About Makoto Kikuchi
Dr. Makoto Kikuchi spent 45 years as a researcher in semiconductor physics and electronics. He began his research with the Electrotechnical Laboratory, Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in Japan in 1948, where he worked for 26 years. In 1974, Kikuchi moved to Sony Corporation, first serving as the Director of Sony’s Research Center and then, beginning in 1984, as Managing Director of Sony Corporation. His goal was to determine if a physicist could be useful in Research and Development activities. He retired from his Managing Director position in 1989 and became an Executive Technical Advisor for Sony and Professor of Electronics at Tokai University.
This interview begins with a discussion of Kikuchi’s background and the impact of World War II on his studies at Tokyo University. The majority of the interview is a discussion of Kikuchi’s work at MITI, his research in the United States, and his later work at Sony. Kikuchi also describes the managerial differences and the different relationship between culture and science in Japan and in the United States.
About the Interview
Makoto Kikuchi: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, May 27, 1994
Interview # 215 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Makoto Kikuchi, an oral history conducted in 1994 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.
Interview: Kikuchi, Makoto
Interviewer: William Aspray
Date: 27 May 1994
Place: Sony Headquarters, Tokyo
Family Background and Childhood
Could you begin by telling me when and where you were born and what your parents did?
Yes. I was born in Tokyo on December 6, 1925. My father's career was not in the Ministry of Education. After a time he became President of Yokohama Municipal University. He died. He was a very strict person. As you may know, in the Meiji era, people were very strictly educated. My father was like that — a very strict home education.
That is one of the reasons why I came to the scientific field. When I was going into high school, the entrance examination was very difficult. Fortunately I passed, but people outside of my house said, "His father is in the Ministry of Education. He should be very happy." I made up my mind not to have such kinds of things occur in my life after that. That is one of the reasons I turned away from my father's path. My father liked to talk, and liked to learn about science, but he didn't know much about science and technology. There was nothing very much related to scientific kinds of things in my home.
In the early 1930s, there were very few amusements for children, primarily magazines for boys and girls. There was no television or special programs on the radio. As a child I liked to visit the National Science Museum in Ueno. I went there almost every week; it was the only place I really enjoyed. Fortunately, my mother would take me there. She didn't like to go into the museum that often, so she spent some time outside the museum, but I fully enjoyed it. During that time I was extremely interested in the activities of scientists — not the science itself. I was not so interested in magnetism or things like that. Those are just the achievements of science. The most interesting thing for me was what the scientists were doing: experimenting, thinking, making some failures, and finally getting to the more correct understanding of the nature of things. That is a very charming process. That is not only the fundamental activity of scientists but the fundamental activity of human beings.
Did your enthusiasm for science show in your schoolwork?
No. I spent many years in non-scientific fields. I was more interested in literature, philosophy, and European art. For example, I read Goethe, Kant, Hegel, and so on.
During my middle school and high school days I studied German and French. In Japan, the emphasis in language education is just to understand something, not to speak. But that was very helpful for us in order to understand the philosophical works of Kant, Hegel, and Schiller. I also read Japanese philosophers, such as the philosopher Nishida at Kyoto University. The work is not understandable; it is so difficult. But I liked to read and try to understand, even though I was not so successful in understanding. Still, it was good training for me to focus on something very difficult to understand. That was how I learned persistence, which was a very important experience for me.
I was also a gymnast; I worked on the iron bar, and other kind of things. In middle school I was a member of the baseball team. But after entering high school, I tried to read more and more books, especially at midnight. Midnight is a very charming time, as you know. I lived in a dormitory in the case of my First High School. This was required of every student. The dormitory area was separated from the real world, so we could try every mental experiment. That is very good training.
I then attended Tokyo University, Institute of Physics. I was still charmed by scientific activities, and this is why I finally chose that path in my university days. I continued to be interested in other fields. I attended the lecture course of Edmund Blunden, who was a very famous novelist and professor of literature in Great Britain. He visited Tokyo University and gave a course of lectures, entitled "From Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy." It was a very charming lecture. I went to the professor of the department of literature and got permission to join that lecture.
World War II
What effect did the war have on the development of your life and career?
Oh, that is vitally important. Facing death — that is one of the most important experiences of my life. In my high school days, before the end of the war, we were eager to understand the meaning of life, because we were facing death, inescapable death. My friends who were studying literature had to join the army or the navy. One of my friends went into the war field and was killed. Students like myself, working in the scientific field, got a deferment from the draft. But still we were 100 percent sure that we would be killed in the war fields. So what is the meaning of the war? What is the meaning of a life? We had a strong desire to learn something before the end of our lives. That was the most important impact of the war.
Actually my house was completely burned on April 13th, 1945. We moved to another house, and that house was completely burned in a big air raid on the 25th of May. I still remember the date. It was a very serious experience. After the war the situation was miserable, just miserable. I still remember in 1945 and 1946, sometimes we didn't have any rice for dinner. A whole meal would be a combination of vegetables — tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant, or something like that. So I still remember what the war was through my experience.
Around the end of 1947, we Japanese became a little more energetic. We became more enthusiastic to do something for the recovery of our society. In 1948, the news of the transistor came. We became extremely excited. What's that? That is such a very charming topic for research. I was in the government laboratory from April 1948, the same year that the transistor was announced to the public.
I'd like to ask a few questions about your university training. Why did you choose Tokyo University, and why physics rather than some other field?
I was advised to attend Tokyo University by my professor in high school, who was a physicist. We didn't discuss physics much, but he was a very interesting person. His question on a final examination is one example. His question was: "If you try to measure the expansion coefficient of the earth, what kind of instrument would you try to use, and how would you do that? You can carry in any kind of book if you like." I enjoyed that examination.
We had personal communication because at that time, near the end of the war, regular education was suspended. We talked about philosophy and many other things. Near the end of my days in high school he said, "I understand you would like to understand and have training in an exploring type of activity, such as physics. " I said, "Yes, yes. I am very much interested in that." So he advised me to go into the physics department of Tokyo University. Without any special considerations I just followed his advice. That is the very simple reason!
