After his recent death, Noria Ohga’s life story is revisited. A man, not necessarily known by his name, but definitely by his accomplishments. His visions helped to create the Compact Disk, but will be remembered by so much more.
Ohga had graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1953 and Berlin University of the Arts in 1957. He was set to pursue a career as a baritone opera singer when Sony co-founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, intrigued by his complaints about the sound quality of Sony tape recorders, recruited him to the company. He was a Sony executive by his 30s, a rarity in a Japanese company. He was appointed president of CBS Sony Records in 1970, chairman of what later became Sony Corporation of America in 1988, and chief executive of Sony in 1989. He left the day-to-day business in about 2000.
As a young man, aspiring opera singer Norio Ohga wrote to Sony to complain about the quality of its tape recorders. That move changed the course of his life, as the company promptly recruited the man whose love of music would shape the development of the compact disc and transform the Japanese electronics maker into a global software and entertainment empire.
Sony's president and chairman from 1982 to 1995, Ohga, 81, died Saturday in Tokyo of multiple organ failure.
Ohga's connection to music steered his work. The flamboyant music connoisseur insisted the CD be designed at 12 centimeters (4.8 inches) in diameter to hold 75 minutes worth of music - in order to store Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its entirety.
From the start, Ohga recognized the potential of the CD's superior sound quality. In the 1970s, when Ohga insisted CDs would eventually replace record albums, skeptics scoffed. Sony sold the world's first CD in 1982 and CDs overtook LP record sales in Japan five years later. The specifications are still used today and fostered the devices developed since.
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. Some decisions made during Ohga's presidency, such as the $3.4 billion purchase of Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures, were criticized as unwise and costly at the time. But Ohga's focus on music, films and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony's success in his era. Ohgas claimed the big secret to Sony’s success was that they were always chasing after things that other companies would not touch.
Shattering the stereotype of the Japanese executive, the debonair Ohga was never shy, his hair neatly slicked back, his boisterous manner exuding the fiery air of an artist. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony's image at a time when Japan had global ambitions. Ohga is remembered as an outgoing, international-minded executive who could talk about business and a wide variety of music. He was very outgoing, was always talking, always smiling and laughing.
An experienced pilot, Ohga at times flew the plane himself for business trips. A gourmet, he boasted about his roast beef. His hobby was cruising on his yacht and was thought to use car shipping.
Chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, he continued to conduct there a few times a year. In 1993, he conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in a charity event funded by Sony.
Ohga often compared leading a company to conducting an orchestra. He felt that 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 organization.
Sony started amid the destruction and poverty after World War II and built itself on the popularity of transistor radios, the Walkman, the Trinitron TV, the CD - shaping the history of modern electronics.
The company says he was key in building the Sony brand, especially working on design, as well as quality, to make products that looked attractive to consumers.
Ohga had tried to lead a double life of artist and Sony man. One day, he dozed off from exhaustion in the stage wings while waiting to go on in the "The Marriage of Figaro," rushed in from the wrong direction and watched his embarrassed co-stars stifling giggles. He gave up his opera career but still promoted classical music in Japan by supporting young musicians and concerts.
He will be greatly missed by his wife, Midori, and those at Sony who saw him as an innovative, businessman. A private wake is currently being planned.