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Tsutomu Katoh and Korg


Early History

KORG's founder, Tsutomu Katoh was born in Nagoya on August 28, 1926 (Taisho 15) to a merchant family that ran a livestock feed wholesale business along the Iida Highway. These were tough times in Japan. The Great Kanto Earthquake had hit the capital city of Tokyo directly in 1923, leaving 140,000 people dead and missing. The impact of the earthquake and a recession, plunged Japan into financial crisis in 1927.

Tokyo After Great Kanto Earthquake

The musical instrument industry was also in a state of turmoil. In 1927, the largest musical instrument manufacturer - Nippon Gakki Seizo (now known as Yamaha) experienced a labor dispute that lasted for 105 days. 

Nippon Gakki Seizo (Yamaha) factory in early 1930s

When new management took over control of Yamaha's company because the piano industry was faltering in Japan, Koichi Kawai (who had been Torakusu Yamaha neighbor in Hamamatsu and one of the primary engineers in early Yamaha acoustic piano development) left Yamaha to establish a new musical instrument workshop. That company founded in 1928 is Kawai and in the early 1980s would be one of the 5 companies that would help develop MIDI along with Sequential Circuits, Korg, Roland and Yamaha.

Early picture of the Kawai piano factory with Kochi Kawai in the center of the picture.

World War II and the aftermath of the war

In 1937 (Showa 12), when Katoh was 12 years old, the China-Japanese War broke out, and the following year, the National Mobilization Law was enacted, and the whole nation was involved in the war. When World War II broke out in 1939 (Showa 14) and a price control order was issued in Japan, the Katoh family was unable to conduct normal business activities. Katoh studied hard during the war and graduated from the prestigious Nagoya Commercial High School in 1944 (Showa 19).

Katoh was old enough to be drafted, so he decided to join the navy and was assigned to a special unit at Yokosuka near Tokyo training for missions in a five-seat submarine, known as the Koryu. 

Koryu midget subs in dry dock after WWII

 It is lucky for the music industry that the war ended in 1945 (Showa 20) without Katoh going on a mission because the Koryu were kamikaze submarines. They were supposed to go out and find American battleships and then ram directly into them. Though originally designed to carry two 17.7-inch torpedoes externally, a torpedo shortage caused most, if not all, to be fitted with a 1300-pound internal warhead for employment on suicide missions. 

Inside a Kamikaze Submarine

After the war ended, Katoh ended up in nearby Tokyo.

Japan was decimated after the war. In addition to the destruction of Japan's social infrastructure, the product distribution system had completely collapsed due to shortages of supplies and state control during the war. In Tokyo, large-scale black markets were born in Shinbashi, Shinjuku, Yotsuya, and Ikebukuro, and played a role in improving the serious food situation in the capital.

Katoh always had a keen business sense and he realized that even though his family's background was in food wholesale, that the profit margins were far higher for electric wires and automobile parts for which demand was rising amid post-war reconstruction.

The American army was basically running Japan in the early years after the war so Katoh went to the Occupation Forces office with what little money he had and an English dictionary. At first, he was turned away, but eventually he managed to get people to listen to him, and he was able to purchase electric wires. This wire was sold at a price several dozen times higher than the purchase price.

Dai Ichi Building- US Army Headquarters after WWII

By about 1947, as food and commodity supplies began to improve, the black market dwindled and was replaced by formal traders. At that time, Katoh packed the money he earned into his rucksack and traveled around the country. By the time he reached Sapporo (the capital of Hokkaido in the far north), all the money he had earned had run out, and had no money to return to Nagoya. All he had left was his Japanese- English dictionary so he took this dictionary to a pawn shop and somehow managed to raise the money to get to Tokyo.

Katoh did a number of odd jobs including selling newspapers on the street and then he joined the Odakyu Construction company which was involved in the development of the Kabukicho area in Shinjuku. At that time, Kabukicho was becoming Tokyo's entertainment district, with new stores opening one after another.

The area in Kabukicho where Katoh-san ran several nightclubs

Through his workplace connections in 1950, Katoh was approached with the idea of becoming the owner of a club (Minx) in Kabukicho. He decided to quit his job at the real estate company and become involved in club management. Katoh was a shrewd businessman and eventually he was managing four businesses - Minx, Club Hana, a high end nightclub with hostesses and nightly music ranging from popular to classical, Lausanne a restaurant and Phoenix, a store that sold all different kinds of general merchandise.

Koma Stadium was a famous theater in Kabukicho where the first NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen was run in 1951

Music was starting to be a big deal in Japan especially when NHK began its New Year's Eve television NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen ( "NHK Red and White Song Battle"). Starting on radio in 1951 and then on both radio and TV in 1953, this year end celebration launched the careers of many Japanese pop performers and continues as a tradition today. 

Although Katoh was not a musician himself it was his days managing a club where he developed his ear and learned alot about how musicians felt about their craft.

Katoh came up with the idea from a toy keyboard that was sold at the Kabukicho operations he ran and the transformation from night club management to musical instrument company was about to take a dramatic turn based on a musician who played at Katoh's nightclub.

When keyboard player and author Julian Colbeck came to Japan in 1990, he asked Chairman Katoh what led him to start Korg. Much to both Julian's (and the translator's) surprise Katoh said "to finance a gambling trip to Las Vegas".

