If it weren’t for a bout of pleurisy, there might have been no Walkman and the business world might have missed the person most like Steve Jobs.
Norio Ohga was born in 1930, the middle child of seven. World War II was raging as he turned thirteen and he would have been assigned to work in a munitions factory, except for the pleurisy. Instead, he recuperated at home.
While he was recovering, the artistic young man taught himself piano and the basics of calligraphy. His father was away, running a timber business in Hanoi, but young Norio was befriended by an older man who lived in the neighborhood.
Ichiro Iwai was an electrical engineer and a musician. He taught Ohga the basics of electronics and how to read both electrical diagrams and musical scores. Those two things would define Ohga’s life.
When the war was over, Ohga was one of only thirteen students accepted at the Tokyo University of the Arts Department of Voice where he studied opera and German Lieder. While he was there, he heard of a new tape recorder. He imagined that it would function for singers the way a mirror did for dancers.
He visited Tokyo Telecommunications, the company that would become SONY. Masaru Ibuka, a co-founder of SONY showed Ohga their tape recorder. Ohga pronounced the playback as “too distorted.” Ibuka described him as a young man with bad manners and an astonishing grasp of electronics.
Ohga returned to the university and convinced them to authorize the purchase of a tape recorder. Then he returned to Tokyo Telecommunications and demanded certain modifications before he would authorize the final purchase. He brought with him a detailed list of changes and wiring
The incident impressed Ibuka and brought Ohga to the attention of Akio Morita. They hired Ohga as a part-time consultant, while he finished his studies in Tokyo and then went on to study voice in Berlin and begin his opera career.
In 1959, they persuaded Ohga to join SONY full-time. First, he was in charge of tape recorders, but soon he was responsible for all new product designs. He was a tyrant, who would throw less-than-stellar designs across the room. Once he delayed the release of a new product because he didn’t like the shape of a control
Even though he gave credit for many things to Akio Morita, many say Ohga is responsible for many of SONY’s technical innovations including the Walkman, the CD, and the Playstation as well as the sleek look of SONY products. As president of the company, he tried to mate Japanese electronics with American entertainment content, by acquiring record companies and movie studios.
Norio Ohga was an amazing person, a combination of sensitive artist and hard-nosed businessman. He conceived and designed products that shaped the world and headed one of the world’s great companies. But he also was an accomplished singer, a jet pilot, and a symphony conductor, who often used that role as an example of leadership.
“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.”