Akio Morita  
Hero of headphones
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly August 1999


In 1979, the Sony Walkman was born—but it wasn't exactly easy.

Twenty years ago, in that nebulous time known as the late 1970s, a time we've now almost completely converted into a certain kind of wardrobe for a certain kind of movie about a certain kind of malaise that may or may not have taken place between the counterculture and punk and the yuppiedom of the Reagan '80s, a genius executive named Akio Morita at Sony Laboratories in Japan was about to change the world. He wasn't purifying uranium or perfecting satellites to deflect Russian missiles or discovering HIV cells in rare African monkeys or pondering the commercial viability of a cable station devoted to nothing but music videos. He was really digging a strange little prototype contraption with headphones called the Soundabout. This thing, this "contraption," as his colleagues insisted on calling it, was metal and boxy and heavy and awkward to hold, with headphones that squished your ears up against your skull. Sony, that first try, could only make it so small, because they had to cram a lot of electronic gadgetry in there to get it to make even a grainy, scratchy, far-away sound.

None of these rather conspicuous imperfections bothered Morita, because he had vision; he saw limitless potential, and he pretty much always got his way, which is not to say he was a tyrant, just that he was the kind of guy who, smiling, would step his shiny loafer in your face if you got in his way, the kind of guy that made things happen.

So when Sony's market research, which was incredibly sophisticated even in the late 1970s, before ubiquitous test marketing and targeted demographics, said the Soundabout would never sell, Morita didn't care. When other executives pleaded with him to reconsider, to think about what pushing forward with the Soundabout could mean for Sony's bottom line, he didn't listen. Music, they said, was a shared experience, the stuff of family and picnics and teenage parties and barbecues and car washes and stadiums. Music had always been communal, never solo, and the Soundabout was sure to bomb, because it went against the grain, against all common sense. Guess what—he didn't listen.

Akio Morita could not believe how cool it was to sit in a big leather chair in his huge Tokyo office at Sony and listen to whatever music he wanted to and not be bothered by the world outside. Other executives at Sony joked, whispered behind his back (they didn't need to whisper, of course, because Morita couldn't hear them with those ridiculous things on his head, but he was the boss and they wanted to be safe). They warned him. Morita, they said, was assuming that this clunky little product could literally change the social landscape, change how we listen and how we interact, make it so each of us would hover in our own private bubbles of carefully chosen sound, excluding the world around us. How ridiculous!

Here's the thing, though: Sony was Morita's company—he had cofounded it as Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation in 1946 (changing its name to Sony in 1958) and became the chairman of the board in 1976—so he could do what he wanted, and he did. He was a strong-willed guy, always had been, ever since his boyhood in Nagoya, Japan, in the 1930s, when he worked at his father's sake brewery, which had been his grandfather's sake brewery and his grandfather's sake brewery, going back many generations. In fact, one example of Morita's strong will was his complete break from strict Japanese family tradition when he refused to return to his father's sake brewery to run it after his service in World War II in the Air Armory Division in Yokosuka. Instead, he began night school at Osaka Imperial University, graduating with a degree in physics, just months before the United States decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the A-bomb. As Japan was cleaning up and rebuilding its cities after surrendering to Allied forces, Morita took a teaching post at Osaka University, but soon after the war, as Japan fell into a depression and began to search its soul about what exactly had happened, how exactly they had lost so miserably, all former military officers—"fascists"—were banned from teaching at universities.

It was at this point, in 1946, that Morita and an old army buddy, Ibuka Masaru, decided to go into the electronics business. The two had designed thermal guidance systems and night-vision devices during the war, so a future of stereo equipment and video games, a future that turned military know-how into mind-boggling amounts of capital, had a certain logic.

But it was only partially Morita's knowledge of electronics that made what would become the Sony Walkman a success, a cultural artifact of life-changing proportions, one which would inspire college cultural studies courses and impenetrable Ph.D. dissertations. It was his ability to, as he called it, "Americanize" the Walkman that made it what it is; and, more specifically, made Morita who he is, at least in the minds of the public.

Morita, over the years, has been called "Japan's best-known international business man." He has come to symbolize high technology (the Walkman), the successful company (Sony) and Japan's work ethic and high-tech road to success. His biography and the biography of Sony and the Walkman have meshed to become one story. In October of 1992, for instance, when Morita was knighted at the British embassy in Japan, both the Sun (Japan) and the Daily Telegraph (England) ran the same headline: "Arise, Sir Sony Walkman." When Morita stepped down as chairman of Sony in 1994, the Guardian headline read: "Mr. Walkman Steps Down."

The popularity and success of the Walkman didn't simply grow out of a profound technological idea. No, it was Morita's strong will and insistence on "Americanizing" that made the Walkman the Walkman. As Morita pushed ahead in 1979 with the prototype Soundabout, against the wishes of almost everyone at Sony, he also realized that the most important thing would be the advertising, the way the world came to view the Soundabout. Carefully controlled perception-making was at least as important as the product. Sony hired an American advertising agency. As the Soundabout became available—a heavy metal box slightly too big for your hand, with bad reception, headphones that either dug into your ears or wouldn't stay on your head, and a cost of more than $200—words like "individual" and "choice" and "rebel" began to appear below and above pictures of fabulous looking people having fun rocking out by themselves in magazines and on billboards. The first batch sold out in stores all over the world within a couple of days. The rest, as they say, is history.