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Sony: The Private Life Hardcover – September 28, 1999

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (September 28, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395893275
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395893272
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,203,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Sony's cofounders, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, met near the end of World War II. Ibuka was an engineer with a childlike love for gadgetry and technology; Morita, a pragmatic physicist who arranged to be away from his military unit on the day Japan surrendered, fearful that all officers would be ordered to commit ritual suicide. (He guessed correctly.) Together they founded Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Co., Ltd., the forerunner of Sony, in 1946, using loans from Morita's wealthy family for startup capital. But even that wasn't as simple as it seems. First, Morita had to be released from his obligation, as first-born son, to take over the family sake business. The very Japaneseness of that moment goes a long way toward illustrating the exotic charm of Sony: The Private Life.

John Nathan is a professor of Japanese culture at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and speaks and understands the nuanced Japanese like a native. He was given extraordinary access to Sony employees, and found some of them telling him company secrets that had never been revealed to outsiders. (In international business, the electronics giant has traditionally been regarded as a black hole; information goes in, but it never comes out.) From these intimate revelations, he tells a story of a company that to Western observers always seemed like a bottom-line-oriented conglomerate. The reality, he writes, is that Sony has always operated via intense personal relationships and loyalties--in that sense, in a very Japanese way. Even the company's disastrous decision to buy Columbia Pictures came from top Sony executives' desire to honor Morita, who'd always wanted to own a movie studio. Although that decision ultimately cost Sony billions of dollars, it pleased the man who mattered. --Lou Schuler

From Publishers Weekly

Readers should be thankful that the most thorough history of Sony yet written comes from a writer steeped in Japanese culture rather than in business. Nathan, a professor of Japanese cultural studies at UC-Santa Barbara, gives a human dimension to the Japanese electronics giant, especially to its cofounders, Masaru Ibuka (the dreamer) and Akio Morita (the pragmatist), who, according to Ibuka's son, were linked by a bond of friendship and collegiality that made them "closer than lovers." Nathan had the full cooperation of Sony, including access to top officials and archives. Yet this is no puff-piece, but rather a fascinating account of how Sony succeeded despite such setbacks as the failure of Betamax and the disastrous $4.7 billion purchase of Columbia Pictures. At the center of the story are Ibuka and Morita, who strove to make Sony accepted and respected beyond Japan, especially in the U.S. Some of the most absorbingAand even poignantAsections concern the cultural divide between Japan and America. Nathan focuses on the interpersonal relationships among the company's leaders to examine what made the company tick. In addition to the interplay between Ibuka and Morita, Nathan documents the rise of Norio Ohga as the successor to the cofounders and also devotes a considerable amount of time to the relationship between Ohga and Mickey Schulhof, the highest-ranking American Sony officer before he was fired by the current Sony president Nobuyuki Idei. By mixing interviews with Sony executives with his own insights, Nathan provides readers with a thorough and entertaining history of the company that rose out of the ashes of WWII to embody Japan's postwar resurrection. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

