The Design of Radios and Music Players in Japan from the 1950s to the 1970s

Takayuki Higuchi

Associate Professor, Department of Design Science, Chiba University

Development of Industrial Design in Japan

After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan pushed for modernisation. After World War II, Japan started all over again. Japan had introduced design education and promotion in the late 19th century with the aim of developing Japanese handicraft industries for export; Japan learned design from Europe. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the focus of design education shifted towards light-industry products. In 1921, the government established the Tokyo Higher School of Arts and Technology and, in 1928, the National Research Institute of Industrial Arts was established. Modern design education and technical research and development were initiated there. They led modern design development in Japan.

With Japan under American occupation until 1952, the early 1950s was a period of reconstruction following World War II. The major companies were in a recovery mode and entrepreneurs started up businesses. Sony was founded in 1946, and Honda in 1948. The National Research Institute of Industrial Arts changed its structure to support more technological industries in 1952, changing its name to the Industrial Arts Institute and providing design consulting and design knowledge. Notable designers such as Kappei Toyoguchi (1905–91) and Isamu Kenmochi (1912–71) emerged. The Tokyo Higher School of Arts and Technology was merged into Chiba University in 1949 and, in 1951, became a school of engineering that was required to teach and research design in a more scientific manner. Shinji Koike (1901–81), a professor in the design department who previously worked at the National Research Institute of Industrial Arts, appealed for a design education methodology based on the concept of cross-fertilisation. The department invited professors from different disciplines such as cultural anthropology, physiological anthropology, and materials engineering to encourage cross- and trans-disciplinary work and foster integrated design thinking.

When Konosuke Matsushita (1894–1989), the founder and CEO of Matsushita Electronics, visited the US to research its industries in 1951, he knew that good design could bring higher values to products. In a well-known episode, upon returning to Japan, he declared that the 'design decade' had begun. He then asked Yoshikazu Mano (1916–2003), who had worked as a lecturer at Chiba University, to establish a design department in the company. In the mid-1950s, major manufacturers founded design departments. Having an in-house design team became mainstream among Japanese companies producing electronic products.

In the 1950s, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the Industrial Arts Institute made efforts towards design promotion. They invited prominent designers from overseas to provide advice. Japan was exporting electronic and mechanical products, and there were accusations that Japanese products copied and imitated American and European products. The Ministry took these claims seriously and founded the 'Good Design Selection System'. In the early 1950s, while there were imitations, there were also qualified (or prospective) young designers such as Yoshio Akioka (1920–97), who designed the Chrysler Radio Cabinet Kit MS-200.

In this article, I am focusing on the design of radios and music players and will introduce some design cases, such as those of the transistor radio, tape recorder, and radio cassette recorder. I will also touch on how Japanese designers tackled modern design.

Transistor Radios

I will firstly talk about transistor radios. After the invention of the transistor radio in 1948, the US company Regency launched the world's first transistor radio in 1954 (Fig. 1). Sony, which had been founded in 1946, was already developing transistor radios but had fallen behind and launched its TR-55 model only soon after Regency's introduction. At that time, tube radios had spread into every home in the US, as well as in Japan. Transistor radios were developed to broaden the market for even more personal use.

(Fig. 1) Texas Instruments Inc. and Industrial Development Engineering Associates, Regency TR-1 transistor radio, designed 1954. Joe Haupt / CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, Sony launched the TR-63 and created the word 'pocketable' to describe and promote the radio. Setting a new standard in battery size, it was smaller than Regency's radio and sold well in the US market. But in Japan, its price was almost the same as one month's starting salary for a university graduate.

Concurrently, the design work of Matsushita was led by Yoshikazu Mano. His UB-150 radio was of a simple modern design. He started the company's design department with two other staff in 1951. At that time, there were another five or six designers in the radio manufacturing division. By 1957, however, the company had more than 40 designers serving its units producing audio products, televisions, home appliances and lighting products. In 1957, Mano and the design department earned the Mainichi Design Prize (which started in 1955) for their reputation for creating products with originality, prudent quality and timeless good appearance. It was the first time that an in-house corporate design team won the prize. The second time was when Sony was given the award in 1961.

