Tokyo — Anyone knows that Sony exports television sets, videotape recorders, hi-fi equipment, and a host of other electronic devices around the world.
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.
Sony trading operations became a constant search for the new and the unique, always trying to keep several steps ahead of the Japanese competition. Among its more recent successes have been commercial drying machines made by American Dryer Corporation in Fall River, Mass., and coin-operated dry cleaning machines from Dexter in Fairfield, Iowa. Yotsumoto is particularly hopeful about the Dexter machines. ''We sell 10 to 15 a month now, and we hope to increase the number to over 100 a month. It's a fairly complicated machine, so I don't think Japanese manufacturers can get into the field too easily.''
Sony has sent engineers to American Dryer and Dexter to help modify their products to suit the Japanese market, in terms of local safety regulations and finish, about which Japanese customers are particularly fussy. ''That is one of our strong points,'' Yotsumoto said. ''Since our parent company is a high-technology company, we have available to us an extremely sophisticated engineering staff. In this area no general trading company can compete with us.''
One of Mr. Yotsumoto's most recent imports is the Electrocurtain, made by Energy Sciences Inc. of Woburn, Mass. This is an energy-saving way of coating various surfaces by using high-energy electrons instead of conventional heat processing methods. Sony expects to sell the test model for about $200,000 and the production model for six to seven times as much.
One of Sony's advantages in distributing in Japan is that it already has a network of dealers for its own appliances. Many imports can be placed on this network. Other, small consumer goods are sold through a chain of specialty stores known as Sony Plaza. For nationwide distribution outside Tokyo and other major metropolitan areas, Sony relies on regional wholesalers.
''If the product is really unique, and if the quality is excellent, we usually have no difficulty placing it into domestic distribution channels,'' says Hiroyuki Mizutani, Sony's sales support manager.
With some products, however, Yotsumoto says he found quality control a major problem. He recalls finding that on one electrical appliance made by an American maker, the rejection rate was 13 percent (13 out of every 100 items imported were defective). This compared with a 2 percent reject rate for the same appliance made by Japanese manufacturers.
''We kept telling the American manufacturer time and again that we simply could not compete with domestic manufacturers with such a high reject rate. But the American manufacturer would not listen to us. He kept telling us that 13 percent was very good - it was better than his own American competitors. Eventually we had to stop selling this particular item.''
Importing goods into Japan, therefore, is not easy. Sony test-runs every single item brought in before putting it into the distribution network. This is time-consuming but essential, says Mr. Yotsumoto says.
''The Japanese customer is the fussiest in the world,'' he says. ''Unless a product is not only unique but also beautifully finished, he simply will not buy it.''
That, more than the complications of the distribution system itself, is what keeps many would-be imports off the shelves both of wholesalers and of retail outlets in Japan, Yotsumoto says.