What was the focus of your course of study in physics? What was the emphasis in the program?
Right after the war, buildings were still apt to burn on the Homgo campus. So the physics department moved to Nagano Prefecture. That is an irregular/unusual type of education. I got a postcard from Tokyo University at the end of March 1945 informing me that I had passed the entrance examination and was admitted as a student in the physics department. I was instructed to carry my essential belongings to Lia, and then carry that package to Tokyo University by a certain date. I was surprised to find a postcard from the university, but I had to follow their instructions. I carried my baggage to Lia and very soon we were told to use the Chuo-line train to Suwa station, which is in Nagano Prefecture, very far from Tokyo. There was a very small inn there, with hot springs, where they had some rooms for students.
My case was the worst. Twenty-four students were put in a 48-tatami area. It was a big hall that we slept in and studied in. We did everything there. We attended lectures walking down to the primary school of the village every morning, and after finishing the lecture, we climbed back up to the inn. It was a long way, 35 or 40 minutes, walking up and down the mountain. Lectures were given on an irregular and unscheduled basis, because the professors often had difficulty traveling from Tokyo. We would be notified that a certain professor was coming and that he would be giving a particular lecture. But that irregularity was very interesting. There is a book written by a reporter from the Mainichi newspaper that is a history of the situation of the students in the Tokyo University physics department at that time. The situation was irregular, but we studied quantum mechanics and applied mathematics.
After the end of the war, we still couldn't return to Homgo campus because buildings were not available. While we were allowed to return to Tokyo, lectures were held in some small buildings far from the campus. So for one or two years, the university lectures were not regular. But that irregularity created some enthusiasm. It was interesting. The president of Nippon Electric Sekimoto was one of my classmates in the physics department. Nishijima, whose name is famous, of Nishijima and Gelman, an expert in theoretical physics, was also there.
Joining the Electrotechnical Laboratory
What did you anticipate that you would do after graduation?
There was a Professor Honda who was involved in job placement. One day, Professor Honda called me about a possible job opening in a government laboratory — the Electrotechnical Laboratory. My character was still like a boy, so I didn't know anything about the true situation of the jobs in society. I returned home and asked my father for his opinion. Since my father spent many years working in the Ministry in Education, he relied upon the government. He suggested I take the examination because if it was a government position, it was acceptable to him.
So, several days later I went to take the interview. I was asked about any research on which I was currently working. At that time I was preparing the final course of preparation on my report on statistics. My work involved learning about the after-effect of human singing on the throat, based on a mathematical analysis of the musical score. I was enthusiastic about discovering some after-effect. For instance, the songs in Bizet's Carmen offer a beautiful example. I studied the change in the shape of the singer’s larynx. So I discussed that. Two of the interviewers from the Electrotechnical Lab became extremely interested in my work. They let me talk about my work for more than 20 minutes, which I enjoyed. The next day, I got the position. That was not the regular procedure; right after the war, things were very irregular.
Discovery of Semiconductors
Please tell me about your work at ETL.
The main purpose of research should be, in my opinion, to obtain a better understanding of materials on the basis of electronic and atomic structure with quantum mechanics. Fortunately, a very nice thing came from that research in semiconductors. That was then an unknown material. My friend Pierre Egrand explained the situation of semiconductors. He said semiconductors are just like a Marilyn Monroe, full of charm. I started my research on semiconductors. The main purpose was to discover new phenomena, new electronic processes. My interest was an amplifier, a barrier[?]-type of amplifier, to replace vacuum tubes. What the nature of these devices? They are an active element, not a passive element. Being an active element means that the device has its own hidden mechanism inside. I was extremely interested in physical properties related to active electronic devices, such as oscillational current or negative resistance. I focused on these two things, negative resistance and plasmas. Most of my papers are related to current oscillations or negative resistance.
I'm not sure I understand the way that ETL operates, even though I've spoken to several people in the last two weeks about it. Was the individual researcher able to choose his own research agenda?
Yes and no. It is important to understand the historical background of the government's Electrotechnical Laboratory. ETL has been in operation over 100 years. Originally, the laboratory was established to study the technology of electric power — generation, distribution, all various kinds of power technologies. But in the late 1930s or early 1940s, they recognized the need to do some more fundamental research on materials, for example, to understand discharge between two electrodes. Electrons were acting there. What are electrons? What are the ions? There was no special understanding of the basic science. The lab was limited to a technological orientation.
Beginning in the early 1940s, a fundamental group of researchers was formed. This was the physics department that I joined in 1948. In the physics department, the nature of the research projects was different from the older departments. The old sections were more closely related to electric power generation and distribution in Japan. The fundamentals researchers in the physics department had more freedom to choose their projects. But they were not completely free to choose.
Komagata was the director of the ETL and one of the members of the Japan Atomic Energy Committee. He was interested in the news of the discovery of transistor effect. The news came through Douglas Macarthur's General Headquarters office. Komagata quietly told my boss, Doctor Hatoyama, about the news he had heard from GHQ. He asked Hatoyama if he could make the matter clear. Hatoyama tried to get more information. I remember one morning he came in when I was already in the laboratory. He was taking off his hat, and called me from outside of my room, through the open window, "Kikuchi-san, this morning I got very interesting news. The American scientists, somewhere, maybe in Bell Laboratories, put two metal needles on a crystal and got amplification." We were very excited. We tried to do something related to that experiment, but we couldn't because we never had any germanium. We didn't even have any good silicon. So we had to start our experiment with just ordinary silicon crystal. From the present-day knowledge, we know it was too dirty to observe amplification. But we had to do something with that, and that was a start.
Access to Other Researchers' Work
Did you have access to any of the technical papers from the United States?
No, that was extremely difficult. The only source for those printed materials was a special library near General Headquarters, in the Hibiya area of Tokyo; it was called CIE.
