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Rescuing gadgets from the golden age of ‘Made in Japan’

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Piles of old electronic gadgetry, most of it out of order, clutter Junichi Matsuzaki’s “studio” on the first floor of an aging public apartment building in Adachi Ward in northeastern Tokyo. To visitors the outdated technology may look like junk, but to the 53-year-old self-proclaimed consumer electronics collector, it’s treasure.

Filling up the 80-sq.-meter space from the floor to the ceiling are “Made in Japan” appliances that Matsuzaki has a soft spot for in one way or another.

“They don’t necessarily have to have monetary value,” says the skinny, soft-spoken man, noting that he picks consumer electronics whose designs reveal the creativity and ingenuity of Japanese electronics makers from their golden years of the 1970s and ’80s.

In fact, those were the years when a number of domestic manufacturers — including Sony, National (the predecessor of Panasonic), Sharp, Toshiba and Victor — grew out of the “copy technology from abroad” mentality of the 1960s, he says.

“Japan has long had a culture of copying,” Matsuzaki says, noting that manufacturers grew rapidly in the postwar era by copying products invented in the United States and Europe, such as TV sets and audio recorders. That changed, though, in the 1970s, when Japanese companies began adding a touch of originality to their products, he says.

While his collection includes TV sets, record players and even non-electronic items such as furniture and metal figure molds, Matsuzaki’s biggest obsession is portable radio-cassette players, that is boomboxes. He has collected 3,000 so far, mostly at recycle goods shops and garage sales, he says.

While their designs and features vary, typical boomboxes contain one or two cassette slots, a radio tuner, a speaker, and often a microphone to record live sound — all in one. And while individual components were Western inventions, the idea to put them all together in one portable product was unique to Japan, he says.

What’s more amazing, Matsuzaki has brought countless numbers of broken electronics back to life, though he has never worked at an electronics company or studied mechanics at school. He says he learned the repairing expertise all by himself, by manually disassembling the components and putting them back together, learning the functions of hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny parts along the way.

“I don’t know how many machines I ruined while learning how to fix them,” he laughs.

Today many people regard him as a “repairer of last resort,” asking him to fix stuff even the manufacturers don’t know how to mend. Because he has spent so much time fiddling with the gadgets, he can now detect major causes of breakdown; it’s typically a few key worn-out parts or the piled-up dust that ruins a product, he says.

When he can’t find parts to replace the broken ones, which is often the case because manufacturers are reluctant to stock replacement parts in-house, he gets new ones made just for him. He showed me one of 20 identical Sony single-cassette players that he has collected and is trying to fix. The 1973 black model still had no plastic cover on, exposing a circuit board, a bunch of parts and cables and a speaker half the size of the entire machine.

To fix that one, he needed to have a tiny, rubber-covered tape roller specially made by a factory in China. “The minimum lot you can order is 5,000 or 10,000,” he said. “I have had to spend hundreds of thousands of yen to get just one component replaced.”

However, when he is done with all the work, turns on a switch and hears the sound of soft, mildly reverberating music, he feels rewarded for all the pain and trouble, he says. As he talks about this, he takes out an old cassette tape with recordings of ’80s pop music by YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra) and plays it on the Sony player.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” he says, indulging in the music for a while. “The reason I’m obsessed with (vintage) Japanese products is because they use really high-quality parts. You can’t get this kind of sound from today’s radio cassettes, which sound more like thin metals rubbing against each other.”

He adds that the vintage audio devices come with numerous levers/switches that allow users to fine-tune the volumes and textures of sound, a detail that is missing from portable audio devices today.

“The iPhone, for example, only lets you scroll the volume bar on its touch-screen. Vintage radio/cassette players, on the other hand, are equipped with a sound meter, which shows (real-time) changes in sound volume, and a cassette counter, which marks the passing of time,” he says. “It visualizes the ritual of listening to the sound. Maneuvering such gadgets is so much more fun.”

Matsuzaki, who quit his job as a corporate interior designer 10 years ago to start his own company “Design Underground” at the apartment, says that just repairing broken electronics, which takes days and sometimes weeks per unit, is not enough to sustain his living. But he has succeeded in building a network of clients with various needs, such as stores wanting vintage electronics to create retro-chic displays, and studios wanting electronics from the ’70s and ’80s for TV dramas. For example, last year, he was asked by the public broadcaster NHK to collect 5,000 vintage TV sets to create a warehouse set for “Made in Japan,” a three-part drama series about a fictional Japanese electronics giant on the verge of collapse. The drama’s theme resonates with what’s really happening in the nation’s manufacturing industries today. It’s a theme that Matsuzaki, too, feels very close to.

“Many Japanese consumer electronics companies have lost their luster,” he says. “Their products are more or less the same anywhere, both in design and function. For the past 10 years or so, the Japanese companies have failed to come up with anything unique, and their products are indistinguishable from products by foreign brands such as Samsung and Haier.”

But that wasn’t always the case, he recalls. Sony, for example, used to be criticized for its trouble-prone products, so much so that users joked that its products were all equipped with an internal “Sony Timer” designed to kill them soon after their warranty expired. What was happening, though, is that Sony in the old days took pride in marketing products featuring cutting-edge — albeit a little shaky — technology, Matsuzaki says.

Meanwhile, Matsushita Denki (Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.), which the Osaka-based manufacturer was known as in Japan before switching its name to Panasonic in 2008, once donned the nickname “Maneshita Denki,” for its tendency to maneru (copy) technologies already marketed by its rivals, such as Sony. Such criticisms — as poignant as they were — were signs that each manufacturer in Japan used to have a distinctive character, he says.

Matsuzaki attributes the lack of originality among today’s makers to the loss of an engineering culture that encourages the development of high-quality, long-lasting products: “The pace of development has become so fast — with model changes taking place every two or three years — that it’s hard for them to come up with good products. Coming up with more designs in less time means they have to compromise on quality and development costs.”

Can Matsuzaki’s attention to vintage electronics — and the technological heights encapsulated in them — shift the tide? He says he has approached many domestic manufacturers with proposals to innovate their designs — in vain. The makers today are so financially strapped that they can only market safe — and mediocre — products, he says.

Having given up on convincing the unconvincible, Matsuzaki is currently planning on creating his own electronics brand, “Matsuzaki Denki.” To start off, he will release his first original product — a limited edition of high-quality cassette tapes — in October.

“Today it’s possible to become your own manufacturer, developing and marketing a small number of goods to a small community of people,” he said. “If you need cash to start, you can source it from customers wanting a particular product. All you need, in fact, is flexibility.”

Matsuzaki’s latest book, “Meido in Japan no Dezain! Nanajunendai Anarogu Kaden Katarogu” (“The Made-in-Japan Design! A Catalogue of the 1970s Analog Consumer Electronics”), priced at ¥2,800 and published by Seigensha Art Publishing, is available in bookstores. For more information on his projects, visit www.dug-factory.com