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As Sony struggles, many see cautionary tale for Japan

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"If you plan everything you can't be lucky, and you need a lot of luck [to succeed]," Mr. Ito said at a meeting of the Japan Society. "The Japanese have very good talent; but the minute you institutionalize, and you create all the hierarchy and the process, and bring in all of the gyosha [trading companies], it suddenly becomes this thing that's very difficult."

That can result in ill-considered visions for expansion that make little sense in the long run, says Yasunori Tateishi, who cites Sony's ultimately disastrous acquisition of Columbia Pictures in the mid-1990s as evidence that empire-building clouded its focus on the products that helped it make its name in the 1970s and '80s: consumer electronics.

New vision?

The last time Sony turned a profit was in 2008. And last year was the worst fiscal year in its 66-year history and sent shares in Tokyo to their lowest level for more than three decades.

On top of rough economic times and a wider malaise in Japan that stifles innovation and entrepreneurship, Sony has performed poorly amid foreign competition from Apple and Samsung, according to Mr. Tateishi, author of "Farewell, Our Sony." It's because the company has overextended its reach, he says. 

"Having so many faces is Sony's biggest problem," he says. "It's increasingly unclear what kind of company it is."

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