We had to go there to try to find information. The information about research on new things such as transistors and semiconductors was still not easily available. So it was extremely difficult to find the published papers. The first time Director Komagata was invited to the United States, he asked me what I wanted him to bring me as I gift. I asked him to get some printed material on semiconductors when he visited Bell Laboratories. He agreed, but he was not allowed to bring the material to Japan. The only thing I got was a broken transistor, from which I got a true germanium crystal. I did many amplification experiments from that small piece of germanium. But then gradually Bell System Technical Journal (BSTJ), Physical Review, and some other publications became available in Japanese places other than CIE. The availability of journals gradually increased. There was no special airmail at that time, so there was some delay. Many good papers, and very fundamental and important papers by Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain were mostly published in BSTJ. Physical Review had some, but they were old, because a full paper took a long time to be published. We tried to learn everything. At that time there were no copier machines, so I had to type with carbon paper to reproduce seven or eight copies for our discussions. That is why I can type at almost a professional level now. So we got more and more scientific information, but it took a long time.
What was your program of study then on this subject?
Two things were in parallel. First, we had to reproduce the amplification and observe the amplification ourselves to check the results. And I did this. This was one type of experiment — using silicon first and germanium later. The other was digging holes into the science of semiconductors and trying to discover new effects.
Fortunately, as I mentioned before, semiconductors were an unknown material. Every six months we had meetings of the Physical Society of Japan and the Applied Physics Society of Japan. Every six months we could present papers on new observations. My friend [Tadashi] Sasaki did, and I did. Our discussions were enjoyable, and our understanding increased year by year. But our work was still very isolated. We had no special relationships with American or European friends.
What was the size of the community in Japan that was interested in these topics at the time?
Only about 40 or 50 people in the early days. Then my boss, Hatoyama, gave the tutorial paper, "What is Happening on Semiconductors and What are Transistors?" at a meeting of Applied Physics Society. Suddenly, as you know very well, Japanese became very enthusiastic, once they got to know the topic. In one or two years, the number of people interested in the field increased rapidly to several hundred. Still, the facilities were limited, so they couldn't do very good experiments. Good experiments were done only in certain places, in dividing some government labs and some university labs.
What was the size of the group interested in these topics within ETL?
Fewer than ten. My boss was there, I was there and so was Sasaki. Then theoretical physicists joined in the early 1950, and the number rose to 10 or 12. I needed some technicians, so including technicians the whole number was still under 15. So each place had a limited number of scientists working.
Sony's Interest in Transistors
The companies worked in a different way. Take the case of Sony. Their true history starts after the 1950s because until then they were very involved in developing the old style of technology such as magnetic tape recording. The founder of Sony, Ibuka, was a very interesting person. When he got the news of the invention of the transistor he asked himself, "What is it for Sony? What is it for me?" He soon came to the final conclusion that Sony could use the transistor to make the world's smallest all-transistor radio. That was in the early 1950s. He made up his mind, then he assembled a group of engineers in Sony. But the situation with the transistor itself was still very primitive. Although they were already past the era of point-contact — they already had the alloy junction transistor — the high frequency characteristic was still miserable. The engineers were very enthusiastic, but they soon encountered a very big barrier. The barrier was the high-frequency characteristic. Nothing could be done with the of alloy junction transistor.
The Sony engineers had to focus on a different kind of technology they called grown-junction transistors. That was a very difficult and sophisticated process. In 1952 or 1953, they tried many, many kinds of things to put more impurities in the emitter region by doping. They tried to replace antimony — that is a donor impurity — with other kinds of atoms. The group leader at that time was Sakamoto, a physicist. Sakamoto tried phosphorous instead of antimony, but he failed. Then he tried to use phosphorous with a small amount of indium. It's a very interesting combination, an unexpected combination, but he tried. And he got a very nice result — once! But he couldn't repeat it. They were extremely disappointed.
One day, former president Iwana, who was presiding over the semiconductor work at Sony, visited the group. Iwana-san was a geophysicist originally. He asked what they were working on and they told him about their unsuccessful attempts to reproduce making a grown-junction transistor using phosphorous and indium. Exactly that morning, a young engineer at Sony had gone to the library and found the BSTJ in which a Bell scientist published his work on phosphorous doping, with pessimistic conclusions. Please consider the situation of the early 1950s. America was so high; Japan was so low. The conclusion of a scientific paper from Bell Laboratories was like a voice of the gods. That young engineer reported to Iwana, "The Bell scientist says this is pessimistic, so I became extremely discouraged."
Iwana-san was a very cool person. He replied, "But I remember you said, you succeeded once. I still hope you will succeed again. I take all the responsibility, so don't worry if you use more time. Why don't you try again?" Fortunately, with this encouragement, they kept working. It took three weeks or so, but they finally got a very nice result. The cut-off frequency came up to 2 megahertz, then to 4, and almost to 10 megahertz. That was a big success. Finally, very fortunately, this was developed into a dependable technology at Sony. The first transistor radio from Sony was 1956, I guess.
The situation was like that in the companies, because they had to make something. But here in the government lab, because of its own character and nature, I was extremely eager to do some more fundamental research on electron devices and the physics of semiconductors. I enjoyed that very much. I spent 26 years in the government lab. Our role is somewhat similar to that of the National Bureau of Standards in the United States. Until I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960 to work in their Research Laboratory for Electronics, the access I had to foreign scientists was through printed material.
Cultural Differences between US & Japan
Please tell me about your experience at RLE.
That had a very strong impact on me and on my whole life. I went there in September 1960 by invitation of Jerome Wiesner. Wiesner was the former president, and he was presiding over that laboratory. From that time, my eyes opened. Until then, I had never noticed such a profound relationship between cultural background, social background, and scientific activity.
I'll give you one example. Time-keeping. At MIT my room was in Building Ten. Near my office was the Bush Room, named for a famous mathematician. Every Thursday at 4 p.m. there was a very nice seminar there, organized by John Slater, a famous scientist there. He was like a god to me. All the papers given there were excellent. I never missed those seminars. I found that well-known scientists, such as von Hipple and Slater, always arrive at ten minutes before 4 p.m.; they were very punctual. Everywhere, at the seminars at Lincoln Laboratory and at the seminars in the department of electrical engineering at MIT, people were punctual. But at that time, here in Japan, especially at ETL, this was not the case.
