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Freedom Breeds Content

These days, a good place to meet Tokoro is in the massive self-service cafeteria at Sony’s Tokyo headquarters in Shinagawa, where he lunches most days with colleagues from CSL. Tucked inside the southern tip of the Yamanote, the loop line that defines central Tokyo, Shinagawa could these days justifiably be renamed Sony Town. The company owns at least a dozen high-rise buildings in the area, and its logo is everywhere. The CSL is located in an eight-story tile and glass edifice hidden on a side street, out of sight of Sony’s headquarters complex, but no more than a five-minute walk from president Idei’s office.

CSL’s director is short, pudgy and dressed in a standard-issue salaryman suit; a casual encounter yields few clues about what lies behind the conventional facade. A better insight can be found on his Keio University Web page, where one of his students mischievously posted a cartoon of him clutching a Nintendo-like magic mushroom. The implication is obvious: shy, mild-mannered Professor Tokoro is actually… Super Mario!

In Japan, where universities tend to be ivory towers and academics are suspicious of industry, it is extremely rare for professors to join companies. Indeed, Tokoro made a lengthy transition. For the first 10 years of the CSL’s existence, he kept his position at Keio and worked for Sony part-time. In March 1997, he joined Sony as a full-time employee. Two years later, Tokoro was promoted to senior vice president making him, at age 52, Sony’s most senior corporate research executive. “That’s a very strange place for an academic,” comments Dave Farber, a University of Pennsylvania computer science professor who has known Tokoro for many years. “There’s a president [Nobuyuki Idei] and two people under him, and Mario’s one of them. And if you look at Sony, the new president has essentially said, ‘The IT area’s our future.’ So that puts Mario in charge of one of Sony’s most important commodities.”

Inside the CSL, the atmosphere is casual and relaxed. Researchers wear polo shirts, jeans and sandals. A sticker on one door reads “MIT Nerd Pride.” The lab is decorated in muted colors, with central meeting areas furnished with soft black sofas. Spacious individual offices take advantage of the light from surrounding windows. There is no obvious center of power, no signs indicating titles or seniority. It is, in short, completely unlike most Japanese industrial labs.

“Much of CSL’s uniqueness comes simply from the fact that it’s essentially a very Western lab,” says Rodger Lea, a 36-year-old Englishman who worked there from 1994 to 1997, and now runs a Sony software development lab in Silicon Valley. “Japan is such an immensely conservative, hierarchical bureaucracy, whereas CSL is a meritocracy, people are successful based on their ability to perform.” Unlike the rest of Sony, CSL employs researchers on a one-year contract basis, with annual performance reviews. Salaries are high, but they are based on success, not on seniority.

Not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of applicants hoping to join Sony’s digital dream team. CSL has attracted some of Japan’s most promising computer whizzes-including some from other companies. Until recently, job-hopping was a rarity in Japan, but CSL’s offices are filled with renegades from the likes of Canon and NEC. All must meet Tokoro’s definition of a good hire: “Originality and vision; the strong will to deny orthodoxy and to challenge the future.”

To promote the creativity that produces good software, Tokoro adopts a Western, hands-off style. “His policy is that the best management is not to try and manage,” explains Hiroaki Kitano, one of CSL’s most productive researchers (see sidebar: “Sony Supernova”). “All he does is hire the best researchers and let them do what they want. In five years, he has never told me what I’m supposed to do. He always says, ‘Do whatever you want, and the only thing is to be the best and have results with the highest impact.’”

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