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Number 1 Shimbun

His Hidden Acting Talent - A Memorable Evening With Konosuke Matsushita, Founder of Panasonic

No1-2018-01 Hidden Acting Talent

 

His Hidden Acting Talent - A Memorable Evening With Konosuke Matsushita, Founder of Panasonic

by Hans Brinckmann

During the years I worked in the Osaka branch of my Dutch bank, the Nationale Handelsbank, from 1956 to 1961, I used to commute, for a time, by Rabbit motor scooter from my home in Nigawa, Nishinomiya City. Once a Japanese colleague hitched a ride, and on the way to our office in the Semba quarter of Osaka, he pointed to a bicycle store where (he said) half a century earlier the young Konosuke Matsushita had been apprenticed from the age of ten. Konosuke was born in 1894 to a land-owning family in Wakayama Prefecture, but his father got involved in reckless rice speculation, and lost all his property, leaving his family destitute.

The bicycle store wasn’t even the boy’s first place of work. He was only nine when his tearful mother, desperate for some income for the family, took him out of school and sent him off to Osaka to serve as dogsbody in a small shop selling hibachi, the charcoal braziers then used in every household. When that shop went out of business in a matter of months, little Konosuke managed to get hired by the bicycle dealer.

During his years there, Konosuke learned basic metalworking skills. At the Osaka Electric Light Company, which he joined when he was sixteen, he got interested in lighting fixtures. He invented a new socket, and in 1918, at age 23, founded the Matsushita Electric Housewares Manufacturing Works to manufacture and market it. That was the beginning of the company that rose to world prominence and in 2008 was to change its name to Panasonic, after its principal brand.

I first met Mr. Matsushita in the late 1950s in his capacity of president of the Japan-Netherlands Society in the Kansai. This position resulted from the alliance Matsushita had formed in 1952 with Philips of the Netherlands, in order to tap the Dutch company’s know-how. Mr. Matsushita’s prowess as an industrialist was not matched by his quality as a public speaker. The long speeches he gave at the Society’s general meetings were met with deep silence and nodding heads, punctuated by the intermittent sound of printed programs plopping on the marble floor of the meeting hall.

But Mr. Matsushita was not without a sense of humour. That became evident when, one cold evening in January 1967, he was the guest of honour at a small reception at the Tokyo residence of the Philips representative in Japan, Jan van Gemert. As I had moved to Tokyo in 1962 to head up the branch of my bank there, and knew the Philips people well, I was invited to the event. Van Gemert was about to return to the Netherlands, and the party served to introduce his successor. During van Gemert’s years in Japan, Philips had achieved a leading world position in electronics, helped in no small measure by their invention of the compact audio cassette tape in 1963. Matsushita, meanwhile, was a growing force in the U.S. market, with quality products such as radios and high-fidelity sound equipment.

Van Gemert gave a little speech welcoming his honoured guest, and thanking him once again for the farewell gift Matsushita had sent him recently, a valuable antique teacup of the kind used in the Japanese tea ceremony. In his reply, Matsushita hoped that van Gemert was taking good care of the cup, and would continue to do so, as it symbolized the bond they had forged over the years. “Of course,” was van Gemert’s reaction, “The cup is right here, in its antique box. I keep it in there for safety!” He pointed to a small, weathered wooden box of paulownia wood sitting on a display shelf nearby.

“Well,” said Matsushita, “to tell the truth, I would like to see the cup once more. Will you allow me to hold the cup in my hands once again, before it goes off to Europe?” With a broad smile van Gemert picked up the box, carefully loosened the silk ribbon around it, and took off the lid. Then his jaw dropped. The box was empty.

He looked in horrified astonishment at Matsushita, who joined him in consternation at the shocking discovery. Then, after savouring the moment briefly, Matsushita put his host’s mind at rest. An assistant who accompanied him to the reception handed him another, new-looking, box. Brandishing it like a trophy, Matsushita exclaimed: “Here it is, Gemert-san! I have your teacup right here!”

The perplexed Van Gemert gazed uncomprehendingly at the cup his guest had taken out of the box, and then at his guest’s impish face. Finally, Matsushita explained.

His office had received a phone call from a pawnbroker who had been asked for a loan against an antique teacup, brought in by a nervous fellow. Without the box, which bore the potter’s inscription and name seal, the cup’s value was difficult to assess, and the pawnbroker told the customer to leave the cup with him and come back in a day or two. But the fellow said he was in acute need of cash and even a small loan would do, so the broker gave him a few yen. After the man left, the pawnbroker consulted an antique art dealer of his acquaintance, who tentatively identified the cup’s provenance. It was, he said, by a famous potter and probably a listed work of art. Enquiries not only confirmed his theory, but also revealed that the cup had lately been in the possession of Mr. Matsushita.

“So, it looks like you had a burglar here, Gemert-san! He probably entered from the garden, through the French doors, that’s what they often do.”
“But,” spluttered van Gemert, “how could he know about the cup? And why did he only take the cup, not the box! And there was nothing else missing!”
Matsushita just smiled. “That, dear Gemert-san, is for you to find out. I’ve done my part.”

Gentlemen that they were, neither of them mentioned the obvious but disturbing thought that it might have been an inside job.

Konosuke surely had come a long way from his days as a hibachi shop drudge. Not only had he achieved industrial prowess, he had become a thinker and philosopher. As early as November 1946, he founded the PHP Research Institute, an independent think tank. PHP stands for Peace and Happiness through Prosperity, a goal largely realized by his country by the time Matsushita died in 1989.

Among Matsushita’s many quotes is this one:

“A good actor is in rehearsal until the day he dies, and the same rule applies to a businessman.”

Matsushita’s life was a never-ending attempt to do things better, to break new ground, to innovate. He was, in a sense, always “in rehearsal.”

At van Gemert’s farewell, Matsushita had also proved to be a good actor. I secretly hoped that his skills would henceforth also be applied to his speechmaking.

 

Published in: January 2018

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