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Sony, the big exporter, seeks a stake in imports, too

By Takashi OkaStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 1982


Anyone knows that Sony exports television sets, videotape recorders, hi-fi equipment, and a host of other electronic devices around the world.

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But not many know that Sony also imports helicopters from France, business jets, refrigerators, and dryers from the United States, kitchen cabinets from the Netherlands, and slicers and yogurtmakers from West Germany.

Imports were a modest proportion of Sony's total consolidated sales of $4.8 billion last year - 70 percent of which were overseas. They are not mentioned in Sony's annual report, and one company official thought they probably came to considerably less than 10 percent of exports.

Nevertheless, Sony is actively trying to create a distinct image within Japan for its imports, and it has set up the Sony Trading Corporation as a wholly owned subsidiary to specialize in this area.

The trading company grew out of a conversation Sony's chairman, Akio Morita, had with Tetsuro Yotsumoto, then Sony's export manager, more than 10 years ago. Americans and West Europeans were complaining at the time about Japan's export drive, but with nowhere near the degree of intensity one finds today.

''The day is bound to come,'' Mr. Morita told his export manager, ''that Americans and Europeans are going to accuse Japanese of being too sly - that all we do is export, that we just aren't willing to import.''

Sony, of course, as a maker of high-technology products, always had its eye on the international market, and in those days was deriving 65 percent of its sales income from overseas. ''We ought to look for something we can import, now, '' Mr. Morita said.

And so, as a first step, Sony took one-page ads in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading American newspapers, saying in big black type , ''Sony wants to sell US products in Japan.'' A few months later it ran similar ads in Britain, France, West Germany, Austria, and Italy.

The response was extraordinary. Three thousand proposals came from the United States, another thousand from Europe. Sony America was snowed under, and Mr. Yotsumoto had to send 10 staff members from headquarters in Japan to help out. Eventually, ''We sifted out about 200 products that we thought we could sell,'' said Mr. Yotsumoto said.

The items ranged from towels made by the US firm Fieldcrest to refrigerators and other large home appliances from Whirlpool, also an American manufacturer.

Japan has some of the biggest trading companies in the world - such as Mitsubishi - which import and export a wide range of products. There would be no point in Sony competing with these giants. ''So,'' Mr. Yotsumoto said, ''we decided we would concentrate on products that were unique in some way. Ten years ago Japan had no large refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners were in their infancy. So we imported Whirlpool refrigerators and Hoover vacuum cleaners, and we did very well with these for a couple of years.''

But then Japanese companies like Matsushita and Sanyo began to get into the act. For a while Whirlpool held its own, then gradually declined. Today Sony still imports Whirlpool machines, but these are almost exclusively large washing machines and dryers for use in coin laundries. And even here competition from Japanese manufacturers is getting stiff. Sanyo now has 50 percent of the coin-laundry market.