World Economy

Does Sony’s revamp signal a sea change for Japan Inc?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Sony Xperia Z1 smartphone in the Sony booth at the CES in Las Vegas in January.
James Sullivan | Getty Images

The major restructuring of Sony's consumer electronics units may signal that a long-awaited shakeup to break Japan Inc. out of its doldrums has finally begun.

"Zombie" companies resisting change and offering little in the way of growth had long plagued Japan's moribund economy. In the wake of Abenomics – a series of policy measures unveiled under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to jump start the economy – that may be changing, with more companies beginning to shake up their business models, especially in the face of increasing competition from abroad.

(Read more: Will Sony's amputation plans staunch the bleeding?)

Sony swallows bitter pill for revival

"There's a real feeling in corporate Japan that we have got to change. Evidence of that happening is most welcome," Mark Matthews, head of research for Asia at private bank Julius Baer, told CNBC.

At its quarterly earnings announcement Thursday, Sony said it would hack off its long-ailing computer and television businesses, stepping up its restructuring efforts. The turnaround efforts include plans to cut around 5,000 jobs, a once-taboo step in corporate Japan.

Sony isn't alone. Panasonic has emerged from a period of heavy losses after it sold off some units and shifted its focus toward industrial, rather than consumer, clients; its efforts also included reducing its workforce by more than 30,000 workers.

(Read more: Is the Japan story getting threadbare?)

"It's indicative of the wake-up call that Prime Minister Abe is having. It's really causing positive reverberations throughout corporate Japan," Matthews said.

"Japan has rightly realized that if they don't do something, they're going to slowly sink into the Pacific Ocean and become vulnerable and irrelevant," he said. "In a way, Sony is a microcosm of that."

Others also see the crossing of former taboos could indicate Japan's corporate world is heading into a period of major changes.

(Read more: So far, Abenomics is 'close to a bull's eye')

"Japan has been the last bastion of jobs for life," said Shane Oliver, head of investment strategy at AMP Capital. "Maybe it does indicate a shift of structure in Japan."

Oliver noted that Abe likely isn't a fan of the layoffs, as they will complicate his efforts to push companies for much-need wage increases.

"One thing Japan needs is higher wages growth, but if other companies follow Sony's lead, it may not get that," Oliver said.

(Read more: Tight-Fisted Japan Firms Deal Blow to Abe's Revival Plan)

But he added, "If Prime Minister Abe wants a new Japan, then some people will have to lose their jobs," noting "ultimately, a stronger Japan will lead to more jobs."

Why is Sony lagging behind its Japanese peers?

To be sure, not everyone is convinced Japan Inc.'s moves indicate a drive for growth so much as a painful necessity.

"It's a painful adjustment to slower growth," said Tim Condon, head of research for Asia at ING Financial.

"North Asia is a big loser from slower growth in China," Condon said. "The really beneficial effects of rapid growth in the early part of the century are running in reverse," he said, noting that Japan was a major beneficiary of China's rapid growth before the Global Financial Crisis.

(Read more: Sony rejects Dan Loeb's spin off proposal)

"(Sony) didn't want to do this. They're doing this to save the company," he said. "Other companies are going to be facing the same kind of pressures as Sony. There's a limited amount the (weaker) yen can do to help out there," he said.

Sony itself may see its moves as only a retrenchment in the face of tough competition, rather than a springboard for growth.

"I hope that this will be the last time I will need to restructure on this scale," Kazuo Hirai, Sony's CEO said at a press conference. "It may not be to this magnitude in the future, but we will always need to review and realign our business portfolio as a time like this when competition is intense."

Indeed, it's likely noteworthy that Sony's moves leave the company's basic structure intact. Last year, Sony rejected calls from billionaire investor Daniel for a breakup of the company, with spinoffs of the entertainment and insurance divisions.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1