Made in Japan: A Brief History of the Japanese Photographic Industry

To practice German, I translate photography-related articles and technical texts. The following is an adapted translation of an article published in the FOTOHITS Special supplement to issue 5/2017 of the magazine.

The Japanese optical and photographic industry has a long history. Already during the Meiji Restoration (1868–1912), Emperor Mutsuhito set the goal of industrializing Japan and exchanging knowledge with the outside world. At that time, around 3000 foreign specialists were invited to the country, while talented Japanese students were dispatched to European universities and companies with the goal of acquiring and bringing back technical knowledge. Here are a few noteworthy historical facts.

  • In 1873 Matsugoro Asakura was dispatched to Austria to study optical manufacturing. Two years later, he founded a company that mostly produced eyeglass lenses. His son Kametaro Asakura developed the first known Japanese lens consisting of several glass elements.
  • The first optical research laboratory is established in Tokyo in 1906. From 1911, the Fujii brothers (no relation to the Fuji company) used the laboratory to produce binoculars. Prior to this, Ryuzo Fujii, who is a graduate of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, had been studying in Germany for three years. In his workshop, one could find machines and measuring instruments from Zeiss. Later, he worked for the Nippon Kogaku company, which eventually became Nikon.
  • In 1915, the Maritime Institute of Technology started developing its own optical glass to replace expensive imports.
  • Nippon Kogaku started its own production in 1918.
  • When the Osaka Industrial Material Testing Laboratory attempted to boost production of glass in 1921, eight German engineers and scientists were invited to Japan to support this endeavor.
  • The local photographic film manufacturing industry developed slower due to the fact that the required chemicals had to be imported and their production was a complex process. The first black and white film was introduced by Konica in 1929, followed by a color film in 1940. Fuji Photo Film was not far behind, launching a black-and-white film in 1936 and color film in 1948.

Interest in photography was not limited to the manufacturing business. Photo studios sprang up like mushrooms all over the country. Already in 1870, there were more than one hundred professional photographers in Japan, and the number was growing exponentially. The first Japanese photo magazine was launched in 1889, and the Shayu-kai photo circle in Tokyo was founded in 1901.

Establishment of Companies

In the 1920s, the first phase of industrialization had been completed, and the country started export production. New companies were established, and many of them exist today (even though their names and products underwent significant transformations throughout history).

  • The predecessor of Konica, Konishi-ya was established in 1873. Originally based in Tokyo, the company moved to Honcho and changed its name to Konishi Honten in 1876.
  • In 1917, three companies merged into Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (Japanese Optical Technology Company) which later became known as Nikon.
  • Asahi Kogaku (later Pentax) was founded in 1919 in Tokyo. Initially, the company produced eyeglass lenses, then lenses for movie projectors, and photographic lenses from around 1929.
  • Takachiho Seisaku Sho, the forerunner of Olympus, was also established in 1919 to manufacture microscopes. The company started making lenses in 1936.
  • Established in 1928, Nich-Doku Shashinki Shokai had an international name, as Nishi-Doku stood for Japan-Germany. Its successor Minolta started lens production in 1937.
  • Canon was founded in 1933 under the Seiki Kogaku Kenkyusho name. The company had been operating under its current name from 1947.
  • Fuji Photo Co. was established in 1934. In 1938, the company began production of its own glass for lens elements as well as lenses. During World War II, the company switched to building cameras for aerial photography.
  • Riken Optics, later known as Ricoh, started production of photo paper in 1936 and cameras two years later.

Made in Japan

The SCAPIN 1535 directive issued by General MacArthur in 1947 introduced the Made in Occupied Japan notation (MIOJ) as a certificate of origin. This had a negative impact on Japanese exports. At that time, this was in tune with the official US policy of depriving Japan of all resources that could be used for war production. As expected, the MIOJ abbreviation also stopped other Asian countries that were at war with Japan from importing Japanese goods. Although switching to the Made in Japan label around 1953 didn’t improve the situation, this did open other overseas markets to Japanese products. In order to reduce export barriers, Japan joined international organizations and conventions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The latter later became the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Companies like Canon and Nikon benefited from the plight of their German competitors following their defeat in World War II. The Japanese companies also improved their optical expertise by studying and copying the lens designs of Contax and Leica. But Japanese makers also came up with their own innovative ideas that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry together with the powerful Japan Camera Industry (JCIA, later CIPA) helped to bring into fruition. In the 1960s, Copal’s reliable metal shutters, for example, became the preferred component of many camera manufacturers, also outside of Japan.

But in the 1950s, optical marvels sold in Japan were virtually unknown to the rest of the photographic world. The situation changed dramatically during the Korean War. Photo reporters stationed in the country discovered lenses that offered excellent optical quality for a fraction of the price.

Japan – Korea – Germany

Geographically-wise, Japanese lenses made their way to Germany through a complicated route. But it did go fast. It all started with the Japanese reporter Jun Miki who occasionally worked for Life magazine. His colleague David Douglas Duncan asked Miki about his Nikon equipment. Duncan then shared his findings with Horace Bristol. Both were invited to Nippon Kogaku’s Headquarters, where Dr. Masao Nagaoka introduced them to the company’s products. After the meeting, Duncan jokingly said that to save Japanese industry from collapse, he wouldn’t replace all his lenses at once. But he did replace all his lenses and went on documenting the Korean war through the Japanese lenses. When Life magazine printed Duncan’s photos, the photo editor Frank Scherschel was quoted saying that these were the sharpest negatives he had ever developed. The magazine started its own test trial with the Eastern Optical Company, during which the magazine’s staffer Mitch Bogdanovich confirmed this initial impression. But when he said that he appreciated Nikkor lenses as much as the ones from Zeiss, many assumed that he had lost his mind.

At the same time, the article written by Duncan and published in New York Times offered the readers not only an account of the Korean War but also gave them a taste of the new photographic equipment. It even led to a comparative test of Nikkor 1.5/50 and Zeiss Sonnar 1.5/50. Apparently, the fact that the Japanese product proved to have better image quality was the last drop for the president of Carl Zeiss Inc. USA. According to Popular Photography magazine in 1991, Dr. Karl Bauer told the editors in no uncertain terms that it was a complete lie and the test was conducted all wrong. As Bauer threatened to cancel their advertising campaign, it was decided to give the German lens a second chance. It did pay off in some respect. Since the unit used in the original test was produced right after the war using lower-quality materials, the updated lens construction yielded better results. But Nikkor still came out on top thanks to its price/performance ratio.

Soon after the US, Japanese cameras conquered the German market. Local buyers could now choose between brands like Fotodor and Doro as well as Canon, Nikon, and Yashica. Pentax K1000 was the undisputed bestseller with 2.5 million units sold worldwide.


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