Norio Ohga: Executive who introduced the compact disc and helped transform Sony into a global entertainment empire

Norio Ohga was a bidding opera singer and conductor who joined the Sony Corporation as a consultant but rose to become its chairman and chief executive. It was his love of music and keen ear for high-quality audio that would define his career and shape the development of the compact disc and transform and propel the Japanese electronics manufacturer to the forefront of technological excellence, establishing Sony as a global software and entertainment empire.

With a fastidious attention to detail that was feared and revered across the company, Ohga had been known to cancel a product launch because he did not like the shape of a button; he had a love of design and wanted all devices to be eye-catching. His design philosophy was to make devices not merely smaller but also more intimate, creating a one-to-one relationship between people and machines.

Ohga led the Sony Corporation in various roles from 1982-95 and during his tenure some of his decisions, such as the $3.4bn purchase of Columbia Pictures, were criticised as unwise and costly. But Ohga's focus on music, films and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony's success. In 1998 he accredited their success to the fact that "We are always chasing after things that other companies won't touch".

Norio Ohga was born in the coastal resort of Numazu, a city in eastern Shizuoka Prefecture, about 75 miles south-west of Tokyo, in 1930. He suffered from pleurisy as a child and was exempted from factory work during the Second World War. Instead he took singing lessons and learned the piano.

Following the end of the war, he studied at Tokyo's National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he gained a reputation for his forthright views. Having already complained formally to Yamaha for their poor-quality pianos but still receiving and declining a job offer from them, Ohga sent a letter of complaint to the management of the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation (later renamed Sony) about the quality of their tape recorders which would change his life for good.

Although taken aback, the founders, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, met him and immediately sensed in Ohga the makings of a leader, and someone whose expert knowledge of sound and electrical engineering could benefit the company. In 1953 they made him a consultant while he finished hisfour-year course at the Berlin University of the Arts. Ohga, however, still intended to become a baritone opera singer, but in 1959, while accompanying Morita on a US business trip, he was persuaded to join the company full-time.

Henceforth Ohga worked tirelessly to enhance product quality, functionality and design, while also revolutionising the company's marketing and advertising, paving the way for the launch of a succession of innovative products. Ohga passionately advocated the creation of gadgets "attractive in the eyes of consumers", a philosophy that came to represent Sony's approach to design and engineering, and was crucial to the company's worldwide success.

Initially, Ohga headed Sony's tape recorder division, which transformed the business with the launch of the Walkman personal cassette player in the late 1970s. This revolutionised the way music was listened to, but Ohga wanted to go a stage further in terms of sound quality, and Sony teamed up with Philips to co-develop the Compact Disc Digital Audio system.

Ohga recognised the potential of the compact disc and drove Sony's initiatives to introduce the format. It was he who pushed for a disc 12cm in diameter, because it provided sufficient capacity at 75 minutes to store all of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which he believed should be heard in its entirety without interruption; it also allowed the user to play and replay their music by remote control.

Sony launched the first CD in 1982, a month after Ohga became president of Sony. Within five years CDs overtook LP sales in Japan, with a domino effect around the world. Sony's first portable CD player was introduced in 1984, and Ohga's specifications led directly to the development of the DVD video disc, with which Sony was also closely involved, and the high-definition Sony Blu-ray system.

Ohga had become head of design, introducing the sleek matte black finishes and other touches that would style a generation of products and give them the "Sony look". He was an executive by his 30s, a rarity in a Japanese company, but the debonair Ohga shattered all the stereotypes of the staid Japanese executive, being an accomplished pilot and yachtsman; he was always immaculately turned out, his hair neatly slicked back, and was never short of something to say. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony's image at a time when Japan harboured global ambitions.

Ohga and Morita were considered the perfect partnership; they shared a deep understanding of the importance of brand management, and took every opportunity to remind employees to think first and act later, emphasising that every one of their decisions had an impact on the Sony brand. One of Ohga's favourite expressions was, "The four letters of the SONY brand are our greatest asset". His efforts to spread the spirit of that message among every Sony employee were critical in enabling the company to become the global brand it is today.

Although Sony has encountereddifficulties in recent years, fallingbehind in flat-panel TV sales to rivals such as South Korea's Samsung, and in digital music players to Apple, it has remained a brand that continuesto exude an image of sophistication and quality. Sony also remains unique in having a Hollywood studio (now known as Sony Pictures), a music recording business (CBS), and the blockbuster PlayStation and PS2 video-games units that Olga helped develop, though some critics note that the company has never fully realised the benefits of owning both electronics and entertainment divisions.

Whatever the shortcomings, Sony's chairman Howard Stringer concluded: "By redefining Sony as a company encompassing both hardware and software, Ohga-san succeeded where other Japanese companies failed. It is no exaggeration to attribute Sony's evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader to Ohga-san's foresight and vision."

While at Sony and in retirement (from 2003), Ohga pursued his love of music and took the baton a few times as guest conductor of symphony orchestras. He compared leading a company to conducting an orchestra: "Just as a conductor must work to bring out the best in the members of his orchestra, a company president must draw on the talents of the people in his organisation." Ohga may have given up his opera career after falling asleep during a production of The Marriage of Figaro, but he continued to promote classical music in Japan by supporting young musicians and concerts.

Ohga received many awards, including the Japanese Medal of Honour with Blue Ribbon (1988), the Grand Cordon (1st Class) of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (2001) and France's Legion of Honour.

Norio Ohga, businessman: born Numazu, Shizuoka, Japan 29 January 1930; married 1957 Midori; died Tokyo 23 April 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003