Ibuka, Masaru

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Masaru Ibuka

As co-founder and longtime president of the Sony Corporation, Japanese executive Masaru Ibuka (1908-1997) conceived of and brought to fruition several of the most popular and fundamentally influential consumer electronics innovations of the twentieth century.

The public face of Sony for decades was its chairman and marketing wizard, Akio Morita, but Ibuka was the company's leader on the technical side. The two men worked closely together. Ibuka's son Makoto was quoted as saying in the London Daily Mail that the pair “were bound together by a tie so tight it was more like love than friendship.” The miniaturization of the tape recorder, the transistor radio, the Trinitron color television, the Betamax videotape system, and the video projector were among the Ibuka projects that reshaped consumer culture globally.

Dubbed “Student Inventor of Genius”

Born on April 11, 1908, in Nikko, Japan, in Tochigi Prefecture, Ibuka was interested in radio from the time he was young, and was an avid “ham” or amateur radio operator. His father was a beer brewer, and it was expected that young Ibuka would take over the family business. Ibuka attended Waseda High School and Waseda University, where he studied chemical engineering. He stayed on at the university as a researcher, and in 1933 one of his discoveries, a form of the element neon with applications in the transmission of light, won a prize at the Paris Exhibition, an international science fair. According to James Kirkup of the London Independent, Ibuka was described at the time as a “student inventor of genius.” He moved on to become manager of the radio telegraphy department of the Japan Audio Optical Industrial Corporation from 1937 to 1940, and was then managing director and chief engineer of the Japan Measuring Apparatus Company from 1940 to 1945. But his early orientation toward pure research had left its mark.

In 1936 Ibuka had married Sekiko Maeda, the daughter of a man with close connections to the Japanese monarchy. The marriage produced two daughters and a son. It ended in divorce, but helped propel Ibuka into Japan's military-industrial complex; during World War II he did research on heat-seeking missiles and created an amplifier designed to help aircraft pilots detect submarines. In the course of his company's involvement in military research, he met Morita, then a representative of the Japanese navy, and the two stayed in touch.

Ibuka and his fellow engineers did not fall into that portion of the Japanese population willing to sacrifice everything for victory in the war. Ibuka and Morita, who listened to shortwave radio broadcasts from the United States, became convinced that Japan's loss was certain, and when the Emperor Hirohito announced the country's surrender on the radio, many members of Ibuka's team were happy at the chance to get away from developing military technology. Amid the ruins of postwar Tokyo, Ibuka formed a new company called Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo, or Totsuko for short. The name meant Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, and the company, with headquarters in a bombed-out department store, was incorporated on May 7, 1946. Morita, who was teaching engineering at the time, soon signed on as general manager, and Morita's father invested the then-enormous sum of $60,000 in the new firm. As of the late 1990s, the family's return on that investment was about $5 billion.

Things got off to a slow start. Disposable income was almost nonexistent in postwar Japan. And the company's first product, an electric rice cooker, was a flop. But Ibuka and his staff of 20 engineers continued to develop ideas, experimenting with a ferric oxide compound that they heated in a frying pan at first. That produced a magnetic paste that they brushed by hand onto strips of paper. The end result, by 1950, was Japan's first tape recorder, which weighed in at 100 pounds. Within a year, however, the weight had been reduced by 80 percent.

Bought Rights to Transistor

Ibuka visited the United States in 1952, hoping to explore new recording technologies. While there, he encountered a then-obscure device called a transistor, a miniature semiconductor that could be used to amplify electronic signals. The transistor's U.S. manufacturer, Western Electric, marketed it primarily for use in military applications and hearing aids, but Ibuka had other ideas, and he paid $25,000 for the rights to manufacture them in Japan. “American companies were using transistors to make hearing aids, but even today Japanese don't like to wear hearing aids,” Ibuka told Brent Schlender of Fortune. By 1955 his staff had perfected the world's first transistor radio, and two years later they released a shirt-pocket model—actually slightly too big for most shirt pockets, but Morita dispatched a sales staff outfitted with specially tailored shirts that would hold the radios.

This development catapulted Ibuka to the top of the worldwide consumer electronics industry. Radios, which had been at least of tabletop size and were often major pieces of furniture, could now be carried anywhere. Transistor radios were a runaway success and became an icon of worldwide youth culture in the 1960s. In 1958, with the company's Western markets rapidly expanding, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo changed its name to Sony, a meaningless but easy-to-remember hybrid of the Latin root sonus (sound) and the “Sonny” moniker often used for young Japanese by occupying American troops.