I remember a situation at ETL in 1960 when we had a seminar given by Steenbeck, a famous engineer, on discharge. Steenbeck's seminar was scheduled to start every Friday at 2 p.m. At 2 p.m. no one was there. At 2:15 there were a few people. By 2:30, six or seven people had arrived, and someone would say, "Shall we start now?" It was already thirty minutes later than the scheduled time, very unpunctual. This lack of punctuality was coined "Tanashi-time." Tanashi was where ETL was located. I wrote to my friends in Boston that we must keep this in mind. In the United States, even well known physicists are punctual for seminars. We should change everything from the start. Our mind is very much distorted.
I observed another example of cultural differences. On many, many occasions, when I joined conferences, the approach of American friends was to ask direct questions that could be answered yes or no. For example, a friend of mine, a professor of Namuri University, gave a paper at a conference in the United States. Then the meeting was opened to questions. A very simple question was asked, but his answer began with some reasoning, and he spent a long time talking about background. The person who asked the question — still I remember his name was [Henry S.] Sommers [Jr.], a famous person at RCA Princeton — stood up and he cried, "Just answer yes or no!" This is another example of the American approach of clearly dividing things yes or no, 1 or 0. I'm not talking good or bad, but this is the reality.
Gradually I learned more and more through my personal life and my life in the laboratory, that culture is extremely important. I am still learning these days, but then I was in my 30s and extremely sensitive. So every two or three days I wrote to my friends about the new things I discovered. Not only in my work, but also the reactions of American scientists, or things I found in the street. Cultural background was so influential. I visited RCA, Bell Labs, General Electric, and many other places. I noticed there were some differences in management between them — and also between Japan and the United States in R&D management.
Do you want to talk about that?
The control of people. I'll give you one vivid example. After my days in MIT, I visited the United States almost every year and talked about these kinds of things. One time I tried to transfer the American way into my group, and I completely failed. While visiting my friend in RCA Princeton, and also my friend Chinowut at Bell Labs, I noticed their management of researchers using technicians was just like the Army; it was strictly top-down. He had several staff members. He talked to these people on a completely and absolutely separate basis. I thought that was very smart. But here in Japan, for a long time, as you may know, work was like family. My group at ETL numbered more than 15 ETL at one time. Modern team. They always talked to one another about their work, giving advice to each other. When I would talk with a staff person, they would always refer to one another’s work, unlike the American way. So I tried the American style of management for one month. That was my experiment.
After four weeks, I clearly noticed that the situation had changed; the atmosphere was different. I called up one or two of staff members and asked them if they had noticed any changes. They replied that they had and it seemed strange to them. When I spoke with my staff members separately and did not discuss their colleagues' work with them, many of my staff thought I did not want them involved in the work, or thought I was unhappy with them. My experience was that just directly implanting American management techniques into Japan was not successful. And vice versa. Jack Mott, my old friend, had a similar experience. He was impressed by the seniority system in Japan but when he tried to implement the Japanese system at Bell Labs, and he completely failed! Every time I visit other countries I discuss these cultural differences with my friends. Perhaps I ask strange questions, but I get reactions to these questions. It's a good way to learn.
Ambitions for and Frustrations with ETL
I got many job offers during the time I spent in the U.S. For instance, Bill Shockley tried to hire me. His way of giving me an offer was to ask, "How do you like working in the bright sunshine of Palo Alto?" I realized that he was offering me a job so I said, "Thank you very much, but I have a dream." He said, "What kind of dream?" I said, "The American situation here, as far as R&D activities are concerned, is excellent. This is the golden age in the United States. I really want to improve the situation in my country, especially at ETL. That is my dream." Shockley sneered and asked, "Then when will you wake up?" Many companies gave me offers, but I had a strong desire to try to do something to improve our situation in Japan. That is why I came back. Other Japanese worked for U.S. companies; for instance, Esaki worked for IBM. I am not saying that his way of doing things is bad, but that is his way. That's all right, but I took my way. I came back and continued my work at ETL.
As I mentioned before, ETL had a very serious problem. I will give you an example. There was a research group working on vacuum tubes at ETL. When transistors came out, vacuum tubes automatically became obsolete in modern electronics. But in the government lab, it was extremely difficult to close a research project. The group working on vacuum tubes was once headed by an important person in ETL history, so even the director couldn't close that project. So that group's work went on for a long time and was completely irrelevant. I was always teasing them, "What are you doing there on vacuum tubes?" I would check their work sometimes and I found terrible things going on. For example, they were doing research on a small instrument used just in pianos to hit the key, and they were measuring the noise coming out when vacuum tubes hit the key. I didn't see the purpose of such research. The reason was very clear. There was nothing important to be done with research like that, but they had to keep that group. This kind of bureaucracy was one of the problems at ETL.
Another problem at ETL was that it belonged to MITI. MITI is part of the Japanese Government, so all kinds of government regulations applied to ETL. I fought against these bureaucrats for 26 years. I became extremely tired of that. For instance, to simply buy instruments required a tremendous amount of paperwork. We also had to find the cheapest price. The time involved was never considered. We needed equipment quickly if we wanted to conduct an experiment. But once paperwork was prepared and submitted, it took a long time. Bureaucracy was the enemy of research activity. That is a fundamental problem for a government research laboratory. But, as far as the more fundamental research is concerned, the government lab was a good place because we could have a generous budget there, compared to universities. I enjoyed the research even while fighting against the bureaucracy. Twenty-six years passed and I made up my mind to resign, and I moved to Sony in 1974.
Did the character of your research program at ETL change after you came back from the United States?
