Book: Sony by John Nathan

Very good and more illuminating than you might expect

John Nathan
Sony: The Private Life
Houghton Mifflin, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-89327-5
325 pages (main text)

I've said before that John Nathan is an excellent writer on Japan and that he's interesting enough for me to enjoy reading even on a subject that I'm not likely to be interested in. But it's going to be harder to write interestingly about the history of a corporation like Sony than to do the same with the life of a nutty author like Mishima. Making Sony's history interesting may be especially challenging these days since (with the possible exception of the cool new PSP), Sony seems not to be innovating much any longer. Happily, it turns out that Mr Nathan is very much up to the task.

The book covers the time from Sony's founding as the grandly-named Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute in 1945 until 1998. The book covers the events you'd expect: the start repairing radios in a devastated country, early successes, remarkable growth in Japan and America, the introduction of the Trinitron picture tube, the Walkman, and the CD (with the Dutch company Philips), the way that the Japanese business establishment viewed Sony as an upstart and then came to respect it, and so on. But you wouldn't get an interesting book from just describing those events. What makes the book interesting is the personalities involved with the company and their interactions. And it's there that Mr Nathan's skill in writing and knowledge of Japanese culture tells. For example, most Japanese folks have difficulty in thinking and acting like Americans, and to do business in America on the scale that Sony wanted to, Sony's executives had to do that. Mr Nathan makes clear just how remarkable Sony's early successes in America were.

Here's one of the smaller cultural clues that Mr Nathan's has to offer:

    The poignant truth is that "typical" Japanese are almost certainly not the
    people they appear to be when dealing with foreigners outside Japan in
    languages other than their own. As a nation, Japan is second only to the
    United States in its linguistic insularity: abroad, Japanese tend, even in
    the global nineties, to recede into a formal, tight-lipped impassivity that is
    actually a kind of resignation about ever making themselves understood.
    This unfortunate withdrawal is often misinterpreted as lifelessness.
    "Japanese humor," someone informed me knowingly, "is an oxymoron."
    In fact, Japan has one of the world's great comic traditions, both in
    literature and in performance. When they are at home among
    themselves, all Japanese love to laugh. (footnote, p. 81)

And there's much in the book to explain Sony's disastrous purchase of Columbia Pictures. One piece is the considerable success of the record company that was first a joint venture with CBS and later wholly owned by Sony. There's even a foreshadowing of Sony's current lack of innovation.

Sony should be interesting to anyone who's interested in Japanese culture as it affects international business, not just people interested in the history of the company.

There are a few small editing errors: "$20 million dollars" doesn't need a dollar-sign (p. 227). "A and R" should be expanded to "Artists and Repertoire" (p. 245). There's "verbal" where "oral" is needed (p. 204). And aircraft registration numbers don't have spaces in them and the letters in them are written in uppercase (p. 167).

Posted: Tue - December 28, 2004 at 08:46   Main   Category: