Object Lesson

The recently deceased music-loving Sony boss Norio Ohga cared more about the art than the money

It took a year to arrange the meeting. Norio Ohga, chief executive of the Sony Corporation, was one of the busiest men on earth. But when he heard I was interested in the musical principles that guided his business conduct, he made time to see me in 1992.

At Sony’s steel-and-glass triangular headquarters in a dreary Tokyo suburb I was ushered down a silent corridor to a top-floor boardroom, where Ohga and a small entourage joined me at a long table. He was a tall man with a mellifluous voice; he had trained as a baritone and cut recordings on the Sony label (I had heard him soliloquise quite nicely in a Fauré Requiem).

He was a friend of Herbert von Karajan, who shared his fixations with high-tech, design and sonic perfection. Both learned to fly their own jets. Their friendship lasted literally to the death. Ohga was with Karajan as the maestro breathed his last, a sickbed scene he described for me in terse detail across the incongruous boardroom table.

At Sony they called Ohga “the tough customer” for his snap decisions to cancel a product, hours before launch, because a facia knob was the wrong shape. When he got home at night, he would sleep for just three hours, rising at 2am to study his scores with a view to becoming a conductor. He paid a million dollars to the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera for the chance to conduct a concert and made a private recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic. The players treated the performances as a rich man’s whimsy. It wasn’t. Ohga truly believed that conducting was his real vocation, Sony a tiresome duty. 

I taxed Ohga with running out of ideas. He snapped his fingers. One aide produced a portable phone small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, another a small screen with games on it. I couldn’t see the point of either device. Time was running out when my Professional Walkman, ten years old and never a blink, suffered an embarrassing case of microphone droop, sinking slowly in its cradle. Try as I might to restore its grip, the gadget was giving up its ghost.

Ohga clicked his fingers, emitting some curt Japanese syllables. Two aides left the room, returning moments later with a silver tray. On it was a simple screwdriver, the cheapest and commonest. The head of Sony took my microphone, tightened a hidden nut and replaced it on the table. Two decades later, it still works.

He died recently aged 81, saddened by the decline of his country and company. Ohga refused to accept defeat. He focused on making objects more than making money, and he would not let those objects leave the house until they were beautiful and note-perfect. Attend to the detail, he said, and success will follow. It’s a lesson Japan and the rest of us need to remember in this nervous year of reconstruction.

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