Yes, as a result of certain conferences I attended. Almost every year, I had been attending the Devices and Systems Conference — the original name was Solid State Devices — a conference sponsored by IEEE. It was a very enjoyable conference where people were very active and informal. I attended that conference more than ten times in the past. Returning from that conference, I had a new perspective on research. Not only in regards to my own work; I also sensed something in certain fields. I tried to change my project, but the problem was that this was not possible to do in the middle of the fiscal year. For example, once after attending a conference at the University of Michigan, I had a discussion with some American friends and I noticed something new. On the way back from the United States I was thinking of a new approach in research. When I returned, I tried to change the schedule of buying instruments, and I tried to expand my research in this new direction to take account of the acousto-electric effect. But my request was denied. I again started my quarrel with the business people, asking why they refused my request. I was told they could not change the budget planning until the following March. I would have to submit my request the next year. I said I couldn't wait until then, but the answer was absolutely no. That was in the 1960s. In the early 1970s there was some modification, but it was limited. So yes, my research program changed, but not as much as a direct result of my return from the United States.
Government Research & Mature Technologies
How would you characterize the success of the research program in semiconductors at ETL during the period that you were there? Did the group of researchers there learn certain things that contributed to the body of knowledge? Did they contribute something that was useful to Japanese industry?
That is a very important question. Very frankly, the research work from ETL was not used much in industry. Some of it was. I will give you one example. I found a new method to fix the crystal graphic orientation by use of a light beam. That was a brand new method. I tried to do more research and finally gave a paper on my work. Leo Esaki was still working at Sony, and he visited me at ETL. He wanted to use my method at Sony. I said, "Yes, please go ahead. There is no limitation because we are working for the public." There are some examples like that. We also gave many papers, but they dealt with fundamental scientific understanding.
Some of the work was applied many years later. For example, I was once working to check the formation of crystal defects in silicon — that is the combination of mis-fitting of atoms in a crystal where a heavy atom like copper or nickel precipitates on it. This combination was harmful because the defects shortened the lifetime of carriers. We found that the method to prevent the formation of this combination was to make the walls very sticky. I published this paper many years ago. In 1974 I joined Sony, and there was this CCD camera project here, in which images were suffering from the appearance of defects in the final picture, which is again essentially correlated with my work. My earlier research helped to address the problem.
The question is why we worked on transistors at ETL. The reason is clear. It was still too early for many companies to invest in such research. In some cases it was a dangerous situation. Sony started to work on the transistor radio, but that was a very brave decision given that Americans were not sure that the transistor radio could be done. So in other words, it was a very competitive situation. We understood that the government lab or public laboratories should work on opening new fields. But once a field becomes mature, in technological and scientific knowledge, there is no need for the contribution from the public laboratory, as in the case of vacuum tubes.
The reason we could make a contribution in the field of semiconductors was because semiconductor devices, transistors, and solid-state devices were still in their early days. For example, the junction laser is now widely used in compact discs, but as you remember, the first paper came out on the junction laser in 1962, from three groups in the United States — MIT's Lincoln Lab, General Electric's Syracuse Laboratory, and IBM. Still the junction laser at that time was only operable under pulse conditions at very low temperature. It took twenty years to be developed for use in a product. So, in the early days, the government lab can make a contribution, but once the technology becomes mature, the government lab becomes less and less effective.
Another example is VLSI. Many of my American and European friends say that the MITI gave strong support to the VLSI, and that was one of the reasons why Japan did quite well in that field. I don't agree. In truth, the MITI's support of VLSI was limited. In short, VLSI technology had already been developed to a certain level. ETL couldn't do too much on the front of modern technology on VLSI because companies had spent a lot of money for that; otherwise, they couldn't survive. But in the government lab, the R&D budget is very limited because there is a national budget. So once a technology becomes mature, the government lab cannot compete with private companies. VLSI is a typical example. But when VLSI reaches a new stage of development, some assistance can be given from public laboratories. So managers should be very careful, that is what I think.
Move to Sony
Can you tell me why you left ETL, and came to Sony, and why did you chose Sony rather than some other company?
I have three reasons. First, I became a boss after 26 years at ETL. I had a large staff working for me. In the case of a research group, discussion is essential. But when I became a big boss, the younger staff hesitated to discuss work with me. That was a very dangerous situation for me as a scientist. I could not be subjected to theoretical attack from the younger generation, even though I said, "Please do it, please do it." But they still hesitated because I had become a big boss. So, I realized I had to move away from that situation. Second, the government laboratories were moving to Tsukuba City. I didn't want to join that movement to such a city like Tsukuba. Tsukuba is a made city, not a grown city. It is a very biased city, like Novosibirsk. A city or village should have a cultural background with many different professions, but Tsukuba is a very biased city, and that is not good for intellectual life, not only for me, but also for my wife. So I felt it was a good time for me to resign.
My third reason was the most important motive for me. I spent 26 years on research for the government. I really enjoyed my research, but I wanted to have some other viewpoint. Life is so important, and I didn't want to finish my life having only one position or viewpoint. For 26 years I was looking at everything from the position of research in the government lab. But there are many other viewpoints, such as industry. I really wanted to have at least one other viewpoint during my life. Of course, that is a very dangerous experiment, but I truly wanted this. My wife didn't enjoy it; she preferred stability. But I really wanted to see if a physicist like myself could be useful in the real battlefield of industry. And I was looking for some place without bureaucracy.
Finally I made up my mind to resign from ETL. I went to the director of ETL and said, "I have made up my mind to resign." He asked, "Well, what do you want to do?" I said, "I don't know. I would like to spend six months visiting my friends in the United States and Europe. I have many friends doing research. Then after six months I will return to Japan and try to look for a job." That was my plan at the time. But someone told Ibuka, the founder of Sony, about my intentions. I had known him for many years by that time. He phoned me again and again and again, "I understand you're going to resign from ETL. Why don't you come and join Sony?" He was constantly calling me, sometimes even at 1:30 in the morning. "Have you made up your mind?" I had to stop that. The only way to stop it was to accept the invitation!
He wanted me to take the position of director of the Sony research center. I knew that laboratory because my boss at ETL, Hatoyama, was the first director. He moved from ETL to Sony. I finally accepted, but I couldn't find the time to spend visiting my friends outside the country. But after joining Sony, former president Iwama said, "Go ahead and take three or four weeks. Please do it." So I had a short trip out of the country. Those are the reasons for my move. I lost about three kilograms right after I went to Sony. It was so different culturally, but it was very good learning experience for me.
