The Rise of the Japanese Camera Manufacturers

In the early years of the last century, long-established German companies dominated the world of film cameras. Brands such as Leitz and Zeiss were giants, and celebrated for their precision engineering and optical performance.

Japan, on the other hand, was a nation emerging from isolation, experiencing rapid growth and structural change. Lacking in the natural resources necessary to fuel an emerging industrialised nation, it had expanded its territories, and much of the country’s manufacturing was dedicated to further intensifying military might. Many of today’s well know Japanese camera manufactures began as suppliers of optical equipment to the Military (making things such as binoculars, sights, and periscopes).

The end of WWII changed everything for the two nations. The German camera industry was in ruins. Worse yet, the division of Germany into two zones physically separated manufacturing plants. In the West Leitz survived intact, but others in the East were further decimated by Russian governance. Zeiss’s tools and equipment were even removed and relocated to invigorate the Soviet camera industry.

Leitz was able to survive, because it innovated and specialised. In 1954, not quite ten years after the end of the war, Leitz introduced the Leica M3. It was such a step forward in thinking coupled with precision manufacturing that most rival companies gave-up trying to compete in the domain of rangefinder cameras (it was however outrageously expensive, and not designed for the mass market). Meanwhile, Zeiss pursued the outdated strategy of incremental improvements to pre-war cameras, resulting in over-complexity, impracticability and extremely high prices. Their failure to innovate paved the way to ruin. The world had changed. War had been the catalyst for innovation, invention and modernisation: the old ways had been swept away.

In post-war Japan, the United States established a significant presence to slow the expansion of Soviet influence in the Pacific. Steps were taken to ensure the poor and dejected Japanese population did not turn to communism, by addressing growth of the economy. Closely-knit groups formed to establish cooperation between manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and banks, along with highly unionised blue-collar workers.

The intention of the Allied involvement in the recovery of the Japanese economy was not to contribute to great technological advances, but occupy and utilise a vast and inexpensive workforce. Accordingly, manufacturing initially focused on the fabrication of mass-produced items of poor quality. “Made in Japan” was synonymous with “cheap rubbish”. However, trade agreements – particularly with the USA – were established, and once the West had withdrawn from Japan, a few small camera companies like Asahi, Canon and Nikon, were able to rebuild and grow in new directions.

Nikon paved the way forward for the Japanese camera industry in 1951, when photographers for Life Magazine stopped off in Japan on their way to cover the Korean War. They bought Nikon lenses for their Leica and Zeiss cameras, and discovered the excellence of Japanese optics (which were based on German Zeiss lens designs). Nikon’s reputation in the USA was made almost overnight.

There is a huge irony to the Nikon success story. One morning ten years previously, two waves of Japanese warplanes had made a surprise attack on the American military base at Pearl Harbour (on the Hawaiian island of Pu’uloa). That assault ensured America’s entry into WWII. Nikon (to use their modern name) was at the time a principal supplier of optical equipment for the Japanese military, and so no doubt facilitated the deaths of many America soldiers.

Other camera manufactures, which had started out copying models from Leitz and Zeiss, similarly found successes through technical innovation and a changing perception of Japanese photographic goods. In 1952, Asahi produced the first Japanese 35 mm SLR (the Asahiflex I). The 1954 Asahiflex IIB was the first SLR with a reliable instant return mirror. The forgotten Tokiwa Seiki Firstflex 35, of the same year, was the first interchangeable lens, leaf shutter, 35 mm SLR. The 1955 Miranda T was the first Japanese pentaprism eye-level viewing 35 mm SLR. The 1957 Asahi Pentax was the first SLR with right-handed rapid-wind thumb lever, first fold-out film rewind crank, first micro-prism focusing aid, and established the “modern” control layout of the 35 mm SLR. The list just goes on and on until about 1960, when almost every first was Japanese, and German innovations ceased.

The German giants this article starts with didn’t disappear completely. Zeiss made a last bid for return to centre stage in 1973 when they teamed-up with the Japanese Yashica company to produce the deluxe Contax RTS camera. Leica moved into the digital age with a big helping hand from the Japanese electronics company Panasonic. Praktica, an East German casualty of the war, scored a couple of firsts before eventually succumbing to extinction. In 1966 Praktica produced the first SLR with an electronically timed shutter, and then in 1971 the first electro-mechanical lens diaphragm stop-down control.

I’m no historian, so please don’t beat me up with comments if I’ve got the odd detail wrong, or over-simplified the story. I’ve written this article as a camera collector who wondered why his pre-1960 cameras are all German, and his post 1960 cameras are exclusively Japanese. The reason is not a story of product migration to ever less-expensive points of manufacture; it’s about a drift of intellectual advancement from one single nation to another, and which occurred over a relatively short time. Who knows when or where the next big camera advance will occur? I just hope it doesn’t take another war!