The history of how Japan came to dominate the camera industry

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The Japanese realized many things earlier than other countries and really focused on developing the industries they currently dominate. One of those industries, is the camera industry. In the beginning like all stories, Japan wasn’t the dominate force in this industry, The Germans used to be top-dog with their Leica and Contax rangefinders. The Japanese foresaw the rise of SLRs and pursued it more aggressively than the Germans did. Thus when serious photographers switched to SLRs in the 1960s, they went with Japanese cameras. The Nikon optical firm was founded by a few Japanese scientists, who invited some German optical scientists to come to Japan and give them some pointers on lens making. I’m pretty sure, those Germans eventually came to regret ever giving any advice to the Japanese, because it would in the future become their downfall. Nikon made lenses and other optical equipment, including supplying all lenses for pre-WWII Canon 35mm cameras.

After WWII, with the war effort dried up, Nikon had to re-invent themselves and introduced the Nikon I. It was a strange format though, and not until the Nikon S did the camera really come into its own. Nikon’s lenses were discovered by numerous Western photographers passing through Japan on the way to Korea to shoot photos of the war and all. Contax made 35mm rangefinder cameras, and Nikon copied the mount for their own 35mm rangefinder camera bodies, so the lenses were somewhat interchangeable. Their lenses were so good, and so much cheaper than German glass, that they became somewhat of a popular item. Into the Vietnam war, Nikon became the pro 35mm SLR camera system. By 1969, the die was cast, and the German 35mm camera could no longer compete, though Leica still had, and has, a strong following among pros and well to do amateurs alike.

The Japanese were always perfectionists, and fanatics for detail, going back hundreds if not thousands of years. Very much like the Germans, the previous dominant power in photographic equipment. There was already a substantial Japanese camera and optical industry before WW2, but it was not well known outside of Japan. People in the rest of the world did not think anyone could really challenge the Germans in this area. At the end of WW2, the German camera industry was in ruins, and worse, much of it was in the Eastern zone, dominated by Russia. In the West, Leitz survived, but in the East, Zeiss, Exakta and many others around the traditional center of Dresden were decimated. Even worse, the Russians carted off the tools and dies to make the Zeiss Contax, perhaps the most advanced 35mm camera of the pre-war era.

Japan was equally decimated, but a few small camera companies like Nikon, Canon and Asahi (later Pentax) rebuilt and were able to take advantage of trade agreements with the US to start exporting their products. Canon copied the Leica almost exactly, Nikon combined the best features of the Leica and the Contax, and Asahi went off in a new direction, the SLR. Nikon (and by extension the Japanese camera industry) got a big break in 1951, when photographers for Life Magazine stopped off in Japan on their way to Korea, and bought some Nikon lenses for their Zeiss Contax cameras. The resulting images were so sharp that they stunned the technical staff back in New York, and Nikon’s reputation was made, almost overnight.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Zeiss was busy digging its grave, coming out with models that were either retreads of pre-war designs (Contax II), or wildly impractical and complicated new designs (Contaflex), all at extremely high prices. Leitz was able to retain its customer base with innovative designs (Leica M3), but Zeiss floundered, and the rest of the German camera industry, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, ceased to be a factor. The East German Zeiss factory did design the first modern SLR, the Contax S, but it was ridiculously unreliable, and when Asahi copied it and came out with the Pentax, the game was up.

What contributed most to Japan’s dominance in the camera industry would be when mass market high-end photography equipment was becoming popular, Japan was the high quality/low cost manufacturing capital of the world. There were countries that made things much cheaper (India, Malaysia, China, Brasil, etc) and places that made higher quality stuff (Germany, Switzerland, etc) but Japan was the sweet spot. High quality, low(relatively) cost. Additionally Japan did not really enforce anti-competitive policies and the World Trade organization [WTO](which was on of the only resources for foreign companies at the time) did not cover anti-competitive policy. So even when foreign competition in the camera industry tried entering the Japanese market, they were having to spend large amounts to advertise and research their products. While the Japanese companies had near infinite resources to push out all other competition. The Japanese companies had backing by the Japanese Government, allowing these companies to finance their low sales outside of Japan and this eventually led to them holding large amounts of market share, pushing out all other competition.

I’d like to give credit to the following users for the information required to write this blog post: weegee & kjoro


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