Sony's Culture and CCD Cameras
Do you want to talk about the difference in culture?
It was significant. I told you about the bureaucracy at ETL. Right after I joined Sony I wanted to buy an ion implantation machine. It is a very expensive machine, in Japanese currency almost 100,000,000 Yen. But this was right after my move, so I didn't know how to do it. I asked what type of requisition manuscript I needed to prepare. I was told that Sony had a very different requisition procedure. Every Tuesday morning there was a staff meeting at headquarters. I was told go there and explain my request, and I would get an answer yes or no. That was Friday, so the next Tuesday I came here, to this headquarter building. At that time Ibuka-san was president and Morita was vice-president. I explained why I needed an ion implantation machine for the research center, even though it was very expensive. It took 17 minutes. I had to explain everything, and after 17 minutes I got "Go!" So I said, "Thank you very much." I stood up and went to the door, and Ibuka called to me, "We gave you the answer: 'Go!' So please do everything in a hurry!" That is the difference between ETL and Sony. I had a lot of these kinds of experiences.
Maybe you know about CCD? CCD is a small integrated circuit used for converting a two-dimensional optical image into a series of TV signals. Today, most video cameras are equipped with a CCD. The CCD camera project was started at Sony in 1972 in the research center. The project was headed by Iwama, who was the director of the research center at that time. Then two years later I joined Sony and took that position. I checked everything in the research center, including the group working on the CCD camera project. That was a really new challenge, a very great challenge. The original CCD research was done by Bell scientists, Boyle and Smith. But at Sony, Iwama business started a project in 1972 to make an all-electronic camera. That was the idea, to make Sony an entrepreneur in the field of cameras without chemistry.
When I joined in 1974, I visited that group. I got a terrible picture coming up from the CCD camera. There was a CCD experimental barracks set. The camera was facing a toy bird. I was surprised to find that this final picture was something like a toy bird, but it had many black and white lines. I couldn't judge what kind of thing the camera was facing. We had to work on the physics of the origin of these defects in the final picture. As I mentioned before, this had to do with crystals and the mis-fitting of atoms. We called this a stacking fault. When we heated silicon crystal, up to 1000 degrees centigrade, we found a very movable heavy atom of iron or cobalt or copper would move around, so it would come and stick on it. Once this combination is formed, positive or negative electron charges are very easily generated, or if electrons and positive or negative charges come near, suddenly they are annihilated. That was the reason we had black and white lines on the final picture. So after fourteen months of very fundamental research by seven physicists, and applied physicists, including myself, on crystal graphing effects, we finally got a clear image of the physics and then we could find the method to get rid of the formation of these harmful centers. After this improvement, we could reduce the number of defects in the picture to below fifteen. That was a remarkable improvement.
One day Iwama, who was already president or vice-president, visited the research center. We showed him our results. We were very proud that we had reduced the number of defects so significantly. But Iwama was a very cool person. He has never said, "Thank you" or "That's quite good." He was silent, and just watched, very cool. I came back with him to the great director's room and suddenly he said, "Kikuchi-san, this may be a good time to move this project to Atsugi." Sony has a factory of video recorders and semiconductor devices at Atsugi with development groups. So Iwama said, "Now it's alright for the research here, so this is a good time to move this project to Atsugi, and please do it." I said, "Why should I do that? We did a lot to improve this situation, and are proud of that. Why should I do that?"
He said, "Kikuchi-san, please understand the fundamental culture in Sony. Experts in doing research are here," meaning Hotogaya, at the research center, which is located in Yokohama. "Experts are here, doing research. But in Sony, experts in making things are located in Atsugi. If you do more work with researchers, you will finally damage it. This has been my own experience, and this is through Sony's culture. Please understand the culture. I understand Kikuchi-san that you did a lot of research in the government lab, but you still don't know the true nature of Sony's culture. Please try to understand that." It was a good line for me. So finally, after a few minutes I said, "Yes, I understand that. I will do it." Then we came downstairs to see him off. He took his car and he rolled down the window, and he called me, "Kikuchi-san, do it in two weeks!" And he left. This was Sony's culture. In this way everything was so different. In the government there was no movement of people, and managers at ETL tried to protect everything, just like a castle. If the group leaders are like that in Sony, Sony cannot survive. So I really understood and learned a lot of things at Sony. Every day I learned a lot of things. I was very happy, even though I lost weight.
Did you move some of your CCD researchers to the development area?
Exactly. At that time the project had 45 people including system engineers, CCD designers, semiconductor engineers, and physicists. I checked everything and finally decided to move 35 people together with the project to Atsugi, telling them, "If any of you want to come back later, please tell me." Only two came back, I think. It's interesting. It was a pleasure for them to watch the practical outcome of their achievement in research. They enjoyed it very much. Finally, I did everything in just two weeks, and the production line started. Very soon, the number of defects came down below three. That's a remarkable thing. In January 1980, the first CCD camera was produced by Sony. It was installed on the Jumbo Jet of All-Nippon Airline, one of the domestic airlines, to show the landscape for taking off and landing. The camera made television news. There was no defect on the final picture; it was a beautiful picture. We held a press conference to announce our success in using CCDs. American firms still couldn't succeed in making a real product out of CCDs. Even Fairchild couldn't. The airline camera was the first demonstration that the CCD was a viable technology.
In the press conference we showed the beautiful picture, and demonstrated how you could take a picture outside, come back, and watch the pictures instantly on the TV in the house. The first application of the CCD camera was by the Asahi newspaper at the Los Angeles Olympic Games. The Asahi newspaper went to Los Angeles and took pictures and all the coded signals were transferred through telephone wires from the United States to Tokyo. The next morning, they came out as color pictures. Then, very soon, video cameras started to use CCDs, replacing the tube type of images. Today all of the video cameras use CCDs. It took almost ten years. Exactly speaking, starting from underground research in the research center, it took ten years to put things into practice. I never could have learned this kind of thing if I had stayed at ETL. I judge this as the typical culture in Sony. I'm not talking good or bad, but this is culture.
