May 24, 2024

Norio Ohga, Who Led Sony Beyond Electronics, Dies at 81

The cause was multiple organ failure, the company said in a statement.

Mr. Ohga was the principal architect of Sony’s move beyond its stronghold of sleek consumer electronics gear and into music and movies. The biggest steps came when Sony bought CBS Records for $2 billion in 1988 and, a year later, Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion.

At the time, when Japan Inc. seemed unstoppable, those acquisitions — along with a Japanese real estate company’s purchase of most of Rockefeller Center — were symbols of Japan’s rising economic power and wealth. There was worried talk of the Japanese commercial “invasion” and the loss of American “cultural assets.”

But to Mr. Ohga the goal was a kind of industrial synthesis, marrying Sony’s technical wizardry in electronics with the West’s talent in entertainment. In a statement, Howard Stringer, the current chief executive of Sony, said it was Mr. Ohga’s vision that drove “Sony’s evolution beyond audio and video products into music, movies and game, and subsequent transformation into a global entertainment leader.”

Still, Mr. Ohga wanted to do more than expand Sony’s corporate empire. Linking electronics and entertainment, in his view, would increase the value of each and secure a lucrative future for Sony. “Hardware and software are two wheels on a car,” he explained repeatedly over the years.

There were good years in Sony’s media businesses. But the real payoff from the electronics hardware and the entertainment software, each lifting the sales of the other, proved elusive. When Mr. Ohga spoke of software, industry analysts say, he was thinking of the kind that comes from Hollywood, not Silicon Valley.

The vision Mr. Ohga championed for years, those analysts say, has come to fruition at Apple, in a different guise. That company, they note, has combined beautifully designed devices, like iPods and iPhones, with software for making media easy to consume and buy.

Apple does not own music companies or movie studios, but it controls an online marketplace where media are purchased.

“Sony was a great product company, and Ohga made it better,” said Michael A. Cusumano, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But Sony did not really get software or the Internet. That wasn’t Ohga’s domain.”

Born on Jan. 29, 1930, in Numazu, 80 miles west of Tokyo, Norio Ohga grew up in affluence, the son of a wealthy lumber trader. As a child he had pleurisy, an inflammation in the chest, so during the war years he was exempted from working at the nearby military factories, where many Japanese youths labored. Instead, he practiced the piano and took singing lessons.

“By the time I was 18 I knew I wanted to be a vocalist,” Mr. Ohga said in an interview with The New York Times in 1990. “So just after the war, I had to come to Tokyo.”

Mr. Ohga enrolled in the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and soon demonstrated his strong voice and his forceful opinions about a tape recorder that had just been introduced by the company that would become Sony. Mr. Ohga wrote a letter to Sony’s co-founder, Akio Morita, detailing the machine’s shortcomings for professional musicians and singers.

Mr. Morita, fascinated by the aspiring opera singer’s technical knowledge, met with him and signed him up as a part-time consultant. In 1954, Mr. Ohga left for West Germany to study music and to start a professional singing career that led to performances throughout Europe and Japan. Yet Mr. Morita kept Mr. Ohga on the payroll and stayed in touch.

In 1957, when Mr. Ohga married Midori Matsubara, a pianist he had met in Germany, Mr. Morita and Sony’s elder co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, attended the wedding.

Mr. Ohga eventually surrendered to Mr. Morita’s persistence. He joined Sony as a full-time employee in 1959.

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