Norio Ohga, using a Sony Handycam at a Berlin construction site in 1995,… (Lutz Schmidt, Reuters )
Former Sony President and Chairman Norio Ohga, who gave up a career as an opera singer to join the fledgling consumer electronics maker in the 1950s and later led its expansion from hardware to software and entertainment and developing the compact disc, died Saturday. He was 81.
Ohga, who led the company from 1982 to 1995, died of multiple organ failure in Tokyo, Sony said.
Some decisions made during Ohga's presidency, such as the $3.4-billion purchase of Columbia Pictures, were criticized as unwise and costly at the time. But Ohga's focus on music, films and video games as a way to enrich the electronics business helped create Sony's success in his era.
"We are always chasing after things that other companies won't touch," Ohga said in 1998. "That is a big secret to our success."
The flamboyant music connoisseur steered his work through his love of music. Ohga insisted the CD be designed at 4.8 inches in diameter — or 75 minutes' worth of music — to store Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in its entirety.
From the start, Ohga recognized the potential of the CD's superior sound quality. Sony sold the world's first CD in 1982 and CDs overtook LP record sales in Japan five years later. The specifications are still used today and shaped formats of devices developed since.
Shattering the stereotype of the staid Japanese executive, the debonair Ohga was never shy, his hair neatly slicked back, his boisterous manner exuding the fiery yet naive air of an artist. His persona added a touch of glamour to Sony's image at a time when Japan had global ambitions.
Ohga was set to pursue a career as a baritone opera singer when Sony co-founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, intrigued by his complaints about the sound quality of Sony tape recorders, recruited him to the company.
Ohga tried to lead a double life of artist and Sony man. He eventually gave up his opera career but never gave up promoting classical music in Japan.
Born Jan. 29, 1930, in Numazu, Japan, Ohga graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in 1953 and Berlin University of the Arts in 1957.
He was an executive by his 30s, a rarity in a Japanese company. He was appointed president of CBS Sony Records in 1970, chairman of what later became Sony Corp. of America in 1988 and chief executive of Sony in 1989.
The company says he was key in building the Sony brand, especially working on design, as well as quality, to make products that looked attractive to consumers.
Sony started amid the destruction and poverty after World War II and built itself on the popularity of transistor radios, the Walkman, the Trinitron TV and the CD — shaping the history of modern electronics.
It has encountered difficulty in recent years, as it fell behind in flat-panel TVs to rivals such as Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea, as well as in digital music players to Apple Inc.
Sony remains unique in having a Hollywood studio (now known as Sony Pictures), a music recording business, and the PlayStation video game unit, despite some critics' complaints that it has never fully realized the benefits of owning both electronics and entertainment divisions.
Ohga remained a senior advisor to Sony but since about 2000 had not been involved in the company's day-to-day business.
Chairman of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 1999, he continued to conduct there a few times a year. He suffered a stroke in 2001 while conducting the Tokyo Philharmonic at the Beijing International Music Festival.
He is survived by his wife, Midori.