Research Accomplishments at Sony
Can you please tell me about the operation of the research here at Sony and what kinds of changes you made in it after you came here?
The CCD is one example. Another is our research on junction lasers, used in compact disc drives. You know how the signals are read out. We use a light beam from a very small junction laser. The junction laser was first developed by researchers in 1962, but it was just a toy for scientists. Nothing practical. It took almost twenty years, and there were two steps in the process. Finally, Sony and Philips began talks in 1982 about starting production of compact discs. At the Sony research center, we were instructed to prepare all necessary things related to the practical use of junction lasers for CDs. It was not an easy task.
Fortunately — this is important — the Sony research center was working on a very important process technology related to compound semiconductors. Compound semiconductors, as you know, are not like germanium or silicon. Semiconductors used for these devices are not an element but a compound of gallium and arsenic. Putting these two or three different elements together to form the crystals is dependent on sophisticated process technology. Very simply, I can summarize the things; there is a time to judge which way to go, this technology or that technology. We judged that we should work either on MBE or MOCVD. MBE is "molecular beam epitaxy"; MOCVD is "metal organic chemical vapor deposition." You could say this was at the level of the university; planar technology was high-school level. Diffusion process was middle school level. Alloying process was primary school level. So after many very, very careful discussions continued for a long time, finally we came to the conclusion that the Sony research center should prepare for MOCVD. My conclusion was, "Okay, let's leave MBE for university professors. They will like to use and work on that." Considering the throughput — how reliable and dependable and less costly the technology is — the MOCVD would be the winner.
So we already had started on these kinds of technologies many years ago — even in some fields before I joined Sony. And of course, after I joined Sony I allocated a large part of the budget to that field, to prepare that field for Sony. That is why Sony is still producing a lot of junction lasers using these technologies, not only in Japan but elsewhere. This is a responsibility of R&D managers in companies, in this case Sony, to judge which technology is most important for the future — even if it is not directly related to a product right now. It comes from the consideration of the trends in technology, or the history of technology. That is what I did. But I still had some difficulties. In 1981, just before we started the business on CDs, there was news that the Sharp company had been producing junction lasers by the alloying process, which is, of course, much cheaper. So even inside Sony there were voices, "Why is the Sony research center still working on such expensive technology?"
One time, one of the members of the board of directors asked me, "Why are you working and spending so much money on such an expensive technology?" So I asked him back, "Which do you wish to have, winner technology or loser technology?" It was not easy to make him understand everything in detail, but I thought it would be rather easy if he learned about the controllability of technology, which is an important difference between the alloying process and MOCVD. We can make crystals at the atomic level by the use of these advanced technologies. This is an important trend right now. Even in companies we must do that. It is a lesson I have learned working in this field for forty-five years. Of course, in the early days I learned a lot from my American friends. That is my philosophy and why I did such kinds of research so intensively at Sony for many years.
Setting the Research Agenda
What about establishing the research agenda within the research center? Is it a bottom-up kind of thing, that researchers will come to you with ideas, or are there certain ideas that are suggested to you from the marketing division, or corporate executives? How do the ideas for research projects come about?
Practically all mixed. Life is like that. I'll give you one example. What we do is a mixture of these kinds of things. When I was a director I told people, "The door of my office is always kept open, so please come in and talk to me if you have an idea." Sometimes I tried to distribute papers on which I requested messages for ideas. And of course, I guaranteed that someone's own idea should be patented with his or her name. Sometimes I called out the good suggestion. At the same time, when I was a member of the board of directors, every Tuesday we had lunch. Ibuka, Morita, and all the 16 or 17 board members spend about two hours discussing all possible topics. "What is the most enjoyable topic in the research center, Kikuchi-san?" Or, "Have you ever seen our new product?" Morita-san might say, "I'm absolutely against this design. Please call the designer of this part and continue discussion." Or, "How about the smallness of this camera's button? I tried to use this camera while skiing, but you cannot operate this small button while wearing ski gloves." So all kinds of things were discussed at these lunches.
When I returned to the research center I would call relevant people and shared with them what had been discussed. "That is a kind of hint, what do you think of that?" So we tried to continue the conversation. That is the important thing. Also, as I mentioned before, people are moving around. So if I thought of something new, I would call someone who was now working in a different place and ask if they had any ideas. So, information was always circulating through various networks. I think the important thing at Sony is to keep this active movement of people and information through networks. For example, we have periodic open houses. The research center, at least once a year, has an open house, for one and a half or two days. We invite about 1,000 Sony employees. This is not open to the public, only Sony employees. It is not only for researchers or engineers, but also people working in sales. Important persons are invited. All the doors in the research center are kept open, and visitors can ask any questions, even any strange questions, and younger scientists there must respond.
To close the open house we have a stunning party where we become good friends with one other. These approaches facilitate good contact between people, good mental networks, information networks. In this way, research projects are always subjected to outside opinions. When I was director, I was responsible, of course, for anything that was wrong. Sometimes I would have to call up two or three scientists and tell them, "I would like to have you close your project because we need your power in some more enjoyable and important project for Sony." We were not very formal, but we were always trying to develop this network.
Technological Evolution and Breakthroughs
Coming from academic physics training and twenty-six years at ETL, how did you find coping with the business side of being in Sony? Did you feel you were prepared for it?
It was not easy for me because when I was on the board of directors I joined discussions about what kind of fields Sony should enter. More or less I was determining the fate of Mister Ibuka. Sony is an enjoyable place for ambitious engineers and scientists. But his part of Sony's culture to pursue interesting products. For many years, this has been the most important principle established by Ibuka. I think this reflects the first era of Sony, absolutely related to the ideas of Ibuka-san. He wanted engineers to enjoy their work here. They must constantly try new ideas and looking for even more ambitious topics. If we come up with a good idea, our goal is to try to develop a practical application so that people can enjoy Sony products — Walkmans, TV, Trinitrons, CCD cameras, everything.
