Remembering Yoshiaki Sugano

The creator of Koetsu phono cartridges passed away on Sunday, January 20, 2002, just a couple of months short of reaching the age of 95. A wake was held in Chiba, Japan on January 22; the funeral took place on the following day.

A descendant of the Japanese medieval artist Honami Koetsu, Yoshiaki Sugano was brought up in a tradition of crafting swords. As a young man he practiced boxing, including participation in events in China. It is said that he never lost a fight. Later he joined automaker Toyota, where he rose to the rank of an executive in the domestic sales division. He retired from the auto industry at the age of 60.

Even while working at Toyota, he was fascinated by music reproduction in the home, and he took a special interest in phono cartridges, first studying and repairing broken samples of European imports, and later carefully examining Japanese efforts. Upon retiring from Toyota, he created his own Koetsu brand of moving-coil cartridges—the brand name is derived from his distant ancestor, to whom a temple is dedicated in the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto.

I first met Yoshiaki Sugano in the early 1980s. He welcomed me into his home, and I made repeated visits, which resulted in an article about his life and his work in audio, published in the Danish magazine High Fidelity in 1983. What fascinated me about his work with the Koetsu cartridges was his keen interest in high-purity materials, like 6-nines copper and 5-nines iron. He also introduced me to platinum-iron magnets, made in small quantities by a laboratory of the giant company Nippon Mining. He would then combine these high-tech materials with natural elements like wood and stone (eg, ebony and onyx) in a symphony that resulted in the rich, lush sound of each Koetsu cartridge. On certain models he would also apply the traditional "Urushi" laquers of Japan.

I think it is safe to say that Yoshiaki Sugano was the Master Craftsman who created the genre of true high-end phono cartridges. With the introduction of Koetsu cartridges, for the first time the status of a phono cartridge could be said to be similar to that of the finest musical instruments, like a Steinway grand piano or a Stradivarius violin. For years, while living within an hour's drive of Yoshiaki Sugano's home, I would listen to my Koetsu Wood cartridge on a Koetsu tonearm via a Koetsu step-up transformer, and a rich, transparent, musical sound was the order of the day.

Regularly I would visit the Master, and just as often as I would find him occupied with cartridge making. I would also find him busy working on his oil paintings, another major passion of this incredibly interesting personality, who had gone from sword-making to boxing, and then became a Toyota executive, before focusing his creative efforts on phono cartridge design and manufacturing. While painting, he often enjoyed listening to music of Christian choral performances, which set him in the right artistic mood for his brush strokes.

Another positive side of Yoshiaki Sugano was his willingness to share and teach. Rather than being secretive and protective, he would willingly share his ideas and know-how. In fact, he encouraged me to pursue a career in phono cartridge manufacturing myself. He introduced me to subcontractors manufacturing cartridge parts, and even let me have, at his cost, a stack of his valuable test records necessary for cartridge manufacturing. This led to a tremendous respect that allowed me to search for an alternative, a unique direction, rather than copying the Master. I humbly look at him as my mentor and teacher.

Participating in his wake last Tuesday, together with his family and his friends, made me contemplate his wonderful human qualities and his accomplishments, not only as a cartridge designer and craftsman, but as a whole human being.

Yoshiaki Sugano is survived by several children. His son Fumihiko Sugano was especially trained to take over the cartridge legacy from his father. The world's audio community is thus lucky to have a continuous supply of Koetsu cartridges today, even though the Grand Master himself has achieved eternal peace.

Stig I. Bjorge, CEO, Scan-Tech/Lyra, Tokyo, Japan