When Sony denied last week that it was planning any kind of launch event for its new PlayStation 5 console, that was only sort of true. Tokyo’s daily Covid-count was rising alarmingly into “third wave” territory, most of the initial sales of the machine were online anyway and no right-minded corporation wants its name associated with a pandemic cluster.
But when you have spent 74 years building your brand on consumer products — and have as powerful and deep-pocketed a rival as Microsoft on your tail — a flashy launch is tough to resist.
Just before the PS5 went on sale in Japan, Sony arranged for Tokyo’s Kanda Myojin shrine to be lit up in its corporate colours and for futuristic, console-themed animations to dance across its pious, 1,270-year-old precincts.
Sony’s choice was judicious, and perhaps more telling than intended. Kanda Myojin, which sits on the edge of Tokyo’s famously geek-frequented Akihabara district, has over time reinvented itself as the spiritual home of consumer electronics.
The shrine’s three gods — one warrior deity, and two of wealth and commerce — seemed the perfect trio to keep guard over an industry that, along with automobiles, once spearheaded the pugnacious globalisation of brand Japan. Kanda’s current fee to have a priest envelop your mobile phone, iPod or laptop with a prayer of divine protection from cracked screens, malfunction or cyber attack is Y10,000 ($95).
The location of Sony’s launch event is also a reminder of what Japanese consumer electronics have lost, not only in the crowd-averse fearscape of Covid-19, but in the broader march of consumer electronics away from what Japan once did so well.
In pre-Covid times, Akihabara was reliably the place for media to revel in the spectacle of a console launch, with giant queues, elated first-comers and shop staff affixing “sold out” signs to empty shelves before even an hour had elapsed.
Beyond consoles, Akihabara was once the pre-eminent test bed for a parade of new consumer gadgetry. Current gems include Nintendo’s Switch, Audio-Technica headphones, Zojirushi rice cookers and the Casio G-Shock.
But Akihabara and Japan’s dominance of electronics has diminished as both the consumer and the technology have moved on. Part of the discussion around the current “console war” — Microsoft’s new generation Xbox also launched last week — has been whether this round will be the last.
The $150bn global games industry looks substantially different to how it did when both Sony and Microsoft launched their predecessor machines seven years ago. Mobile games, in particular, now account for just under half of global games revenues, consoles are just one platform among a suite of alternatives and the global gaming population now numbers in the billions. Also highly significant has been the fusion of games with social media, turning titles like Fortnite into virtual environments for activities far beyond the game itself.
Will the consoles themselves soon become an anachronism in an era of streaming, mobiles and the entrance to gaming of powerful new rivals like Amazon and Google?
Set against that is an argument that the value of consoles has actually been elevated by the tech evolution. The machines — with their meticulously constructed operating systems, huge fanbases, gamer networks, sales channels and interfaces — are now more powerfully concentrated entertainment conduits than almost anything else on the market.
For Sony in particular, the PS5 is a machine that the company dreamt would exist long before it could. It’s a magical, globally installed unifier and distributor of content that makes the acquisitions of CBS Music in 1988 and Columbia pictures in 1989 look like part of the coherent plan that successive Sony chief executives always claimed to have.
But the greater significance of the PS5 may be to Japan’s sense of itself. If, as many analysts expect, this machine goes on to outpace the PlayStation 4’s worldwide sales of 110m units, it will prove Japanese gadgetry is still world-beating. Sony has not said as much, but its use of the Kanda shrine for the launch event feels like a prayer for the protection of all Japanese gadgets.
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