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The Evolution of Walkmankind
A team of misfit engineers built the gadget. But we consumers built the future with it.
Forty-three years ago this month, in June of 1980, the Walkman arrived in the United States. I’d like to celebrate this moment in history with an epic image taken for the May 1981 issue of the Japanese edition of Playboy magazine. Alas, this feature didn’t make the cover. Instead, the “Nude Blossom Issue” showcased fourteen pages of the actress Keiko Sekine. (Or so I am told. I only read Playboy for the articles about home electronics.)
The Walkman article focused on how this epoch-making product emerged not out of any grand, corporate strategy, but rather the efforts of a bunch of hira-shain (平社員), the term for lowly employees at the bottom of a company’s pecking order. (This thesis sort of falls apart when you realize the white-haired gent sitting front and center is Sony’s co-founder and then chairman Akio Morita, but it’s a Playboy article, framed in terms of advice for the young lads who feel stuck in their own dreary corporate positions.)
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That being said, based on my research for Pure Invention, I find Playboy’s account to be fairly accurate. It goes something like this: A group of young Sony engineers were fiddling around with a product called the Pressman in their spare time. This was a handheld tape deck with a built-in microphone and internal speaker, intended for journalists or anyone else who needed to quickly and easily record and play back voice recordings. One of the engineers wired a stereo jack into a Pressman. This allowed a pair of headphones to be connected to it. Word of this new arrangement made it to Sony’s other co-founder, chairman of the board Masaru Ibuka, a legendary engineer in his own right. Ibuka mentioned it to Morita, who went to see it for himself, and the metaphorical lightbulb lit up over his head.
What sounds like a eureka moment is actually less so when you realize how unconfident Morita was in the gadget’s prospects. He brought in a bunch of young employees and asked them what they thought of the contraption, then dubbed simply the “stereo tape recorder.” He asked the assembled: did they think Sony could sell even a couple of tens of thousands of these things as a novelty? Say, to kids who didn’t want to bother their folks while studying? The answer was an unequivocal no!
It seems a little hard to fathom in hindsight. Looking back, we know that the “stereo tape recorder” was far more than a novelty. The Walkman transformed the way we listen to music, the way we spend time together and alone. It gave us an audio escape hatch, a “do not disturb sign,” a way to fast-forward through the slow moments of our days. You can even argue that it redefined what it means to be human in the modern era, given how many of us are plugged into its descendent smartphones and tablets. From waking till we finally nod off in front of the pale screen-light every night, the Walkman legacy is on our person. For better and for worse.
But Sony’s engineers envisioned none of this. Not its youngsters, not even its erstwhile chairpeople, both veterans of the industry with decades of experience. How could they? It was a tape recorder with a pair of headphones sticking out of it. None of this was cutting-edge. Sony didn’t invent audiocassettes or tapedecks or featherweight headphones. Their engineers just reassembled them in a new way.
Still, Morita was canny enough to trust his gut. He ignored the results of that brainstorming session and took charge of the team himself. Today we know that what became the Walkman was a smashing success, to the tune of a hundred million units in the first decade. But the bottom line is that when it first manifested in front of him, Morita had no idea how the tape of fate would spool out, so to speak. Nor, it seems, did any of the employees around him. They just knew they had something interesting and ran with it. Morita didn’t create the Walkman, but he midwifed its birth by giving the team the luxury of play. Though working under the arduous constraints he set – miniaturizing and manufacturing at a price point low enough to entice young consumers – undoubtedly didn’t feel much fun at all.
This is something I heard again and again when I was researching and interviewing creators for Pure Invention. I was a little surprised to learn that not a single one of those inventors had any idea that what they were creating might transform the world. Not Matsuzo Kosuge, who hammered tin cans into the toy Jeeps that jump-started Japan’s consumer economy after the war's end. Not Osamu Tezuka, who revolutionized illustrated storytelling by incorporating cinematic techniques into manga. Not Shigeichi Negishi, who produced the first karaoke machine. Not Yuko Shimizu, who drew Hello Kitty for Sanrio. Not even the architects of the Nintendo Entertainment System, who assumed their plaything would run its course in three years like every other toy fad before.
What they had in common was a sense that they were onto something, a drive to make the thing right in front of them the best they could, no matter the circumstances. Lack of materials? Lack of budget? Lack of time? Any of these could, and probably should, have been deal-breakers. But to these Japanese creators the challenges proved nourishment, fueling more creative solutions, whether they were making a toy, drafting an illustration, or designing a piece of electronic gear. Even for game-makers, that was the real game. Whatever might come later was gravy. “The public does not know what is possible,” Morita wrote in his memoir. “We do.” He was writing about Sony, of course, but he could have been writing about Japanese craftsmanship as a whole. Play hard and the customer will follow. Hopefully.
On the one hand, the realization that nobody, even pros like Morita, have any idea what will or won't be a hit might sound a little defeatist, even nihilistic. It sounds a little like working your ass off without any promise of recognition. But such is the lot of the working artist-craftsperson-entrepreneur. And truly, I don’t see this as a negative. In fact I see it as empowering. If the greatest minds of Japan’s greatest electronics company couldn’t imagine what the Walkman would become, then there’s no need to second guess our own creations. We all have an equal opportunity to make something great. All we have to do is focus on the task of creating, for its own sake, whatever form that might take for each one of us.
For despite what Morita wrote about the public in his autobiography, the divide between creator and consumer, maker and user, is a lot fuzzier than it might first appear. The Japanese market has always been ahead of the curve this way, from electronics to comics to fashions. Fans become pros. Consumers become collaborators. The creative impulse can be imperious – you’re imposing your vision on the world, after all. But consumers can be equally so, imposing their vision on the products in ways even the creators couldn’t have anticipated. And Japan, that consumer utopia, has long been home to some of the most sophisticated customers and fans in the world. Just like craftspeople, they’re playing a game, too, even if they don’t all realize it. This dialog, between discriminating creator and discriminating customer, is the beating heart of Japan’s creative engine.
So we have a portable stereo that was originally intended as a study aid. Instead, it took off among Tokyoites (and later New Yorkers) as something totally unexpected: a new form of fashion, even a status symbol. None of Sony’s first round of marketing materials even hinted at this angle; their campaign was all about – actually, I’m not sure what it was about, other than kimonos and spandex.
In two of the world’s biggest cities, the Walkman emerged as more than a listening device. It became an accessory for a night on the town, or an afternoon on roller-skates. No joke: this image of heartthrob Hideki Saijo, from a feature in a popular teen magazine, sent Walkman sales into the stratosphere in Japan. (Sure it’s a setup — who rollerskates on grass? But who cares. I like to imagine he’s listening to “Young Man,” his Japanese-language rendition of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”)
As someone who grew up lusting after various iterations of the thing, I could go on and on about the Walkman (and have at length, in Pure Invention and elsewhere!). It’s an incredible lens for looking at tech development, soft power, product design, consumer innovation, postwar history, urban culture, and many other fields (such as “dropping the ball,” as Sony did when it later failed to create the equivalent of an iPod or iPhone despite having all of the know-how and resources to do so.) But for me, the biggest takeaway — the biggest inspiration — of the Walkman is that it exemplifies how innovation doesn’t mean trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s about play: putting old parts together in new ways that delight creator and consumer both.
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