In 1958, many manufacturers moved into the transistor radio market. In 1959, there were around ten big manufacturers and more than 100 assembly-based manufacturers of these devices in Japan. In the same year, Sony released the TR-610, which was recognised as the masterpiece of transistor radios. It was of sophisticated quality and became a big seller. A Sony designer once reported in a journal that the radio was misunderstood as being designed by the American designer Raymond Loewy. Half a million units were sold within two years after its release. The TR-610's designer, electrical engineer and mechanical engineer had collaborated and pursued a design that would minimize cost, make it compact, and also easy to manufacture. This model became emblematic in the design of compact and high-quality transistor radios, and was widely imitated.

In the early 1950s, Sony was just a start-up company, without a design department, developing early versions of the tape recorder. But they soon became aware of design's role in product development. The company's founder, Masaru Ibuka (1907–97), visited the Industrial Arts Institute and asked its director, Isamu Kenmochi, to assist with design consulting. Kenmochi asked the designer Atsushi Chiku to support Sony. In 1955, design student Kozo Yamamoto was introduced to Sony by Chiku and became the company's first employed designer. Yamamoto was the one who designed the TR-610.

In the late 1950s, transistor radios were popular as gift items in the US, especially as Christmas presents. The TR-610, originally sold for USD 50, included a leather case, a battery and an earphone. It was not expensive for US customers and was affordable for the youth. The TR-610 became especially popular among teens. Transistor radios had a synergistic effect with radio DJs and rock and roll music. They offered a way to listen to music outside before portable cassette recorders appeared.

Sony had great success with transistor radios in the late 1950s and continued to develop them. However, in the beginning of the 1960s, the market became fiercely competitive, which brought prices down. Hong Kong manufacturers entered the market along with Japanese assembly-based manufacturers. Quality-driven manufacturers therefore had to shift to a higher price market.

Sony set up a design department in 1961. Norio Ohga (1930–2011), a former musician and opera singer who later became Sony's president, appealed for the setting up of a design department to control design coherence across the organisation; he became the department's chief. He concurrently served as the chief of the company's public relations division, while making efforts to establish a design sensibility of high quality. Sony gradually developed a design policy that introduced sharp styling, with a silver and black colour scheme.

In 1967, the first IC (integrated-circuit) radio was launched and Sony designed it to be as compact as possible. By a decade later, both Matsushita and Sony had earned great market appeal for the thinness of their products. In fact, Japan became known for its miniaturisation of devices, as captured by the early 1980s catchphrase 'kei haku tan shō' (軽薄短小), which meant 'light, thin, short, compact'.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1970s, there was a BCL (broadcast listening) boom in Japan. Young men tried to catch shortwave radio from overseas. They listened to, and actually sought out, programmes and requested verification cards for broadcasting stations. Around the same time, these were used by adults and tech-lovers who were into amateur radio (or ham radio) and hi-fi audio equipment.

Sound Recorders

Alongside companies like Denon, Sony began to develop sound recorders shortly after its start-up. Sony launched G Type in 1951 as the first tape recorder in Japan. There was no participation of designers in its production. Later, the H Type model was developed for consumers. Sony asked for advice from the designer Munemichi Yanagi (1915–2011), better known as Sori Yanagi, to detail its shape. During this period, around 1959, Sony also had its in-house designers working on its products.

In the mid 1950s, tape recorders began to be used domestically in Japan. It was a time of growing patent licensing, and more than ten Japanese manufacturers entered the tape recorder market. Matsushita launched its first tape recorder in 1958 before introducing the Mysonic (RQ-303) in 1963. The latter was a well-designed, affordable tape recorder for home use. During this time, tape recorders were undergoing a significant evolution, leading to the development of a compact, portable model by the beginning of the 1960s.