But in my view, a maturing of technology, dating back to before I resigned as a director, has been far more important than simply product development. I really feel strongly about that. The transistor triggered a revolution; it had a profound impact on modern technology. The transistor came into integrated circuits in 1959, forming the core of modern technology that extended to the field of electronics. Now we can do almost everything by electronics. Electronics has impacted every aspect of society. We even have microprocessors in rice boilers. I think the drastic change triggered by transistors and integrated circuits combining two streams, software and hardware, is very important. Before the transistor was developed, in the era of vacuum tubes, these two areas were really separated. But by the application of transistors and integrated circuits, they merged into each other. Right now we are deeply into the maturing process, so things are more or less related to steady evolution. This is not the time of revolution; this is evolution. The first letter "r" has slipped out! That is what I feel. So we should be very careful as managers in Sony. The situation is not the same as when Ibuka established Sony. Even if we find interesting technology now, it is not as easy, even for ambitious engineers, to develop that technology into products because of the maturity of the technology.
That is, the technologies are generally speaking so much more mature right now. The best example is television. The time without television changed into the time of black-and-white television. That was a big step. Then color television came. That was another big step. What is the big step in television now? High definition. That is not such a big step. And it is very, very expensive. So I think we should be very careful to understand the historical situation right now. Sony is now facing a new era on the basis of the historical change in technology. Our task now is to ask what we can do to contribute to this steady evolution. We can think of some of them. One example is the improvement of man-machine interface. I strongly believe we are now facing another test.
We must now prepare for the next possible breakthrough, just like the transistor in 1947. The transistor was a breakthrough discovery. Before that, there was not even a hint of the possibility of such technology. The catalyst was by Mervin Kelly telling Bill Shockley that the future task for U.S. society was a perfected telephone system. That could not be accomplished with vacuum tubes. That was why Kelly needed Bill Shockley, why he needed solid-state devices. So the invention of the transistor was a breakthrough, an unexpected discovery. But now, since the infant is becoming more and more mature, we must try to contribute to the next possible breakthrough. This is especially important for Japanese, because the Japanese are perceived by outsiders as using the results of the innovative American and European research just to make money. I hate that! So for the next breakthrough, we would like to contribute something. To do that, we must have our own approach. But these two tasks are very different in nature. We should be careful to understand this nature.
How do you manage that then in a research operation? Looking for that next breakthrough?
The only thing I sense is the importance of material research, through my own experience. As I mentioned before, when I graduated from Tokyo University, I had studied the research on transistors. I found the semiconductor was really an unknown material. From that unknown material a lot of flowers blossomed. Now the semiconductor is a well-known material; we cannot expect any more big flowers from that. What we need is new unknown material. What are the new materials? We have some candidates. One of them is, as I mentioned before, the new MOCVD or MBE technology. We can make atom-by-atom growth of crystal, by which we now have crystals even God never made before. So maybe this kind of new technology will produce new material from which new physics will develop. Already we have some sense of this; for example, nano-devices. That is one example.
Another sense of new material, for me, is organic molecules. With organic molecules, and we depend very much on chemists. That is why I intentionally collected many good chemists right after I joined Sony. Chemists could contribute a lot in the next fifteen or twenty years. Who can manage, who can design, who can understand more about the structure of materials? We have technology. The combination of technology and knowledge may be useful in opening new fields. So in short — I would like to get your opinion about this — I feel strongly that this moment is a very, very interesting time, in which the progress of technology feeds back to science. As I mentioned before, the MOCVD or MBE have been coming out from the progress in semiconductor technology. Right now by the atom-by-atom method, and thus we can prepare new types of structures. That will create a new physics, just like the progress in the microscope opened a new field in biology, and the progress in the telescope opened a new field in astronomy.
Sometimes my university students ask me, "Kikuchi-san, what would you do if you could be twenty again?" Every time I say, "Okay, read these sentences." I write on the blackboard this kind of research, that kind of research. They are mostly related to this feedback of the progress in technology back to science. My understanding of the situation of science and technology now is that there are two types of tasks. But these two types of tasks cannot be done by the same kind of people. One of them is better suited to European and American friends, frankly, and Japanese workers are not very strong in this field. That side was very good to the Japanese because there was some matching between this kind of work with the Japanese way of doing things. For instance, mixing scattered ideas or a modification of original ideas, but then trying new things on hardware, or something like that. So I think this is very interesting time. That is my understanding after 45 years.
Role of Physicists in R&D
I'm conscious of the time, I'll ask you one more question then give you time to mention anything that you want. The question is, you came to Sony because you wanted to see whether a physicist could make a difference. Could you summarize what you found?
I can't say exactly, but I feel I was able to learn a lot. The things I learned at Sony, as I expected, were very, very different in nature from the things I learned and became intimate with during my work at ETL. I enjoyed that very much. Sony itself is facing a new era, just like I am facing a new era. The merit of physicists is their effort to try to understand things from the bottom, fundamentally. In other words, here is a spectrum, the approach is more practical at one end more fundamental, at the other end. Our research center has the distribution of a research project like this. [gesturing] There is another institute in Sony that has been treating the problem with this spectrum. [gesturing] What I was doing as director of the research center was grasping the very practical problem, and dragging the problem in this direction, back to a fundamental point, and let the people think, and treat the problem carefully. If we could get some idea, then we could drag it back in this direction.
In other words, the physicist allows for a more fundamental, scientific view of practical problems involved with product R&D. From this window, we achieve results. My own personal way of thinking is always like that, dragging a problem in a horizontal line. From that point of view I really feel physicists, I should say good physicists, try to think with some perspective because the important thing is to come back to science. My classmates in the Institute of Physics of the University of Tokyo, some of them think in that direction, they will never come back. We can live in Sony, we can live in the real society; we have to come back. But frankly I love the approach of my good Americans friends, Bill Shockley and John Bardeen. For instance, Bardeen was giving lectures both on electrical engineering and physics. I like that. I'm doing the same thing in Tokai University. I can never forget Bill Shockley's respect for the scientific aspects of practical problems. So with some exaggeration, I think only physicists can do that!