Fumio Mieda, Tsutomu Katoh and Tadashi Osanai

Tadashi Osanai was a professional accordion player who had three passions in life- accordion, electronics and gambling. Osanai-san was a frequent player at Club Hana with a trio of comprised of himself on accordion, a bass player and a drummer. He convinced Katoh to lend him the equivalent of $500 to go to Akihabara and buy parts to build a drum machine. Osanai–san had seen the Wurlizer Sideman and thought he could build a better one. He also told Katoh that all the drummers he knew were a bit unreliable in their timing especially after drinking and that a machine could be more precise.

Osanai-san dream was to go to Las Vegas and gamble at one of the famous casinos. 

So Katoh and Osenai-san developed the Doncamatic. The name comes from the sound -Don represents that Bass Drum sound and Ka the sound of the Claves/Snare.  

A few years later Katoh met and started a partnership with Fumio Mieda who would develop the first Korg synthesizer 

Japanese video of the Doncamatic in action

Fumio Mieda and the first Korg synthesizer

A few years later Katoh met and started a partnership with Fumio Mieda who would develop the first Korg synthesizer labeled the Prototype Number 1.  It featured some incredible innovations including a slider labeled Traveler which controlled a filter making the the double manual organ more of a polyphonic synth.  In 1970, it was far ahead if it's time. 

By 1967, the world was becoming interested in electronic keyboards and the new field of music synthesis, and it was in this year that an engineer named Fumio Mieda approached Katoh, asking for backing to develop an organ. Apparently, Katoh was impressed by Mieda's enthusiasm, so he offered to finance the development of a marketable instrument.

by Gordon Reid for Sound on Sound

Fumio Mieda

The essence of Chairman Katoh

Tsutomu Katoh was a truly unique character.  He was a shrewd businessman, but often made decisions with his gut.  He often said that if Korg spent lots of money developing a new product and only one musician discovered it and truly loved playing it, he would be satisfied.   

He had an innate sense of style and fashion.  When he was shown the first prototype of the Korg M1, he looked at it and within a couple of seconds said "The design is quite right, it doesn't look appealing. It should be softer and have curves. You should want to pick it up."  He pointed to an area and suggested a dimple.  The result was the little round indentation that became an integral part of the M1's distinctive look. He was always listening to the musicians and their needs. 

Katoh-san suggested the round area at the back of the M1 side panel.

Katoh believed that the people at Korg should be craftsmen building musical instruments, not just engineers (Japanese video with subtitles)

There are more stories ahead about Korg, Yamaha and Dave Smith

Full disclosure (a note from the author Athan Billias)

I have written many of the articles on this site, but this article was special to me and took a long time because it is not just Chairman Katoh's story, it is also partly my story. 

I went to Japan for the very first time in the spring of 1986 on a business trip working for Korg USA.  

Katoh-san had the idea that there should be an exchange program between Korg USA and Korg Inc.   I went to Japan for what was supposed to be three months in the fall of 1986 and returned 7 years later after working as the head of product planning and sound design at Korg Inc in Japan for all those years. I had the honor of working closely with all the Korg people who made the Korg M1 the most successful commercial synthesizer of all time including the group of sound designers who still call themselves proudly "the MIDI Patch Boys".  

Chairman Katoh and all the people at Korg Inc in Japan changed my life and I would not be where I am today except for their mentoring and guidance. 

When I think of Chairman Katoh, I am often reminded of the Japanese proverb -地震雷火事親父 .  These are the four things you should be afraid of "Earthquakes, Lightning, Fire, and the Old Man".  

Somehow it seems fitting that Katoh-Kaicho (Chairman Katoh) passed away on MARCH 15, 2011 only 4 days after the great earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Fukushima area. He was himself a force of nature. 

This article focuses on the early history of Chairman Katoh and the very beginnings of Korg (thanks to a book on Korg's history provided to me by Korg Inc.)   

Below are links to several great resources about Korg's history and even a song by Keith Emerson dedicated to Katoh-san. He touched so many artists and musicians lives both directly and through the products his company made. 

But in an upcoming article after the April NAMM show,  we plan to tell the intricate story of the relationship between Yamaha, Korg and Dave Smith and reveal some details that have never been made public before. 

Resources on the history of Korg


The History Of Korg: Part 1

Over the 40 years of their existence, Korg have produced a huge variety of groundbreaking music gear, from electronic percussion to industry-standard synths, and from guitar tuners to digital recording workstations. This month, we look back at how it all started...


The History Of Korg: Part 2

In the 1980s and early '90s, with Yamaha's help, Korg expanded dramatically, producing some of the first affordable digital recorders and physical-modelling instruments. But it was their world-class synths, such as the M1 and Wavestation, that made them the company they are today...


The History Of Korg: Part 3

Cutting-edge innovation is by no means a guarantee of commercial success, but Korg have had a flair for both - although not always simultaneously. We look at how this continued to be true throughout the '90s to the present, when the company pushed the boundaries of physical modelling while refining their world-beating workstations.


Tsutomu Katoh | Oral Histories | NAMM.org

Tsutomu Katoh had many ideas for using electronics to improve the way people make music in their homes. As the founder of KORG, he was able to see his ideas turn into successful musical products. The

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