In 1962, the Dutch company Philips defined the standard for the compact cassette tape, which was disclosed as a public technology in 1965. Japanese manufacturers then further developed cassette tape recorders. They already had reel-to-reel tape recorder technologies and rapidly developed cassette tape recorders, which were popular among women and children. Soon after Sony launched its cassette tape recorder, it developed a compact model designed to be used with a single hand. It was used on the Apollo 7 space mission. A decade later, Sony launched the Pressman, which would later become the basis for the Walkman. Only four years after the first compact cassette tape recorder was released, Olympus launched the micro cassette tape recorder. It was designed by Toyoguchi Design Lab, founded by Kappei Toyoguchi.

The mid-1970s also saw the arrival of portable models for high-specification live recording. The TC-D5 had strong good looks and suited high-end users. There was a boom in live recording in the seventies. Back then, many Japanese men had a strong interest in using technological equipment and made the effort to utilise them at a high level.

Soon after, the radio and cassette recorder were combined into one player, pioneered by Philips. When Japanese companies launched radio cassette tape recorders, their design followed reel-to-reel compact tape recorders. Called 'radi-case', radio cassette tape recorders quickly became popular in Japan, benefiting from the growing popularity of FM air-checks among 1970s youths who liked to collect music this way due to the expensiveness of LPs. There were several magazines reporting on radio programmes, recording techniques and artists' information. Cassette tape recorders were used not only during air-checks but they were also used as recorders and players for learning, music rehearsal and, of course, simply listening to the radio. In the mid-1970s, 'stereo radi-case' became a popular term. These products eventually progressed into the boombox.

Exploring Japanese Modernism

Next, I will talk about the approach to exploring Japanese modernism in electric appliances. In the 1950s, Japanese architecture and furniture were introduced at exhibitions or triennales overseas and were highly appreciated. Japanese architects, such as Kenzo Tange (1913–2005), discovered common factors between modern architecture of the West and Japanese traditional architecture, and manifested these concepts in their built projects. Nevertheless, while there was increasing modernisation or westernisation, most Japanese houses in the 1950s and 1960s were still of the traditional Japanese style. There was a hidden demand for modern products that suited these traditional interiors.

In the 1920s, Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889–1961), commonly known as Soetsu Yanagi, had led the Japanese folk art movement, called Mingei Undo. The movement was founded on the concept of 'yō no bi'(用の美) which referred to beauty in the utility of anonymous crafts used in ordinary life.

Along these lines, designers tried to integrate forms that would appeal to Japanese tastes into the design of electric equipment. Yoshikazu Mano, the first designer and director of Matsushita, designed the DX-350 radio and described how he used elements inspired by the 17th century Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto in its design. A different case was that of the stereo set Asuka of 1963. It was actually not originally designed for Japanese tastes. But Mano had directed his design team to explore originality in design, and to not be influenced by European design. In the process of promoting the product, it was given a Japanese name that would resonate with a sense of the ancient, while promoting a Japanese image.

Next, I will introduce some design phenomena that acted in concert with the spirit of the times. Two important events were the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 and the Expo 70, held in Osaka in 1970. Japanese pop culture and counter-cultural movements grew around then as well, coinciding with the 1960s emergence of Metabolism, in which architects played a central role. Expo 70 was an opportunity for these architects-activists to present their often futuristic concepts in the event's pavilions and exhibitions.

Influenced by this optimistic mood, in the late 1960s, Sony launched some radios designed in 3D geometric forms that were different in image from the typical radio. Up through the 1970s, the Expo and its revelations of a futuristic way of living helped prompt designs like Matsushita's Toot-a-Loop radio (Fig. 2), which some consider as being representative of the times.

(Fig. 2) Panasonic Corporation (formerly Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.), National Toot-a-Loop (R-72) radio, designed 1970. Juan Miguel Darco TT / CC-BY-SA-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Walkman

Lastly, I will touch on the Walkman.

