Few phrases have taken on such a dramatic change in meaning in the English language as the one Akio Morita chose for the title of his autobiography. Before World War II, "Made in Japan" meant shoddy goods at rock-bottom prices. Hardly 20 years after Japan's defeat in 1945, Japanese products were vying with the best, and Sony, the company Morita helped found in a bombed-out department store in 1946, was at the leading edge of that sudden change of image.
A Sony executive for 40 years, Morita is probably in the best position to tell the story of the company that has symbolized Japan's rise from rubble to riches. Unfortunately, Morita has much more to say about himself than about Sony, although he treats both subjects most favorably.
Morita also has plenty of good things to say about Japan; he reserves his criticism for the United States, especially its businessmen leaders.
"We have many problems with the Americans," explains Morita, "and they are hard to deal with because Americans get so emotional."
Morita introduces himself as a man imbued with "tenacity, perseverance and optimism . . . , traits that have been handed down to me through the family genes." The apparent absence of chromosomes carrying humility and candor, however, make this volume a tough read for anyone even slightly acquainted with conditions in Japan, Sony's recent lackluster business performance or U.S.-Japan trade issues.
And lest a reader think that Morita is just another businessman, he lets us know early on that he has devoted "many hours, weeks and months, and (traveled) literally millions of miles to help bring Japan and the United States and other Western nations closer together."
But "Made in Japan" is not without redeeming passages. One of these is a 50-page section devoted to Sony's early days. The magnitude of Sony's later successes in selling high-quality home appliances is all the more impressive when one finds out that among Sony's first products was a primitive heating pad, a rice cooker that did not work, and a tape recorder that used paper tapes because quality plastic was unavailable. It was in those early days when Sony was attempting to commercialize the transistor, that Dr. Reona (Leo) Esaki, a senior researcher at Sony, invented the diode for which he later won a Nobel Prize in physics.
Most of the remaining 250 pages, however, consist of recollections of what the author told President Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of the Treasury Michael Blumenthal, ex-U.S. Trade Representative Bill Brock, and so on all the way down to an unidentified member of the Rothschild family, whom he chastised for believing that he, the chairman of the Sony corporation, might be wealthy.
But just in case the reader may think Morita is poor, there are several references to the U.S.-built corporate jet and the French helicopter at Morita's disposal. Then there is the blue Mercedes he takes to his chalet near Mt. Fuji, his Toyota sports car, his Lincoln Continental with its personalized license plate that he keeps in the United States where he has two apartments, one in New York and another in Hawaii.
For all the self-advertising, and for every time Morita finishes an anecdote with "and I was right," there are many sections of the book that will strike a sympathetic chord with Americans critical of their business leaders.
Morita pokes fun at Americans who blame Japan for the U.S. trade deficit on the one hand, and import billions of dollars worth of Japanese goods to sell under American brands on the other.
Morita also points out that Japanese electronics companies are manufacturing TV sets in the United States at a time when American makers have just about stopped doing so. As to why the Japanese have been able to succeed where Americans have failed, Morita stresses the importance of motivating workers, not just with high salaries but with membership in a warm, familylike company organization.
He chides U.S. executives who vote themselves huge bonuses and quotes himself telling Harvard students to choose engineering over law because there is too much litigation and too little production in America today.
Morita is softer on his own country. In contrast to the United States, where he informs us, "there have been many cases of executives being arrested for economic crimes," in Japan there is little need to worry about dishonesty "because of our closed-circle society."
About the only fault Morita can find with Japan is that the Japanese have been slow in dismantling trade barriers. But Morita is quick to point out that "Japan is the only major industrialized country that is actively moving to open its markets, step by step, always forward, never backward."
It is truly ironic that such a self-congratulatory work should appear at a time when Sony is in probably the greatest crisis of its history--a crisis that originated with decisions made when the author was in a position of pre-eminent influence in the firm.
Although Morita takes credit for mass marketing transistor radios in the United States and inventing the concept of the Walkman, he glosses over why Sony's Betamax video system is left with a tiny portion of a market it pioneered, and why the company failed to enter the office computer market until very recently.
Not a few market analysts in Tokyo blame Morita for failing to license Betamax videotape technology to competitors quickly enough. In 1984, Sony had a stormy, 13 1/2-hour shareholders' meeting. Much of the meeting was taken up with the Betamax fiasco, and Morita was singled out for criticism. At the time, the company's share had sunk to 16% of the U.S. VCR market, and Sony executives had to promise not to use the company plane or helicopters. Not a single word about this meeting appears in "Made in Japan."
Morita makes a passing reference to his firm's having gotten out of the desk-top calculator field prematurely. Office equipment is a growth industry in Japan today, and Sony's position as a late comer is not helping its present poor financial situation.
Morita tries to give the impression that he has done his best to sell American goods in Japan. He writes: "I had already established the Sony Trading Corp., and we were actively bringing foreign products into Japan." Had Morita's efforts to balance Japan's trade been genuine, his company would not now be suffering from a decline in the value of the dollar. In actual fact, last year, Sony exported 10 times as much as it imported. Roughly 68% of Sony's earnings come from abroad.
By way of a contrast, Toshiba, a conservative firm which has no token importing arm, relies less than 30% on exports, and its overseas sales are eight times more than its imports--a more favorable ratio than Sony's.
There are also other issues on which Morita has kept quiet. Although Sony executives did not vote themselves huge bonuses in the manner of Detroit's honchos, in 1984, when Sony was facing declining profits, the company was severely criticized for paying out major dividends. Morita and other executives hold millions of shares in Sony.
And while Morita makes several references to "our researcher" Nobel Prize winner Dr. Esaki, Morita fails to mention the less than harmonious nature of Esaki's departure in 1960. Sony explained Esaki's move to IBM as a "one-year sabbatical," but Esaki never returned and has made clear his intentions to remain in the United States. Apparently, the warm familylike atmosphere of a Japanese company may not provide ideal working conditions for everyone.
But for all its faults, Morita's book should not be condemned as an insincere public-relations exercise. Morita begins with a common Japanese assumption, namely that Japan is a good country and that neither it nor its corporations should be accused of unfairness. How one gets foreigners to understand the innate goodness of Japan and its people is immaterial, but as a Japanese, one owes it to oneself to fend off criticism. It is this kind of international understanding that "Made in Japan" appears to be promoting.