It is well written.
Henry Alterman
Nathan delves into the creation of Sony's highly profitable Trinitron line and the birth of the Walkman.
J. Straub
Smooth read, flows nicely.
Scott Singer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Ernest Kim on February 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover
While this is ostensibly a book about business (it is categorized as such), it is really a book about people and the complex personal and social relationships that were a part of Sony's rise from an unknown engineering company born out of the rubble of post WWII Japan to one of the largest and well recognized companies in the world.
Mr. Nathan does a remarkable job of providing the reader with a palpable feel for the personalities intimately involved in the Sony story, particularly those of the Japanese leaders who drove the birth and growth of Sony as a global power. This is something that is all too rare in business texts on Japanese corporations and makes the insights provided by this book all the more valuable. By the story's end we feel almost as though we know personally Masaru Ibuka, Akio Morita, and Norio Ohga, the men who lived and made Sony. What we come to realize is that in Japan, contrary to initial appearances, business is driven by social and personal considerations as least as much, if not moreso, than business considerations.
While this book will be valuable for anyone doing business in Japan or with a Japanese company, it's appeal is much broader than the executive suite. It's a story that will appeal to anyone who has dreamed of building something greater than themselves. As Nobuyuki Idei would say, the "Digital Dream Kids".
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Jay Tannenbaum on December 11, 1999
Format: Hardcover
There are many books that chronicle Industrial Design, but very few give even a glimpse behind the closed doors of one of Japan's "thousand-year companies." Dr. Nathan is truly an insider. His understanding of the subtle nuance of Japanese culture and how global business really works makes for great reading. I recommend it to anyone interested in building a company from scratch into the best-loved brand in the world. I read Sony: The Private Life in one sitting - the best business book I've ever read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Luc REYNAERT on September 4, 2003
Format: Paperback
This book doesn't tell the story of the company SONY, but the career of the people who created and ran it: the Morita's, Ibuka, Ohga, Idei and some US officers - Schulhof, Yetnikoff.
The portraits are very favourable, nearly and sometimes really hagiographies (e.g. 'Yoshiko's genius as a hostess' p. 80)
For a more critical portrait of Akio Morita, see Ian Buruma's 'The Missionary and the Libertine'.
Sony is evidently a big success story, but it is also a tale of egos, ambitions, stress, clashes, strokes, heart attacks and fear of death (Akio Morita: I'll never die).
John Nathan gives us a good picture of the defeated Japan after WWII.
The Columbia saga is well told, but is better unravelled in Nancy Griffin's 'Hit and Run'.
The real story behind the loss of the crucial video battle is not revealed.
A good character study of the people who created a world company from scratch.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J. Straub on August 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
Many business books focus exclusively on the physical evidence left behind by a business: the profit and loss statements, product plans and reviews while ignoring the essence of the company. In Sony: The Private Life, Nathan goes far beyond the polished exterior that Sony projects to the world; far beyond simplicity of the money that Sony made and spent. Instead he presents Sony as the complex creature that it is.
The book combines interviews with Sony executives and extensive research. From the first day in post WWII Japan to mid-1998 with offices worldwide, Nathan chronicles the growth of the company. Special attention is paid to how Sony designs and develops products. Nathan delves into the creation of Sony's highly profitable Trinitron line and the birth of the Walkman. Attention is paid to how Sony desires to be consistently different-and-better than its competition, though in some cases, the result is simply being different.
Unfortunately, Nathan seems to walk the company walk in some cases, not delving into controversial subjects as deeply as readers might like. This may, simply, be due to the lack of additional sources on the subject, as much of the book is spent discussing activities that occurred far from the public view. However, as Nathan had already completed several projects for Sony before writing the book, one has to question whether he was able to maintain complete objectivity. In fact, sometimes, Nathan seems more awful of Sony and the Sony founders than he describes most Sony employees as being.
Overall, Sony: The Private Life is an exceptional book. It provides valuable insight into the operations and management style of a Japanese company. Moreover, Nathan's attention to the players, as opposed to simply the company, allows readers understanding to go far beyond that provided by most business books. If you want to understand Sony or Japanese corporations in general, this is the book to buy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ping Lim on May 12, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was fascinated with Sony the day Walkman was brought into this world. Then, I was only a boy & Walkman was the in-thing in South East Asia. After that, it seemed Sony grew from strength to strength. I always wanted to know an in-depth story about Sony but never came across a material which is as good & as true as Sony: The Private Life written by John Nathan. Initially, I thought that the book was to be written in academic form but to my pleasant surprise, it was written like a good novel. We were told in detail of the founders, the proteges who were chosen to lead the company but subsequently, some fallen out with Sony & some went all the way. We were also given a feel of power struggle within the firm, culture clashes, xenophobia (particularly the acquition of Columbia Pictures), abuse of power & goodwill by film moguls towards Sony, personalities of various kinds. Several products were mentioned as they formed the basis of Sony today such as the world-famous Trinitron TV, Walkman, HandyCam. Overall, a very good book to read. I never expected it to make me laugh, tense, sad, pensive but it did exactly just that.
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