this approach most famously with the legendary Walkman. No one had tried selling a non-recording tape player that would deliver music via headphones. Even Morita wondered if people would want to listen in by themselves, cut off from those around them. His instinct said yes, and the Walkman hit the stores in 1979 without a day's test marketing. It was an instant success, the latest in a line of pioneering products reaching back to Japan's first transistor radio, the world's first transistor TV, the world's first home VCR (the brilliant but doomed Betamax, which was vanquished by rival VHS), the compact disc (co-developed with Philips) and on up to today's Playstation video-game system. Alongside Morita on this road to discovery was his partner Ibuka Masaru, the technical guru, who died in 1997.


Introduction: From among the five who topped their respective categories, we picked the one we considered the most outstanding - the Asian of the Century. And the winners are...

  Deng Xiaoping
  Morita Akio
  Kurosawa Akira
  Charles K. Kao
  Mohandas K. Gandhi

Contenders: As they say in film production, many great scenes from our history were left on the cutting room floor

20 Icons of the Century: Here are 20 concepts that defined the region over the past 100 years

Poll: Have your say on who you think is the Asian of the Century

But Morita's contribution was more than just clever products. His dream right from the start was to create Japan's first global company. In 1958, he changed Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering's name to Sony - a blend of the words sonus (Latin for "sound") and sonny (as in sonny boy). His colleagues thought he had taken temporary leave of his senses, but Morita knew exactly what he wanted: a name that was easy to pronounce, ready for when the company's products were launched on the world market. He even rendered Sony in katakana - the Japanese alphabet used for foreign words. The international vision went further. In 1960 Sony set up a U.S. subsidiary. A year later Sony was listed on Wall Street. And in 1989 it became the first Japanese blue-chip to name Westerners to its board of directors. The change of name to Sony also had another purpose. Morita wanted to distance the company from the suggestion that it made only electronics-based products. Sure enough, Sony formed a joint venture with CBS in 1968. In the 1980s, Morita bought all of CBS Records and Columbia Pictures. The latter was a disaster at first, but not only has the studio turned around, it has helped cement Sony's place in the multimedia future.

Morita had a kind of incandescence that not only made him one of the few instantly recognized executives in the world, but infused his company with his risk-taking ethos. His emphasis at all times was on individual creativity and initiative - not the most common of traits in Japan. While most companies scrambled to hire the graduates of a few top schools, the Sony boss in 1966 wrote a book called Never Mind School Records. In it he stressed that more than impressive academic qualifications were needed for pioneering work. It is an approach that has become expected of all Sony chieftains, from the classical musician turned CEO Ohga Norio to the current chief executive, multimedia master Idei Nobuyuki.

In his work, the Sony founder often referred to the difficulty of switching from the roundabout Japanese way of speaking to the straightforward American approach, and said that Japanese businessmen had to be amphibians - at home in the water and on land. At times he flirted with Japanese triumphalism. His criticism of U.S. business practices in the book The Japan That Can Say No, which he co-authored with rightist politician Ishihara Shintaro, gave him a reputation as an America basher. But his sincerity and genuineness, plus his recognition of Japanese shortcomings, made him a bridge rather than a barrier to international understanding.

But Morita's most important legacy was that he proved that products from Asia - if invested with sufficient skill and imagination - can be world class. As the West clamored for more and more inexpensive but reliable goods made in the factories of Asia, export earnings powered the region's economic growth. Prosperity followed, raising education standards, ambitions and expectations. In many countries, political and economic power was taken out of the hands of a self-perpetuating and sometimes venal elite and passed to the new middle classes. The New Asia was born. Morita Akio, the great Asian corporate visionary of the 20th century, had helped usher in an era in a way that perhaps not even he had foreseen.

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