Feature

Norio Ohga, 1930–2011

The opera singer who created the compact disc

In the late 1940s, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo—a startup later renamed Sony—released Japan’s first reel-to-reel tape recorder. Music student Norio Ohga was not impressed with the machine’s wobbly sound. “A ballet dancer needs a mirror to perfect her style,” he wrote in a letter to the firm. “A singer needs the same, an aural mirror.” Impressed by his insights, Sony co-founder Akio Morita hired the outspoken singer as a part-time consultant.

Ohga soared up the ranks at Sony, eventually serving as president from 1982 to 1995 and chairman from 2000 to 2003. He expanded the company beyond electronics, buying CBS Records in 1988 and, a year later, Columbia Pictures. The son of a wealthy timber merchant, he had originally dreamed of becoming an opera singer, and at the end of World War II enrolled at Tokyo’s National University of Fine Arts and Music. However, Sony snapped him up “before he could capitalize on his training as a baritone,” said the London Independent.

He became an executive in his early 30s, almost unheard of in Japan.  As head of the firm’s design center, he demanded that all Sony products receive a sleek black finish to set them apart in the marketplace. In the 1970s, he worked closely with engineers developing the compact disc and “insisted the CD be designed at 4.8 inches in diameter—or 75 minutes’ worth of music—to store Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety,” said the Los Angeles Times. By 1987, five years after their debut, CDs were outselling LPs in Japan.

Ohga often threatened to quit Sony and return to music. “He never did, but owning a major music company had its privileges,” said The New York Times. Ohga wielded the baton at the Boston, Pittsburgh, and Vienna symphony orchestras, and in 1999 became chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic, which he regularly conducted.

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