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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 460-484

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A Network of Tinkerers: The Advent of the Radio and Television Receiver Industry in Japan

Yuzo Takahashi


The development and international success of the Japanese consumer electronics industry in the postwar period is often portrayed as the result of a collaboration between big business and government ministries. This portrayal neglects an important foundation for the success of this industry: the existence of a culture of "tinkering" with consumer electronics in Japan. After World War II a network of inventors, tinkerers, and small businesses developed an unofficial sector of radio manufacturing, which grew to include radio magazines, books, and standard-setting trade associations. This network helped launch the television kit industry, which lowered the price of home-use televisions, making commercial broadcasting viable in Japan. Even after mass-produced televisions had driven television kit manufacturers out of business, the large Japanese consumer electronics manufacturers used the network of repair shops that had assembled television kits to build a service network. These local service providers, close to their customers and to the service problems of the products, gave manufacturers the feedback they needed to create products that met consumer needs, enabling Japanese industrialists to compete effectively in the export market.

Today the Japanese electronics industries are dominated by big business, while amateurs and hobbyists play only a minor role, primarily as ham radio operators. Historically, however, the electronics industry began with radio, a field founded by amateurs and tinkerers. 1 In the early stages of [End Page 460] the radio industry, radio listeners typically built their own receivers; some became semiprofessionals and opened radio shops. Small-scale manufacturers sprang up to supply components. Amateur hobbyists, semiprofessionals, local radio stores, and small manufacturers for radio components formed an "unofficial" sector of the radio and electronics industry. In comparison, large-scale producers and assemblers of equipment, government, and public institutions made up its "official" sector.

The radio boom grew out of the liberalized political climate of postwar Japan. After Japan's defeat the government ban on reception of foreign broadcasting was lifted, and commercial broadcasting began. As a result of greater programming, radio (and later television) tinkering expanded, and the dismantling of the Japanese military made military surplus electronics components available and inexpensive. The Allied occupation forces promoted radio production, using broadcasts to democratize Japan. Later, public institutions such as the research laboratory of Nihon Hoso Kyokai (NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation), professional bodies of engineers, government ministries, and local government encouraged the hobby of radio, organizing training courses in radio construction and repair. Small-scale component manufacturers flourished as radio tinkering expanded.

The television boom, beginning with the first Japanese television broadcasts in 1953, had similar roots in the culture of tinkering. Tinkerers wanted to build their own television receivers, but it was far more difficult to put together a television from scratch than to construct a radio. As a result, component manufacturers developed key components for television receivers and put television kits on sale. The kits were welcomed by hobbyists and semiprofessionals, and the television receivers they built contributed to the popularization of television. Some small manufacturers eventually grew into middle-sized companies, and after the popularization of receivers had been achieved, larger companies took over the mass production of televisions.

Though the unofficial sector of the Japanese television and radio industry declined in the 1960s, it had a profound influence on the success of the Japanese electronics industry in export markets. The culture of tinkering and the amateur entrepreneurship of the early Japanese radio and television industry helped create an electronics industry attuned to customer demands for quality and service. Many of the tinkerers who began their careers as radio and television kit assemblers and owners of small repair shops went on to staff the service companies affiliated with large Japanese radio, television, and electronics manufacturers. With their firsthand knowledge of customer expectations and their knowledge of components, these tinkerers gave critical feedback to their new employers to help bring about the high-quality, high-reliability...


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