A series of other innovative Sony products followed, lasting for much of the rest of the twentieth century. The company introduced the world's first transistor television in 1959, spelling the end of the use of cumbersome vacuum tubes, and another invention equally important for television, the videotape recorder, appeared in 1961. In many cases the ideas for these products were Ibuka's own, and the engineers who perfected them worked under his direct supervision. The invention of which he was proudest was the Trinitron color television, which appeared in 1967 and transformed the fuzzy outlines of earlier color TV systems into sharply focused images. Sony invested heavily enough in the technology that failure could have meant its demise, but the Trinitron emerged as a market leader. In the fastmoving world of video electronics, the basic Trinitron technology remained in use for many years.

In 1971 Ibuka became president of Sony. The pace at which forward-looking new products appeared was undiminished over the next decade, as Sony pioneered two more key technologies. The company's Betamax home video system was released in 1975. Although it was eventually eclipsed by the competing VHS format, it was a key development in the introduction of video devices into homes all over the world. In 1976 Ibuka retired, taking the title of honorary chairman (and eventually supreme founder and consultant). But there were more devices in the pipeline, developed by the engineering staff he had put in place, that reshaped the electronics marketplace: the portability of music, a trend with enormous implications for the future, took a significant step forward with the introduction of the Sony Walkman in 1979, and it was Sony, in collaboration with the Dutch company Philips, that pioneered the compact disc. Ibuka was also responsible for numerous electronics-manufacturing devices with lower profiles. Toward the end of his career he approved the development of a Sony lab that would investigate the possibility of extrasensory perception.

Attributed Success to U.S. Military Orientation

Ibuka's consistent record of innovation flew in the face of conventional wisdom, which held that while Japanese manufacturers were efficient at developing existing ideas to perfection, they generally lacked creativity. Ibuka pointed to Sony's consumer orientation as an explanation. “The American electronics industry is spoiled by the emphasis on military and space applications,” he told Schlender. “In the U.S. you put your energy into fundamental research to develop technologies that you apply first to military uses. Only later does it make its way into business and consumer products. “ He recalled visiting a U.S. professor who had developed a big-screen television. “I told him it was a natural consumer product, and he became upset with me. He didn't want his superb technology used in a lowly consumer product.”

In Japan itself Ibuka became a widely revered figure, a sort of national folk hero roughly comparable in stature to Alexander Graham Bell or Thomas Edison in the United States. He made headlines for a non-electronic accomplishment in 1966 when he married his childhood sweetheart, Yoshiko Kurosawa. Ibuka maintained a variety of interests outside work; he was an avid golfer, and from 1985 to 1994 he served as chairman of the Boy Scouts of Nippon. In later years he also served as president of the Japan Institute for Invention and Innovation, and of the Japan Audio Society. He visited his old office at Sony at least weekly, and received audio summaries of company reports.

The major project of Ibuka's later life resulted from his vision of creating a new corps of creative Japanese engineers through an emphasis on early childhood education. Even before becoming Sony president he had written two books, The Zero-Year Child (1970) and Kindergarten Is Too Late! (1971). After his retirement, the pace of his writing accelerated as he penned ten more books. Most were on educational and child-rearing topics, but he also wrote the biography Good Mileage: The High-Performance Business Philosophy of Soichiro Honda, about the founder of the Honda automobile company, a personal friend. Kindergarten Is Too Late! and Good Mileage were translated into English.

In 1992 Ibuka received one of Japan's highest awards, the Order of Culture, bestowed by the emperor himself. That year he was hospitalized with a serious heart arrhythmia; Morita, who suffered a stroke at nearly the same time, was put in an adjoining room, and the two were seen sitting together, holding hands and weeping silently. Ibuka died in Tokyo on December 19, 1997. “Mr. Ibuka has been at the heart of Sony's philosophy,” Sony president Nobuyuki Idea was quoted as saying in the New York Times. “He has sowed the seeds of the deep conviction that our products must bring joy and fun to users. Mr. Ibuka always asked himself what was at the core of ‘making things,’ and thought in broad terms of how these products could enhance people's lives and cultures.”


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