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Tadashi Sasaki, 1915-2018: Mentor to Masayoshi Son

'Rocket Sasaki' pinned his faith, house and pension on SoftBank's young founder

Tadashi Sasaki, also known as "Rocket Sasaki," during a party celebrating his 100th birthday in 2014 (Photo by Atsushi Ooka)

TOKYO -- Tadashi Sasaki, Sharp's inspirational former vice president who turned the company into a global electronics powerhouse, died on Jan. 31 at the age of 102.

Sasaki, also known as "Rocket Sasaki," was a shrewd business leader who believed in co-creation, a philosophy that was evident in his close mentoring of entrepreneurial luminaries such as Apple's Steve Jobs and Masayoshi Son, chairman and CEO of SoftBank Group.

"Neither SoftBank nor I would be where we are today without Mr. Sasaki," said Son in a statement late Friday after hearing of Sasaki's death. "He was a great savior, not only for me and our company but also Japan, as he pioneered the country's cutting-edge electronics industry."

Son was not exaggerating. In fact, he might not have become the success he is today if he had not met Sasaki 40 years ago.

In August 1978, Son had temporarily returned to Japan from the University of California, Berkeley to sell an electronic translator with phonetic functions, a device he had developed with some Berkeley professors.

This was Son's first entrepreneurial foray. Born and raised into poverty in an obscure town on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, the third-generation ethnic Korean was eager to move up in the world.

After numerous rejections, Son found himself in a telephone booth during that sweltering summer, pinning his last hopes on a call to Sharp. He managed to wrangle a meeting with Sasaki, before whom he gingerly unwrapped his translator.

Interviewed nearly 40 years later, Sasaki was still struck by Son's intense eyes. "I thought this young man was somehow different [from others], and I wanted to help him," he recalled.

Sasaki decided to fund Son with up to 160 million yen ($1.45 million at current rates) for research. After graduating from Berkeley, Son returned to Japan and used the money to found SoftBank Corp. Japan in 1981.

Sasaki continued to mentor and support Son. When SoftBank ran into financial difficulties soon after its establishment, Sasaki used his prestige to help Son secure a loan, calling a bank director and personally vouching for his young protege.

"My wife gave me a good dressing-down, because I offered my retirement money and house as collateral if needed," Sasaki revealed.

When asked why he had done so much for Son, he simply said, "I just liked him."

Son is still touched by Sasaki's kindness and generosity. "Sasaki-sensei was my savior, like my Buddha, because he believed in my future and supported me although I offered nothing in return," he noted. "I can say nothing, but lower my head for such pure [kindness]."

Tadashi Sasaki, right, with a young Masayoshi Son. The former Sharp vice president continued to mentor and support Son after the founding of SoftBank Corp. Japan in 1981.

Sasaki was born in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, in 1915 and moved to Taiwan when he was still young. After graduating from Kyoto Imperial University, Sasaki started work at a vacuum tube plant but was later recruited into the military.

He went to Germany to study radar technology, barely managing to return to Japan on a German U-boat with a copy of a radar blueprint. The Japanese major carrying the original was not as lucky: The U-boat carrying him was sunk off Singapore, killing him and destroying the blueprint.

After the war, Sasaki threw himself into his studies and began to believe that the future of electronics was in transistors. The prescient Sasaki impressed the heads of Hayakawa Electric Industry -- forerunner of Sharp -- who asked him to join the company.

Sasaki later headed a team of Sharp engineers in the company's "calculator war" against domestic rival Casio Computer. Now merely a smartphone function, calculators then were drivers of the electric appliance industry. Competition in the palm-size calculator market led to major advances in semiconductor technologies, which found their ways into TVs and other home appliances.

This competition paved the way for Japan's rise as the global leader in electronics.

Impressed by Sasaki's work, executives of American manufacturing conglomerate Rockwell presented him with a drawing of himself straddling a rocket christened "Sharp" with "Rocket Sasaki" written below.

Sasaki's business card, with the famous “Rocket Sasaki” illustration on the back

SoftBank's Son was not the only up-and-comer Sasaki took under his wing. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, also benefited from Sasaki's largesse.

Dr. Sasaki, as he was called by close associates, recalled the unexpected meeting with Jobs, who had visited Sharp after being ousted from Apple. Sasaki's secretary referred to Jobs as "a strange foreigner" wanting to see him.

"He was slovenly but the power of his eyes was awesome, like Son's," Sasaki recalled, referring to the long-haired Job's, who had shown up dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and sandals. "His eyes were gleaming."

Sasaki explained his philosophy of co-creation, and Jobs told Sasaki he had come to him for ideas on his next venture, the then-nascent iPhone, which went on to change the world.

Jobs and Son later crossed paths following an introduction by Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle. The two hit it off, with Son later obtaining exclusive rights to the iPhone in Japan and acquiring the Japanese unit of British mobile phone operator Vodafone Group. With the iPhone in his pocket and a mobile network in hand, Son went on to challenge Japan's mobile phone giant NTT Docomo.

Sasaki spent his latter years at an elder care facility in Tsukaguchi, Hyogo Prefecture, a town between Osaka and Kobe. Even at the age of 101, when interviewed for this story, Rocket Sasaki was still closely following technological innovations.

And he remained proud of his former protege Masayoshi Son. "This is interesting, isn't it?" he asked, holding up a magazine cover adorned with Son's photo. "It looks like Son will continue his fight. Nothing seems to have changed."

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