Japanese chief melds best of both worlds

''To succeed in America,'' said world businessman Akio Morita, ''you can't try to turn Americans into Japanese. You've got to combine the best Japanese methods with the best American methods.''

Mr. Morita should know. Chairman and chief executive officer of the Sony Corporation, he is equally at home in Tokyo and New York, Paris and Hong Kong. It's a legendary story of how he, inventive genius Masaru Ibuka, and a handful of fellow-engineers put $500 together just after World War II and started a company determined to create and sell unique electrical products.

Today Sony's annual turnover is $5 billion, and it makes and sells its audio and audiovisual products around the world. Sony was the first Japanese company to sell its shares on the New York Stock Exchange and one of the first to manufacture in the United States, Britain, and other countries outside Japan.

As one of a handful of Japanese business leaders known around the world, Mr. Morita is deeply conscious of the problems his fellow-countrymen face when they try to adapt operating methods proved successful at home to the wide world outside. In 1963, while executive vice-president of Sony, he took the unheard-of step of moving himself and his whole family to New York.

''To really go into the American market,'' he said in a recent interview, ''I myself had to really know America - I had to get into American society.''

He sent his two boys, then not speaking a word of English, to summer camp and settled down with his wife, Yoshiko, in an apartment on Fifth Avenue. The family remained in the United States for 18 months, time enough to sink roots and to see how everyday Americans who bought Sony products functioned.

One of the first shocks he received, Morita said, was to find out that in America management could fire an employee at any time. ''In Japan, a company is a kind of family and we think of employees as members of the family. Once they are hired, they are usually hired for life, but in Europe and America, I have the feeling that management thinks of its employees as a tool, as one of the means of production.''

He also found that, just as management could fire employees at will, so employees could quit at will. He found that job descriptions were very detailed and that employees were held rigorously to them, not being expected to do a bit more or a bit less. So, if an employee's abilities turned out to be somewhat different from those the job demanded, he would be replaced.

This also led to a great deal of justification on the part both of management and employee. ''If a person makes a mistake, he will be fired promptly. So justification is a very important factor for both the employee and the manager. In Japan, we do not have such a fear. Even if I make a mistake, nobody fires me , and if our employee makes a mistake we cannot fire him.''

Morita was also bewildered by the paramount importance of written contracts. The Japanese also have written contracts, the last part of which usually reads, ''If or when either party has a disagreement on this contract, both parties agree to sit down again in good faith to solve the problem.'' Morita recalls that his American lawyer was astounded by this clause. ''What does it mean?'' he asked. ''Once you have a disagreement how can you sit down and talk?'' American contracts, of course, provide for arbitration by a third party in cases of disagreement.

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