JAPAN: The One-Step Society, the ship's wheel and 'Do Not Open Until 6970' at Panasonic's House of History

We got the chance to enter the heart of Panasonic the other day: at the company's House of History, you can explore the world of company founder Konosuke Matsushita.

And though he died over 20 years ago, his thinking still informs the way the company operates today. Panasonic staff visit the museum to take in the company way, and learn the principles Matsushita set, but it's also open to the public should you find yourself with a quiet afternoon in Osaka.

What you'll find is a single-storey building in what's described as the 'Southern European' style, set in front of a modern, glass-fronted corporate office complex. Outside, a statue of the founder extends a welcoming hand

Opened in 1968, the museum is a replica of the company's head office, built in 1933, complete with a ship's wheel on a balcony on the roof.

Hearing that a ship was being dismantled in the port of Kobe, Matsushita bought its wheel, along with some tables and chairs from the ship's dining room.

Installed on the 'bridge' of the 1933 building, the wheel symbolised that, as Matsushita said, 'The head office is like the bridge on a ship, where one sets and steers the course for the whole company.'

And he was pretty chuffed with the museum itself when it was opened: he said 'Have you seen our museum? We created it to commemorate the 50th anniversary of our company.

'I gave many instructions about the design of the building. It's rather attractive, don't you think?'

Inside the building, a portrait of the man himself sits outside an entrance designed to replicate the house where Matsushita lived as a child.

He was born in the farming village of Wasamura: next to the family home was a pine tree, from which comes the family name: 'matsu' means 'pine tree' and 'shita' means 'under'.

But following a poor financial speculation by his farmer father, which led to the family losing its property, the previously prosperous Matsushita family was on its uppers, and at just nine years old Konosuke was sent to work as an apprentice in a hibachi grill shop in Osaka. When that business folded a year later he was apprenticed to the Godai family's bicycle shop.

There's a picture of him with Mrs Godai: the story goes that a staff photograph was to be taken to celebrate an anniversary of the bicycle company, but Konosuke was out on an errand at the time.

So upset was he at having missed out on the visit of the photographer that Mrs Godai took him off to a studio, and the two of them had their picture taken together.

Bicycles played a major part in the early years of Matsushita's company: founded in 1918 as the Matsushita Electric Devices Manufacturing Works, the company made products including a bullet-shaped battery-operated bicycle lamp, introduced in 1923.

As well as starting his career in a cycle shop, Konosuke Matsushita was Inspired by the racing cyclists who used to frequent Godai's bicycle shop to become a keen bike-racer.

Only a serious racing fall led him to abandon training, but even in his later years he would try out the National bicycles his company made.

He later said "I grew up in the bicycle industry. I was raised by the bicycle industry.”

So it's appropriate that from the bullet lamp, his company moved on to a square-shaped lamp under its National brand, advertised in typical Matsushita style for its bright light and longer battery life. Interestingly, the advert carries both the National name and that of the Godai Cycle Shop.

Click here for a brief video of the young Konosuke at the launch of the lamp.

Before those lamps, however, came the start of the company itself. By the age of 22, Matsushita was working as an inspector at the Osaka Electric Light company, where he'd moved when the sight of electric streetcars in Osaka had convinced him that the electrical business was the one to be in.

Seeking a challenge, he decided to quit his well-paid job and set up in business for himself, and his small Osaka home now started to double as his 'factory'.

Within the museum itself, there's a reconstruction of the house where he made his first product, a screw-in adapter enabling appliances to be powered from a light fitting.

He kept prices down by using failed lightbulbs as a source for the screw mechanism, avoiding the need to make the part himself, and moulding the rest of the device in the family home.

A double adapter followed, allowing an appliance to be connected alongside a lightbulb, and later clever marketing was used to show consumers how to use the products.

Matsushita founders include Konosuke (left) and brother-in-law Toshio Iue (centre back), who would later found Sanyo

A co-founder of Matsushita was Konosuke's brother in law, Toshio Iue. The youngest brother of Matsushita's wife, would go on to establish Sanyo in 1947. Sanyo Electric Co. has of late become a subsidiary of Panasonic, which owns an 81% stake in the company, and on March 4 Sanyo shareholders voted that, as of April 1 this year, Sanyo will become a wholly owned unit of Panasonic.

Appropriately, given the two founders' interest in battery lamps, one of the major reasons for Panasonic's acquisition of Sanyo is the latter's strength in batteries, which will play a major part in Panasonic's move towards greener technologies. It's already investing heavily in alternative fuel sources, including home-use fuel cells, and has a demonstration eco-home adjacent to its Panasonic Centre in Tokyo's 'docklands', Odaiba.

These technologies are available to Japanese home-buyers either as add-ons to existing houses, or in the form of complete houses built and equipped by the company's PanaHome division.

Sanyo also has huge expertise in solar technology: travellers on the Shinkansen 'bullet train' between Kyoto and Nagoya can't help but notice the massive 315m-wide, 37m-tall Sanyo Solar Ark (above) beside the tracks at Anpachi: it's a monumental solar cell array, and also houses research and educational facilities.

Matsushita promoted the idea of a big company as a 'humble merchant', serving the needs of its customers, and also with responsibility for its employees.

Early on, in the face of a growing labour movement, he started the Hoichi-kai, the One-Step Society, based on the slogan 'We all walk together one step at a time'. All of the then 28 employees were members: here they are on an outing to Ishiyama-dera, a mountain temple near Kyoto,

and in the close-up below you can see Matsushita himself in his business suit, on the right just below the flag.

If you want you can even click here and enjoy the Hoichi-kai Song!

At the end of the 1920s, the company was affected by the shockwaves caused by the Wall Street Crash: orders slowed, and warehouses filled up with unsold stock.

His executives told Matsushita staff layoffs were the only solution, but he said 'Cut production by half starting now, but do not dismiss even a single employee. We'll halve production not by laying off workers, but having them work only half days.

'We will continue to pay the same wages they are getting now, but there will be no holidays. All employees should do their best to sell inventory.'

Within two months, all the excess stock was sold, and in 1931 the company started January celebrations (above) to mark the shipment of the first new products of the year, a tradition it maintained for well over 30 years.

The museum is full of landmark products, some of which are illustrated below, but among his many writings on business, society and politics, Matsushita showed himself to be as concerned for the well-being and development of his staff as he was determined to make his company a success by meeting customers' needs.

You can hear an interview with him here, where he says 'If the customer asks you "What do you make at Matsushita Electric?", then tell him "We make people, and we also make electrical appliances and various other products."'

Here are some of those 'various other products'.

1979 NV-6000 VHS recorder offfered up to six hours' record time for Y289,000, or about £2400 at today's exchange rate!

1979 NV-6000 VHS recorder offfered up to six hours' record time for Y289,000, or about £2400 at today's exchange rate!

Konosuke Matsushita died in 1989, aged 92 but, just as his legacy lives on in the company, so it's likely he – and Panasonic – will be remembered long into the future.

To mark the 1970 Japan World Exposition, two time capsules, each containing 2098 items, were buried near Osaka Castle – there are replicas in the House of History.

One was opened in 2000, and will be every 100 years; the other is planned to remain undisturbed until 6970.

Other blogs from this trip:

Himeji LCD factory

PETEC, Panasonic's recycling centre

Talking tech with the Viera team

Panasonic's Amagasaki plasma factories

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.