The man behind Panasonic

A statue of Panasonic’s visionary founder, Matsushita, at the company’s headquarters in Kadoma, Osaka in Japan.

Panasonic, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, was skyrocketed to success by its iconic founder, Konosuke Matsushita.

A STATUE of Tan Sri Konosuke Matsushita beckons visitors to the headquarters of Panasonic Corporation in Kadoma City, which is about an hour’s drive from Osaka, Japan.

The statue has a right hand extended out so some visitors take photos with him, making it look like he is shaking their hands.

Next to the statue is the Panasonic Museum which is ­dedicated to Matsushita who founded the electronics company 100 years ago.

Panasonic is one of Japan’s ­largest and well-known electronics corporations with a strong ­presence in Asia, as well as in the United States, Middle East and Europe.

In Malaysia, the firm’s products, formerly known as National, was a household name for many ­decades.

The museum was set up to ­preserve the ideals of Matsushita for future generations.

It attracts droves of local and ­foreign visitors who want to get a glimpse of the many products designed by him and his team in the early years.

In March, Panasonic took pressmen from Malaysia and several other ­countries for a tour of the museum in conjunction with the company’s 100th anniversary. They were briefed by the museum associate director Satoshi Ishida and other officers.

Humble beginnings

Matsushita, born in 1894, started off as an apprentice to a hibachi (charcoal brazier) maker at the ­tender age of nine and then as an apprentice in a bicycle shop a year later.

He quit school just before his 10th birthday on the instruction of his father to work at Miyata Hibachi Store in Osaka in 1904 but it went out of ­business. A year later, he joined Godai Bicycle Shop.

But instincts told him that electricity would shape the future and at the age of 16, Matsushita started work at the Osaka Electric Light Company. Three years later, he enrolled in night school classes at the Kansai Commercial and Industrial School.

He then teamed up with several people including Mumeno lue, whom he would marry later at the age of 21, to manufacture improved electrical sockets in 1917 but the product didn’t sell well and he ran out of funds.

Fortunately, he received an order from a wholesaler for ­insulator plates for Kawakita Denki electric fans which allowed him to get out of his predicament.

He founded Matsushita Electric Housewares Manufacturing Works in Ohiraki-cho, Osaka in 1918, and in four years built a factory.

Ishida showing the bullet-shaped bicycle lamp Matsushita made that proved to be hugely popular as it could last 10 hours longer than the competition.
Ishida showing the bullet-shaped bicycle lamp Matsushita made that proved to be hugely popular as it could last 10 hours longer than the competition.

In 1923 he developed a bullet- shaped bicycle lamp when candles and oil lamps were still commonly used for bicycles at the time. It proved to be a big success.

In 1927, he wanted to market a square bicycle lamp but needed a name for it and came across the English word “international” in a newspaper.

He saw that within “international” was “national” meaning “of or relating to the people of a nation” which is how the “National” brand was born.

As the company’s exports grew, he established Matsushita Electric Trading Co Ltd in 1935 but changed the name to Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd when he incorporated it.

However, the company would soon be caught up in the country’s war efforts but it would emerge even stronger.

Going global

The company was finally released from postwar restrictions in 1950.

In his annual management ­policy address in 1951, Matsushita announced that it was time for the company to go international as he believed that Western technology was the key to Japanese postwar reconstruction.

Matsushita made his first visit to the United States and Europe in 1951 to look for a business partner.

After a long search and ­negotiations, he secured a tie-up with Philips and formed a joint venture company, Matsushita Electronics Corporation.

However, when he wanted to export products to the United States he couldn’t use the brand name National as it was taken.

So this gave birth to the brand Panasonic which is a combination of two words – “pan” which stands for universal, and “sonic” for sound as the first product shipped to the US was a speaker.

Later Matsushita introduced mass production as he was inspired by Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, who ­introduced the assembly line ­technique of mass production.

A television Panasonic produced in 1952, air conditioner made in 1958 and automatic electric rice cooker made in 1959. — Photos: K. SUTHAKAR/The Star
A television Panasonic produced in 1952, air conditioner made in 1958 and automatic electric rice cooker made in 1959.

He also established the management philosophy that “a company is a public entity of society”.

During the tour of the museum, journalists were allowed to enter the storage area of the Hall of Manufacturing Ingenuity which is off limits to visitors.

It houses ­nearly 300 products that range from televisions and radios to major consumer electronics.

The products showcase Matsushita’s vision and dedication. Among them are the double cluster socket (manufactured in 1920), National lamp (1927), black and white National TV (1952), dry ­battery (1931), electrical blender (1952), fridge (1953), automated electric rice cooker (1959), colour television (1960) and the microwave oven (1966).

There is also a Masterpiece Gallery where nearly 150 ­consumer electronics are on display as well as a 16m wide History Wall depicting Panasonic’s path of manufacturing to social backgrounds and the needs of the time.

International icon

Matsushita has received many awards from overseas, including Malaysia – he was honoured with the Tan Sri title by the Yang di-­Pertuan Agong in February 1979.

And when his country sought help “to create a prize with the prestige of the Nobel Prize” to express Japan’s gratitude to the international society, he donated funds and in 1982 established the foundation that’s known today as the Japan Prize Foundation.

The first prize giving ceremony was held in 1985 in the presence of Japan’s Crown Prince.

At the age of 90, Matsushita handed the prize to the first winner – Ephraim Katchalski-Katzir from Israel for his work on immobilised enzymes.

Even in his final years, he remained active. It was reported that Matsushita had said he planned to lead a full life to the age of 160 when he was 80.

“In China, the natural lifespan is said to be 160 years old. I aim to lead a full life, so that means I have 80 years to go,” he said, surprising those around him.

“I don’t know how far I’ll go toward the goal.”

Matsushita died in 1989 from pneumonia at the age of 94. By that time, the firm’s business had grown internationally.

To reflect the firm’s status as a formidable global player in the electronics industry, the National name was changed to Panasonic in 2008.

Now in its 100th year, Panasonic operates 495 subsidiaries and 91 associated companies worldwide.

And it has 257,533 employees, of which 152,701 are ­overseas.

And all this began with the vision of a young boy who started off as an apprentice to a charcoal brazier maker.

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