Born Jan. 26, 1921 in Nagoya
1946 Co-founds Sony with Masaru Ibuka
1960 Establishes Sony Corp. of America; a year later it becomes the first Japanese company to list its shares on Wall Street
1979 Sony introduces the Walkman
1989 Co-authors The Japan That Can Say No, denouncing countries such as the U.S. that complain about Japanese imports
1994 Resigns as chairman of Sony
From the rubble of postwar Japan, Sony's charismatic co-founder built his electronics firm into a trusted brand and a truly global company
By JOHN NATHAN
He was the scion of a prosperous merchant family that had been brewing sake and soy sauce in central Japan for more than 300 years. In the spring of 1946, released by his father from his obligation to take over the family business, Akio Morita co-founded Sony with an electrical engineer named Masaru Ibuka. For over 40 years, Ibuka and Morita ran Sony together from adjoining offices, reveling in each other's company. Ibuka's great gift was inspiring his engineers to overreach themselves. Morita, a brilliant marketer, transformed Sony into an international presence. In the process, he matured into an irresistibly charismatic advocate of Japan's business interests. By 1993, when he suffered a stroke that deprived him of speech and confined him to a wheelchair, he had become the best-known Japanese citizen in the world.
On his first trip to the United States in 1953, Morita was overwhelmed by the scale of things and by the power of a booming economy. Germany, the next stop on his tour, was no more reassuring. But when he visited Philips Electronics in Holland, he was surprised to discover that this great organization was headquartered in the old world town of Eindhoven. Here the scale and pace of life seemed manageable. "If Philips can do it," he wrote home to Ibuka, "perhaps we can also manage."
In 1955, returning to the U.S. with tape recorders and Sony's first transistor radios in hand, Morita made the rounds of distributors but found little enthusiasm. Finally a purchasing agent at the Bulova watch company saw the miniature radios and said he would take 100,000 of them, provided he could market them under the Bulova name. This was a huge order, worth more than Sony's total capitalization at the time. But Morita was set on building Sony into an international brand: despite a cable from Ibuka and the board instructing him to accept the order, he turned Bulova down. Later, he would describe this as the best business decision of his career.
The U.S. market had always glittered at the center of Morita's vision of a global Sony. The Sony Corporation of America, which he established in 1960 and fashioned with his own hands over the next 30 years, was perhaps his greatest masterpiece. Morita was determined to build a Sony presence in the U.S. that would dominate the landscape without appearing foreign, and he succeeded remarkably: in 1998, according to a Harris poll, Sony overtook General Motors and General Electric as the brand name best known and most highly esteemed among U.S. consumers.
In 1963, Morita moved himself and his family into a roomy apartment sublet from the violinist Nathan Milstein on Manhattan's Upper East Side and lived there for over a year. Morita reasoned that to sell to Americans effectively, he would have to know more about them and how they lived. Ibuka was reluctant to let him go: no Japanese organization had ever sent its No. 2 man to live abroad. Ibuka finally agreed when Morita promised to spend a week in Tokyo every two months.
If Morita's move to New York was unsettling to Sony, it was also a profound disruption in the lives of his wife Yoshiko, who spoke no English at the time, and their three young children. But in the family Morita's word was law: despite the Western aura he projected, he was a thoroughly traditional Japanese husband at home, stricter, if anything, than his own father.
No sooner were they installed on Fifth Avenue than the Moritas threw themselves into building a social life. By the mid-'60s, though Morita was once again commuting from Tokyo, they had established a place for themselves in New York society, and Morita was on his way to becoming the best-connected Japanese businessman in the U.S. The only Japanese on the international advisory boards of Pan American, IBM and Morgan Guaranty Trust, he developed lasting relationships with a broad spectrum of American business leaders, and he proved himself a master at leveraging his connections in ways that were beneficial to Sony. The profitable joint ventures Morita engineered throughout the '70s and '80s--CBS/Sony, Texas Instruments Japan, Sony-Prudential Life Insurance and others--were in every case facilitated by his personal connections to the American executives involved.
Morita's association was not limited to businessmen. Every U.S. ambassador to Japan during the '70s and '80s left the country with fond memories of evenings at the Moritas' home in Tokyo and an indefinable but certain sense of loyalty to Sony.
To the Americans and Europeans who knew him over time, in striking contrast to the "typical" Japanese businessmen they encountered in their professional lives, Morita did not seem at all reticent, uncomfortable, aloof, enigmatic or inscrutable. On the contrary, he was a dynamo of dazzling energy. A striking man, with silky hair that turned silver in his early 40s and that he parted down the middle in the manner of a Meiji dandy, he had slate-gray eyes, rare for a Japanese--giving rise to rumors that among his ancestors lurked a White Russian. His curiosity about people seemed boundless, and all who met him, however fleetingly, seem to have been left with the impression that they were his friend. Michel Galiana-Mingot, the former head of Sony France, remembers the day Morita went on an inspection tour of Sony's new plant in Bayonne. As he was driving away from the plant, Morita noticed a white house across the surrounding fields and asked to stop; the occupants, he explained, were Sony's neighbors and he wanted to meet them and pay his respects. The master of the house happened to be in the ice-cream business, and Morita spent an hour with his family sampling ice cream from all over Europe while the cavalcade of official cars and policemen on their motorcycles waited outside.
Morita had the gift of incandescence. People observing him in action at various moments in his life were left with the impression that he lit up a room with his presence, that he literally glowed. I have observed this effect myself. In February 1992, his penultimate year of good health, he put in an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which I attended as an observer. He was by no means the only luminary present: Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles, Henry Kissinger and Li Peng were also in attendance. But it was Morita who turned heads as he strode across the outer hall greeting his friends, and Morita who stole the show in plenary sessions. Speaking from the stage in his earnest, imperfect yet vivid English, he assured the audience that they would find the Japanese market open to them--if and when they had something appealing to offer the Japanese consumer. Then he smiled his outrageous, radiant smile and suggested that the competitiveness of American industry might be improved if its leaders paid themselves less richly. Clearly this was a slap in the face, yet it was delivered with such warmth and collegiality, such familiar ease and good humor, that the American CEOs who had paid $14,000 to attend rose as though ensorcelled to applaud him.
The memory of Morita's brightness survives as part of his legacy to Sony. When I asked Norio Ohga, the company's current chairman, to explain why he had reached past the frontrunners in line to succeed him as president and picked Nobuyuki Idei, he wrote down on a pad in his elegant hand, san-san to kagayaku, an expression that means to shine dazzlingly like the sun. "The leader of Sony must have radiance," he said. Though he didn't bother to add, "like Akio Morita," there was no mistaking that Morita's presence had been invoked.
John Nathan is Takashima professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of the new book Sony: The Private Life