East Meets West
My first meeting was a breakfast interview with Sheen Uchida, President of Taiyo International. Uchida-san, who prefers the less formal Sheen, is a Japanese native educated in the U.S. He left Japan’s steel-import business 30 years ago, switching to audio. “I wanted to open the country’s eyes to other sonic possibilities,” Sheen told me. By “other possibilities” he was referring to famous U.S. and English audio brands that, at that time, were rare imports.
Sheen was the ideal person to explain to me how the highly nationalistic Japanese market views Western brands. He related that, due to high safety regulations and other barriers, imports have always been at a price disadvantage compared to domestics. Yet whereas Japanese products typically represent a team effort among designers, imports tend to reflect a single vision. This, he said, leads to Japanese components that are “sonically well-rounded but less distinctive” than their Western counterparts. By the mid-90s, those more-distinctive imports had caught on. Sheen’s business boomed. Today, his roster includes dCS, Jeff Rowland, Avalon Acoustics, and Rockport.
I asked Sheen why, given that the West’s individualistic design philosophy had proven appealing to at least a portion of the Japanese market, more Japanese firms didn’t simply emulate it. He told me that the answer lies in Japan’s tradition of providing lifetime employment. In that situation, he explained, employees are always aware that they may be working with their present colleagues for a very long time. Thus, every incentive is toward group cooperation rather than making waves with a contrary position. That doesn’t mean that Japanese audio companies don’t take design risks; rather, it means that individuals rarely take such risks. Instead, by working as a team, any risks are shared.
However, according to Sheen, this situation is changing. Japan’s economy has been riven by a decades-long recession. “The social safety net is dwindling,” he told me. As part of that trend, lifetime employment is no longer guaranteed.
One result is a populace that’s increasingly anxious about its retirement years and that has become more intent on saving than spending. This, in turn, has led to a backlash against what many perceive as the “outrageous” prices of many high-end brands. Of course, similar economic anxiety is occurring around the globe, which explains why Japanese brands like Accuphase, Luxman, and Esoteric, which depend on both the domestic and export markets, have felt compelled to introduce more affordable products. The need for more value-oriented offerings is also why Sheen’s Taiyo International has started importing the German T+A line.
My talk with Sheen ended there, but his observations reverberated throughout my trip. In particular, I would learn later on that the waning of lifetime employment has had much more profound—and, ironically, beneficial—implications for the Japanese audio industry.