June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

The young Tokyo businessman was astonished and ashamed on his first trip to the United States in 1953. “Made in Japan,” he discovered, was a synonym for cheap goods—usually dimestore toys and novelties. Akio Morita also noticed something else in his travels—almost every American town had its own radio station. There were hundreds of them with call letters from A to Z. “I saw a way,” says Morita, the urbane co-founder and chairman of Sony Corporation, “to change my country’s image.”

Did he ever. This spring Morita made his 150th trip across the international dateline. He appeared before business students at Columbia, Georgetown and the University of Chicago as the driving force behind an electronics empire with $2.1 billion a year in sales and as a leading spokesman for Japan’s powerful business community.

Sony posted record sales last year, boosted by the dramatic success of its $1,095 Betamax video recorder. At the same time, friendship between the U.S. and Japan was increasingly strained over the subject of trade. Morita, 57, is a man in the middle. The Carter administration, for example, has strongly objected to the practice by some Japanese steel and TV companies of “dumping”—selling at cut-rate prices in the U.S. This further increases Japan’s trade surplus and weakens the dollar.

“Instead of threatening protectionism,” argues Morita, “Mr. Carter should try harder to increase U.S. productivity.” When Sony opened a television plant in San Diego six years ago, domestic buyers worried that the sets would be of inferior quality. Morita found himself in the peculiar position of defending American workmanship. “It’s just as good,” he insists, “so long as the leadership is there.”

The man who helped cure his country’s postwar inferiority complex grew up in a wealthy family that had manufactured sake and soy sauce for 300 years. “My parents were unusually liberal for those days,” recalls Morita. They allowed him to forsake the family business for engineering.

In the last year of World War II army lieutenant Morita was assigned to help a brilliant young engineer, Masaru Ibuka, develop a heat-seeking bomb. Before they succeeded, the war was over. So Morita and Ibuka scraped together $500 and set up the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp. First year’s profit: $278. (Now Morita, who owns about 10 percent of Sony’s stock, is estimated to be worth some $160 million.)

In 1957 they moved into the U.S. with the first pocket-size transistor. Earlier the two men had decided their radios needed a catchy Western name. “We were still a couple of sonny boys,” laughs Morita, “and the root son is from the Latin for ‘sound.’ ” They settled on Sony.

The company today has no limit on the research and development budget. Morita and Ibuka (now 70 and honorary chairman) simply pump money into a product until it works. “That is what’s wrong in America,” says Morita. “Unless something shows a profit right away, it’s dropped.”

With 20,000-plus employees in 170 countries, Morita travels ceaselessly, often accompanied by his wife, Yoshiko, a modern art enthusiast. In 1963 they moved into a lavish Fifth Avenue apartment and stayed for two years “to learn what makes these Americans tick.”

Today their three children are pursuing careers in different corners of the globe. Hideo, 25, in Osaka, is a salesman with CBS-Sony, one of Japan’s largest recording companies. Masao, 23, is a senior at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., while the Moritas’ 21-year-old daughter, Naoko, is studying art in Paris.

Papa-san’s eye is always on new markets and ways to conquer them. Sony’s latest breakthrough is a color TV camera that uses a semiconductor instead of the traditional pickup tube. The hand-held camera could be on the market by next year, making home TV programs as commonplace as home movies. “It is the ultimate Sony product,” Morita smiles, “until we come up with something better.”

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