Obituary: Masaru Ibuka
Monday 22 December 1997
In the land of the "economic miracle" the Japanese themselves coined the term "economic animal" to define what they perceived as their role in the jungle of international trade and industry. Masaru Ibuka, the co- founder of one of post-war Japan's industrial giants, was no animal. He was the blessed exception, a human genius of a kind that is becoming increasingly rare. He belonged to an endangered species, preserved in his natural habitat, the Sony factory.
Ibuka was educated at Waseda Senior High School and Waseda University, where he made his mark as a research engineer in the photochemical laboratory. While he was working there, in the years 1933-37, his first brilliant invention was a form of neon called "modulated light transmission system". This won a prize at the 1933 Paris Exhibition. He was described as a "student inventor of genius". It was a form of imaginative intuition that gave him his flashes of inventive inspiration.
This unique insight is almost an artistic gift, and is rare in Japan, as he discovered in his post as manager of the Radio Telegraphy Department of Japan Audio Optical Industrial Corporation, from 1937 to 1940, and as managing director of the Japan Measuring Apparatus Co, 1940 to 1945. In May 1946, Ibuka founded Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Co), which was to become the Sony Corporation.
The Japanese economy after the Second World War was in a state of complete collapse. The company was capitalised at only 190,000 yen and employed 36 people. Management policy was to keep the company to a workable size, and not to chase grandiose ambitions. At the modest party celebrating the company's foundation, Masaru Ibuka made a speech, saying: "We can never achieve anything if we try to do things as big companies do. But there are lots of empty commercial slots we could occupy in electronics technology.
"What people call `business' is, I think, the ability to create things with necessary effort, so that we can earn money wiping the sweat from our brows."
Ibuka had a very pure sense of business, and claimed that he had almost no management ability, and few ideas about how to make lots of money. But he possessed the wonderful human gift of being able to attract the right kind of collaborators, those rare people with talent and imagination. Among them was Akio Morita, who was to take over from Ibuka as Sony's chairman, and a number of young "disciples". Working for Ibuka was like joining a sect.
Yet the development of the company was a sequence of failures and successes. Ibuka's first bright idea was to create an electrically heated carpet, ideal for spreading on chilly tatami, and it sold very well. But it had no thermostat, and no adiabatic material, and he was worried in case one caused a fire. Then the main hall of Horyuji Temple in Nara was burnt down by an electric "sitting mat" of the same type - not made by Ibuka's firm; so he stopped making the product.
The company's first big success was the creation of the first Japanese tape recorder. Ibuka started painting metallic tape with a magnetic substance, a paste that was initially applied to the tape by hand, with brushes made from the hairs of tanuki, the beloved Japanese badger. It was first produced in February 1949, and gradually gained world-wide renown. They also made a very high-quality tape recorder called "Betamax", but this was a failure. These ideas came from Ibuka's long experience in the photochemical laboratory.
From his early career in electrical engineering he developed a transistor radio, another huge success that led to Sony's becoming a world-wide enterprise with production outlets in the United States, Great Britain, Holland, Hong Kong and many other countries. The item entered world history when the prime minister of Japan, Eisaku Sato, visited France and greeted de Gaulle with the gift of a Sony transistor, whereupon de Gaulle called him "the transistor salesman".
Ibuka supervised the team that invented the Trinitron TV System in 1967, the first high-quality colour transmission technique. His company, officially known as the Sony Corporation from 1958, produced among other things the stereo "Walkman" headphone that became such an essential part of youth culture. With Philips, Sony later co-developed several products, including compact discs.
Masaru Ibuka was twice married. For his second wife, he chose a woman he had been in love with since his youth. This remarriage, after a waiting period of 30 years, was regarded in Japan as highly romantic, and Ibuka was called "the last romanticist to be born in the Meiji Era". But he had many other titles and honorary awards; he was a Foreign Associate of the British Academy and the recipient of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (First Class), the Order of the Polar Star (First Class), the Order of the Rising Sun (First Class) and the Ministry of Education's Order of Merit. He was also president of the Boy Scouts of Nippon, and his last title at Sony, dedicated to him with awe and respect, was Supreme Founder and Consultant.
Ibuka was enthusiastic about early education in childhood, hoping thus to develop a generation of inventors, and wrote two books on the subject, Zero sai ji ("The Zero-Year Child", 1970) and Kindergarten is Too Late (1971). After collapsing with arhythmia in 1992, he was confined to a wheelchair, where his favourite occupation was listening to company reports.
With Ichiro Honda and Kohnosuke Matsushita, Masaru Ibuka formed the grand trio of famed Japanese industrialists. An artless, endearing human being, he chased a dream and realised it. Economic Animal Farm will never be the same without him.
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