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Sounds of Innovation: Sony Walkman’s Evolution as a Japanese Cultural Icon

In collaboration with Monsutā, Japanese Icons brings you the biggest stories from the birthplace of Monsutā’s lineup of drinks, Japan. Winning the coveted title of Japan’s Best International Lager in 2022, and recently launching a range of alcoholic lemon, mango and pineapple chūhais, Monsutā, along with its iconic Sumo, is a brand that symbolises and celebrates the best of Japan. From music to film, sports to gaming, this series celebrates the Japanese Icons who share the Monsutā legacy.

In Partnership with Monsutā

The dread of having left the house only to realise you’ve forgotten your headphones is one that most of us know all too well. The ability to curate the soundtrack of your commute, workout or shopping trip is a powerful and addictive one that can be taken for granted, making the monotony of a headphone-less commute that much more pronounced. Before modern streaming services, one of Japan’s most iconic inventions, the Sony Walkman, changed the game for music lovers, giving new life to even the most mundane activities and forever making sure we triple-check our headphone pockets on the way out the door. 

Before U2 invaded everyone’s iPods in 2014, Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka was taking issue with carrying around his bulky cassette player when travelling. In 1979, around 16 years after cassette technology was invented, he tasked his executive deputy president, Norio Ohga, with designing a lightweight, portable cassette player that was optimized for headphone use while walking. On July 1, the Walkman TPS-L2 hit the shelves and, despite only anticipating a few thousand sales a month, sales exceeded over 50,000 in the first two months and, within a few years, cassettes were outselling vinyl for the first time. 

Image: Sony Walkman in Guardians of the Galaxy

Portable radios had existed prior to the Walkman’s release but the idea of listening to your own music privately changed the way people related to music and their surroundings. Coming in near the height of the aerobics craze, the Walkman became just as synonymous with working out as lycra and leg warmers and by 1986 the term “Walkman” entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Between 1987 and 1997 the number of people who said they walked for exercise increased by 30%. 

Not everyone was on board with the Walkman though, public use of portable music devices was banned in Woodbridge, New Jersey in 1982 due to a rise in pedestrian accidents. Others had more ideological issues with the “isolating” and “detached” nature of the new private listening experience. However, Japanese professor Shuhei Hosokawa had a more positive outlook, describing the “Walkman effect” as giving listeners more control over their environment and more power in how they inhabit a space. Sony even preempted the potential for antisocial behaviour, giving earlier models a second headset jack, but demand for single-jack models turned out to be much higher. 

Despite the moral panic around perceived antisocial behaviour, relationships were formed around the sharing of mixtapes, the forerunner to the modern-day Spotify playlist, marking a moment in consumer culture where listeners took control over what they heard and in what order. This individuality that the Walkman introduced paved the way for now ubiquitous tech like laptops and mobile phones, becoming the first piece of personal tech to be seen as cool to walk around with.

Image: Monsutā Okinawa Dry

While the rise of the iPod, mobile phones and streaming services may have posed challenges for Walkman devices, Sony has sold over 400 million units across multiple platforms from cassette to CD, mini disc and MP3 since the first Walkman in 1979. The original Walkman cassette players with their clunky buttons and oversized headphones stand as one of the prevailing images of the 80s and 90s and one of the biggest music listening, tech and lifestyle shifts before or since. Monsutā will be back with another Japanese Icon in a couple of weeks. Until then, crack open a can of Monsutā, and don’t forget your headphones. 

Monsutā beverages are available at BWS, Dan Murphy’s and Jimmy Brings.

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