Akio Morita (盛田昭夫, Morita Akio) (January 26, 1921 – October 3, 1999) was co-founder, chief executive officer (from 1971), and chairman of the board (from 1976–1994) of Sony Corporation, the world-renowned manufacturer of consumer electronics products. Together with Sony co-founder Ibuka Masaru, he pioneered popular electronic innovations such as the transistor radio, video cassette recorder and the Walkman. Under his leadership Sony became a global enterprise, opening factories in the United States and Europe, becoming the first Japanese company to sell its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 1961, and purchasing Columbia Pictures in 1989. He combined technical engineering skills with an aptitude for business. He is one of those responsible for making Japanese brand names into household words all over the world.
Morita was born in Nagoya, Japan, on January 26, 1921. His family had been brewing sake (Japanese rice liquor) for 14 generations, and from third grade he was groomed to become the successor of the family business. Instead, he displayed an early interest in technology, graduating from Osaka Imperial University in 1944 with a degree in physics.
During World War II, Morita was assigned to the development of a new missile at the Air Armory at Yokosuka. There he met Ibuka Masaru, an engineering genius known for inventing a type of neon sign, and industry’s representative on the wartime research committee. At meetings of the committee, Morita admired Ibuka Masaru’s ability as an engineer, and Ibuka recognized Morita’s aptitude for business and engineering. Morita was 13 years younger than Ibuka, but the two men shared the same attitude toward the war—that Japan’s tragic defeat was inevitable because of its technical inferiority—and they often talked about postwar industry.
When the war ended, Japan was in a state of turmoil. Most factories had been destroyed by the bombing, but Ibuka’s factory had survived and the shortwave converters he developed there sold quickly. On October 6, 1945, just two months after the end of the war, the Asahi Shinbun (one of the largest Japanese newspapers) ran an article about Ibuka’s factory. Morita, who had returned from the war to his hometown of Nagoya, happened to read this article. Almost immediately, Morita went to Tokyo to meet Ibuka, and on May 7, 1946, they founded Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, the forerunner to Sony) with approximately 20 employees and initial capital of 190,000 yen. Ibuka was 38 years old at the time and Morita was 25.
The prospectus of the new company was to “outperform and outclass others with unique product development and fulfill the ideal of active, free and joyful advancement.” Morita concerned himself with financial and business matters; he was responsible for marketing the company’s products worldwide. Morita and Ibuka’s successful products included early consumer versions of the tape recorder.
Morita had a global corporate vision. His intuition and his determination to communicate with the entire world were especially evident in the creation of Sony. Morita wanted a name that would be recognizable everywhere; creative, written in Roman letters, short and catchy. Morita and Ibuka pored over dictionaries and found the Latin word sonus (sound). At that time the word “sonny” was part of the pop vernacular in America, and they thought it suggested a company made up of energetic young people. They combined the two words to form "Sony."
In August 1953, Morita visited America for the first time to negotiate a contract with Western Electric for the use of a patent which Ibuka had discovered the previous year, while he was in the United States to market tape recorders. The American market was not yet prepared to accept the tape recorders which Sony was selling; at that time they were used only as a substitute for taking shorthand notes. During Ikuba’s visit, Western Electric had agreed to open their patents to companies that wished to develop them. Ibuka decided that Sony’s next target product should be a “transistor radio.” At that time, Sony was having difficulty meeting its payroll of 120 employees with the profit from its sale of tape recorders, and Western Electric was asking a fee for the patent of $25,000, which amounted to one year’s profits for Sony. Most of the Sony employees did not welcome Ikuba’s new plan, but Morita embraced it. Ibuka thought that they could use the transistor to create a supermicro radio; Morita remarked that Japanese people had always loved small things, and suggested they make a small radio which could fit in a shirt pocket.
In August 1955, Sony produced a transistor radio, the “TR-55,” the first in Japan. In 1957, Sony launched a pocket-sized transistor radio, and in 1960, the first transistor television in the world. Under Morita’s direction, in 1961, Sony became the first Japanese company to sell its shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Morita moved his entire family to the United States in 1963, in order to gain a better understanding of American business practices and ways of thinking. When Sony products began to sell well internationally, Morita opened factories in the United States and Europe. In 1989 Sony bought Columbia Pictures.
In the early 1990s, Morita co-authored a controversial essay, The Japan that Can Say No, with politician Shintaro Ishihara, criticizing United States business practices, and encouraging the Japanese to take a more independent role in business and foreign affairs.
On November 25, 1994, Morita announced his resignation as Sony chairman after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while playing tennis. He was succeeded by Norio Ohga, who had joined the company after sending Morita a letter denouncing the poor quality of the company's tape recorders.
Morita also wrote a book called Never Mind School Records in the 1960s, which stressed that school records are not important to one's success or ability to do business. He also served as vice chairman of the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organizations) and was a member of the Japan-U.S. Economic Relations Group, (also known as the "Wise Men's Group"). He was awarded the Albert Medal from the United Kingdom's Royal Society of Arts in 1982, becoming the first Japanese to receive the honor. Two years later, he received the prestigious National Order of the Legion of Honor, and in 1991, he was awarded the First Class Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan. Morita died on October 3, 1999, of pneumonia.
Sony was one of the first to manufacture video cassette recorders (VCRs) for home use, but Sony’s format, Betamax (Beta) was soon eclipsed by VHS. In 1974, Morita had suggested to Matsushita Konosuke, founder of Matsushita Electric, that they make Betamax a standard format for video cassette recorders. However, Matsushita knew that Victor Company of Japan, which had been purchased by Matsushita Electric, was developing VHS. Two years later Matsushita rejected Morita’s suggestion because VHS could be manufactured more cheaply than Betamax. When VHS began to outsell Betamax, Sony also converted to VHS. This incident was said to be the collapse of the “myth of Sony.”
Around the same time, in November 1976, Universal Studios (sometimes called Universal Pictures) and Walt Disney Productions sued Sony for an infringement of copyright. Sony won the first trial but lost an appeal. Sony became the first Japanese company to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, where they won the case in January 1984.
Morita got the inspiration for the Walkman as he watched his children and their friends listen to music from morning until night, and observed people listening to music in their cars and carrying large stereos to beaches and parks. The engineering department at Sony opposed the concept of a tape player without a recording function (this was added later), thinking that it would not sell, but Morita declared that if 30,000 of these machines could not be sold, he would resign as company president. He wanted a product that sounded like a high-quality car stereo, was easily portable, and allowed the user to listen while doing something else. The new machine was named “Walkman.”
After five months of production in Japan, Sony was not able to keep up with the demand and their product was often out of stock. Sony America decided that “Walkman” was bad English and changed the name to “Soundabout" in the US, “Freestyle” in Sweden, and “Stowaway” in Britain. When sales in these countries were slower than expected, Morita changed the name universally to “Sony Walkman.” The Walkman became a worldwide hit, and the word “walkman” is now found in major dictionaries. By the year 2000, two hundred million Walkmans had been sold all over the world.
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