Founder of Sony empire retires after stroke: The maverick businessman who gave the world the Walkman was also adept at stoking controversy, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

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AKIO MORITA, chairman of Sony and Japan's best-known businessman, is retiring from all business responsibilities after suffering a stroke, a Sony executive said yesterday. The 72-year-old Mr Morita, who gave the world the Walkman and co-wrote the book The Japan that can say No, is in intensive care in a Tokyo hospital after a four-hour operation for a brain tumour on Tuesday.

The news of Mr Morita's illness was kept quiet for two days, but the stock market reacted calmly yesterday, and Sony's share price closed slightly up on the day. Sony's vice-president, Tsunao Hashimoto, said Mr Morita was in good condition after the operation, but that for the time being he was giving up all business activities under doctors' orders. He said Mr Morita's illness would not affect Sony's business operations, which were being run by Norio Ohga, the president.

Within Japan's conservative business world Mr Morita has been regarded as a maverick for speaking his mind on both American and Japanese business practices. But more than any other Japanese businessman he has become known internationally and his frank uncompromising style has set him apart from the stereotype of a reserved, non-committal Japanese businessman.

Mr Morita was born in Nagoya in 1921. His father had intended that he take over the sake brewing business, which had been in the family for 15 generations. Instead, in 1946, in a small office on the third floor of a bomb-damaged department store in Tokyo, he put together dollars 500 with Masaru Ibuka, an engineer, and founded what was to become Sony Corporation.

In 1950 the company began making its first successful product - transistor radios - with technology licensed from the US. It then gained a reputation for miniaturising and perfecting Western technological inventions and bringing them successfully to the market.

This experience gave Mr Morita one of his first insights into the decline of industry in the US and Europe. He warned repeatedly that managers and financiers were elevated too far above the shopfloor, while engineers and technicians who were responsible for new products were given little status or recognition.

He also began to criticise US complacency about its position in the world economy long before Americans woke up to their own relative decline in the business world. 'If you go through life convinced that your way is always best, all the new ideas in the world will pass you by,' he wrote in his autobiography, Made in Japan.

Under Mr Morita Sony internationalised its operations, long before many of its Japanese competitors. Today 70 per cent of its sales and more than half of its production is overseas. Mr Morita has concentrated particularly on the US: the electronic hardware his company manufactures - audio and video equipment - depends heavily on entertainment software from the US.

In 1987 he bought CBS records for dollars 2bn and in 1989 he shocked Hollywood by paying dollars 3.4bn for Columbia Pictures. This gave rise to hysteria that Japan was steadily buying up the world, but Mr Morita's response was blunt: 'If you don't want Japan to buy it, don't sell it.'

In 1989 he co-wrote the controversial The Japan that can say No with a notorious right-winger, Shintaro Ishihara. The portions of the book written by Mr Morita argued strongly that the US should regain its competitiveness against Japanese industry to reduce trade tensions between the two countries. The book became a best-seller in Japan, but Mr Morita had his name removed from the English translation and tried to distance himself from it because of the international attention its nationalistic undertones received.

Last year, however, Mr Morita turned his guns inward. In a widely read article in the Bungei Shunju magazine, the Sony chief argued that it was time for Japanese business practices to be reformed. People should work fewer hours and receive higher wages and corporations should concentrate more on profits rather than simply expanding market share to strangle competitors. If they did not become more like Western businesses, Japanese companies would become pariahs on the world stage, he said.