There is a famous story about how and why the Walkman was born. A Sony engineer altered the company's Pressman model to more portably listen to stereo sound for his own fun. Masaru Ibuka, the Sony founder, got to know about and experience it. He then provided the instruction to launch the new device as a product in four months and to make its price reasonable for young music lovers. Sony itself released this anecdote to show the company's flexibility. Walkman II (Fig. 3) was the follow-up model that became most commonly associated with the Walkman. Sony promoted the Walkman with images of people experiencing the sound of music outside and through further representations of the music lover.

(Fig. 3) Sony Corporation, Walkman II (WM-2) portable audio cassette player, designed 1981. Esa Sorjonen, via Wikimedia Commons

Up until the 1970s and '80s, Japanese manufacturers enjoyed great prosperity. However, while Japanese product design thrived in the industrial age, it later failed in the information age.

Writings about Japanese Design

Let us move on with a discussion on writings about Japanese industrial design. Firstly, I'd like to introduce two examples published around 1980 which examined Japanese culture.

Kenji Ekuan (1929–2015), co-founder of GK Design Group, described how the Japanese lunch box demonstrates the characteristics of Japanese design.1 Though the lunchbox is different from the wares used for a formal full-course meal, Ekuan argued, it is a form of restrained aesthetics in which the chef is making an effort to accomplish a balance with an economy of means.

Lee O-Young (1933– ), the Korean critic, described the characteristics of Japanese design in terms of its emphasis on compactness.2 He pointed out how the Japanese had made mistakes in their critical design discourse as they tended to find Japanese characteristics through a cross-cultural view that primarily referenced Western culture, when in fact the comparison should have been made with Asian or Eastern cultures. Then, he examined and compared Japanese culture with Korea and pointed out that Japan had a cultural tendency toward compactness that showed not an aspiration to magnificence, but rather a predilection for small, crafty and finely-detailed objects.

The Japanese certainly had this tendency, especially in light of Japan's developing modern lifestyles in which houses were not spacious and room dimensions were compact, thereby requiring that desks, cabinets and other furniture be small. Moreover, because the Japanese tended to possess many objects, they often avoided owning larger products. In addition, in the urban areas of Japan, people commute to work or school not by cars, but by train. Having something easy to carry was important for them. In the development of small transistor radios or other devices, there was therefore not only an affection for small objects, but also a reasonable requirement of being compact.


The Japanese imitated European cameras and American tube radios just after WWII. However, transistor radios and tape recorders were front-line products in Japan that applied leading technologies of the time. Manufacturers in both Japan and advanced Western countries competed in developing products, and there were some cases in which Japanese designers followed their European and American counterparts. But basically, there was no similar pattern of front-line products in Europe or the United States.

In the early era of transistor radios, Japanese manufacturers designed products to satisfy the tastes of the US market. As time went by, their in-house designers faithfully dealt with design development to have their outcomes recognised. Japanese product design in that era basically moved towards simplification. On the other hand, insofar as transistor radios go, there were both reliable manufacturers and those that lacked a design mind who simply produced products to meet buyers' demands.

For Japanese manufacturers, the largest market was the US. But the Japanese market was reasonably large. (Hong Kong and Korean manufacturers could hardly enter the Japanese market given the competition from Japanese companies). Japanese customers, especially males, were enthusiastic about technological products during those decades. The popularisation of tape recorders in Japan happened earlier than in the US, and Japanese consumers were extremely demanding of certain product qualities. The products were thus well-developed with those qualities and features that suited Japanese users.

Indeed, though many Japanese did not care about how these technological products fit in with their interiors or traditional furniture, Japanese design was nevertheless expressed to a significant extent. Japanese designers shared a Japanese mentality as they were operating in a common environment. There was not as much design information available then as compared with today. However, Japanese designers were actively absorbing design information from overseas through publications or other resources, and also learned of new circumstances through the product launches of other manufacturers — all the while translating and expressing this information in their own ways. These shaped an affinity amongst Japanese designers, and there was therefore an atmosphere that nurtured a sense of Japanese products.

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