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How Sony’s Akio Morita Changed Japan’s Image and Challenged America’s Dominance

For decades, Sony’s Akio Morita amassed a fortune by selling electronic products to the United States. He also developed a kind of arrogance.

In 1953, when Akio Morita embarked on his first overseas trip, he perceived the United States as a nation that “seemed to have everything”. The waiter brought him ice cream and remarked, “The little paper umbrella on this ice cream is produced in your country.” The waiter appeared to be implying that Japan was too far behind. But 30 years later, everything had changed. New York, which seemed “glamorous” when Morita first visited in the 1950s, was now filthy, crime-infested and bankrupt.

Meanwhile, Sony had become a global brand. Akio Morita redefined Japan’s image abroad. The country was no longer regarded as a producer of paper umbrellas for ice cream sundaes. Today, Japan manufactures some of the most advanced products in the world. Morita had a strong circle of friends on Wall Street and Washington. He painstakingly learned the art of New York dinner parties the same way other Japanese approach the traditional tea ceremony. Whenever Morita was in New York, he hosted the city’s wealthy and influential at his apartment at 82 Fifth Avenue, across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Morita was initially fascinated by the power and wealth represented by his American friends. But the aura around the likes of Kissinger and Peterson began to fade as America moved from one crisis to the next. Their country’s system didn’t work, but Japan’s system worked. By the 1980s, Akio Morita realized the deep-rooted problems of the American economy and society. The U.S. had long seen itself as Japan’s teacher, but Morita believed the U.S. should learn lessons as it struggled with a growing trade deficit and a crisis in the high-tech sector. Akio Morita said that the United States was “busy training lawyers”, while Japan was “busy training engineers”. Compared with American corporate executives who paid too much attention to “this year’s profit”, Japanese corporate management paid more attention to “long-term” profits. Labor relations in the United States were hierarchical and “old school,” and companies didn’t adequately train or motivate shop floor workers. Morita believed that Americans should stop complaining about Japan’s success. He decided it was time to tell his American friends: Japan’s system works better.

In 1989, Akio Morita expounded his views in a collection of essays entitled “Japan Can Say No.” Even the normally affable Morita had trouble hiding his belief that Japan’s technological prowess had given it a place among world powers.

In the US, “Japan Can Say No” sparked outrage. The book was translated and distributed unofficially by the CIA. An outraged congressman put the entirety of it in the Congressional Record for publicity. The bookstore said customers in Washington “went crazy” in their search for the bootleg book. Akio Morita coyly asked the official English translation to publish only Shintaro Ishihara’s article, not to reflect his contribution.

“Japan Can Say No” was controversial, not because of its views, but because of the facts. The US was significantly behind in memory chips. If this trend continued, geopolitical changes would inevitably follow. In the same year that “Japan Can Say No” was published, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown published an article that came to almost the same conclusion. “High technology is foreign policy,” Brown wrote in the article. If America’s high-tech status was deteriorating, then America’s foreign policy status was also at risk.

It was awkward for Brown to admit it. Brown, a former Pentagon leader, hired William Perry in 1977 and empowered him to put semiconductors and computing power at the heart of the military’s most important new weapons system. Brown and Perry had succeeded in convincing the U.S. military to accept microprocessors, but they didn’t anticipate that Silicon Valley would lose its lead. Their strategy paid off in new weapons systems, but many of them depended on Japan.

“Japan is leading in memory chips, which are at the heart of consumer electronics,” Brown acknowledged. “Japan is catching up quickly with the U.S. in logic chips and application-specific integrated circuits.” Japan is also making some of the types needed for chips. Tools such as lithography equipment have achieved a leading position. The best Brown could have foreseen was that the United States would protect Japan in the future, but with weapons powered by Japanese technology. The U.S. strategy of turning Japan into a transistor salesman seemed dead wrong.

源: 与必应的对话, 2023/6/7
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