You are Here Profotos > Education > Professional Photography Magazine > Pro Article Professional Photography Magazine

1. Software Review - Alien Skin's Exposure

Get the Pro Guide!

Enter your email address:

Photography Books
Up to 50% off!

Click here to visit our photo bookstore where you can order photography books.

When Japan took over
(by Peter Hennig)

Japanese products have not always been symbols of high technology and good quality. Not so long ago the words 'Made in Japan' meant cheap rubbish. But that image was to change, and it all began with a camera lens.

When Japan took over Japanese products have not always been symbols of high technology and good quality. Not so long ago the words 'Made in Japan' meant cheap rubbish. But that image was to change, and it all began with a camera lens.

by Peter Hennig One result of World War II was that an entire industry moved from one continent to another - from Germany to Japan. The production of cameras and lenses, once almost a German monopoly, emerged in the 1970s as a Japanese speciality. This underlying reason for this lay in the dramatic change in the circumstances that affected production following the war.

Different circumstances
At the end of World War II, Germany and Japan were in total collapse; not only had they been defeated military, but civilian life was in disarray. Cities and communications had been bombed beyond recognition, the economy brought to a standstill, and food production and distribution devastated. New circumstances affect people differently - some win, some lose. For the photography industry, the war meant that most of the German production of cameras and lenses ended up under Soviet military administration, a climate scarcely conducive to enterprise. Added to this, the western allies declared all German patents invalid. They had their own industrial ambitions, and the German assets were thought of as trophies of war. In Japan the situation was quite different. The American administration here served almost as an umbrella sheltering free enterprise. It was seen as a means of binding the country to the western hemisphere and to a more western way of thinking. Conditions were thus very different in the two countries, with far-reaching consequences.

Nikon I, the first 35mm camera from Nikon. It was produced between March 1948 and May 1949, and only 400 units were sold.

The Change in Japan
The Japan Optical Company (Nippon Kogaku) was Japan's leading company in the optical industry. Having made a leap in scientific application and practical industrial production in the 1920s, with the help of German consultants, the company developed into the leading supplier of optical equipment both to the Japanese military and the civilian administration. Theirs was a high-class outfit at the forefront of research, a fact known to a limited circle of specialists, but totally unknown to the general public outside Japan. Come the end of the war and the company's market changed completely because domestic demand abruptly ceased, and the American military had no use for Japanese products because they considered themselves already so well equipped. Nippon Kogaku found itself in a very difficult situation, and a radical change was needed if it was to keep its knowledge base - and its chance of success in the market in the future.

The Only Market
If the current demand for products in Japan was nil and the American military was indifferent, who was going to buy the company's products? The answer was American occupying force, for each solider was also an individual with money in his pocket. The priority was to produce goods he wanted and that he would later take home and spread the word about. As early as October 1945 Nippon Kogaku had appointed a study group to prepare the production of a Nikon range finder camera and a range of Nikkor lenses. The camera body took its inspiration mainly from Contax, and the series of lenses were copied straight from well-known Zeiss lenses. It was plagiarism, but well-informed and competently executed plagiarism. They were in such desperate straits that they did not have any time for product development of their own, and instead gratefully accepted the opportunity presented by the release of the German patents.

An American in Japan
The strategy chosen by Nippon Kogaku proved successful. By the end of the 1940s, eighty per cent of their production was sold to the American occupying force. This attracted the attention of American magazine Life and their photographers, who organised a proper comparison test through the Eastern Optical Company. The man in charge, Mitch Bogdanovich, later said: 'I said I thought the Nikkor lenses were as good as the Zeiss lenses, but people reckoned I had lost my mind.' Among the Life photographers who had begun to realise that Japanese lenses could be useful was the famous photo-journalist David Douglas Duncan, who was stationed in Japan. In 1950 he was given the opportunity to put a Nikkor 2/85 through its paces, and he was so convinced of its quality that he swapped some of the Leica lenses in his personal equipment for Nikkor lenses. That started the ball rolling, but it would be another couple of years before rumours of the extraordinary Japanese lenses spread outside a limited group of specialists.

The Korean War
On the morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean army passed the 38th parallel and the Korean war was underway. The war was to give Nikon a major opportunity to show what their products could offer. Again they were lucky - Germany was far away, Japan was close. Tokyo was David Duncan's obvious choice as a base, and he was joined by other American journalists on their way to and from the war zone. Nikon delivered lenses in Contax or Leica mounts, the cameras most often used by the photographers covering the Korean war. The hard life at the front guaranteed that lenses would be damaged or ruined, and Nikon set up a quick-repair shop in Tokyo where lenses could be repaired or replaced. At the airport, neatly dressed Nikon representatives invited the media to information lunches with the company management. The president had one message: 'Tell me what you liked, but above all, tell me what you didn't like.' The Korean war meant that many pictures taken with Nikkor lenses ended up in editorial departments all over the world and were scrutinised by experienced picture editors. The first, difficult step had been taken, and Nikon was now ready to conquer bigger markets.

An Angry Man in New York City
In December 1950, the rumour of the superb Japanese lenses had reached New York Times, which ran an article with a test comparing the Nikkor 1.5/50 and the lens it was modelled on, the Zeiss Sonnar 1.5/50. The results showed that the Nikkor lens was superior, especially at large apertures. It was not long before the New York Times received an outraged phone call. It was Dr. Karl Bauer, the president of Carl Zeiss Inc. U.S.A., a person known for his hot temper. Incandescent with rage, he berated the editors: 'How can you claim that a Japanese lens is better than a Zeiss? It's a con, a complete lie! The test was done wrong. I'm pulling all our adverts from your paper, you'll never see another dollar from Carl Zeiss Inc.!' Gradually the good doctor calmed down, but only after he had been promised the right to a rejoinder, and that the conditions of the test would be re-examined carefully. The Zeiss lens in the test had been manufactured just after the war, when production had been speeded up by the occupying Soviet administration, and was not up to their usual standards. New tests were done with a new lens manufactured the same year as the Nikkor lens and the Zeiss came out better, but by a very small margin. However, Nikon had to all intents and purposes won the fight. The peculiar situation arose that by winning in the test the German lens industry lost its position. It was now obvious that you could take pictures with a Nikkor lens that were as good as the pictures you got using the lens considered to be the finest in the world, and for a much lower price. New York at the end of 1950 and beginning of 1951 marked the starting point of an amazing Japanese success story. It also presaged the rise of Honda, Matsushita, Nissan, Sony, Toyota, Yamaha and all the other companies that were to make Japanese technology known and indispensable all over the world. These are technical systems that now dominate many markets - but it was all made possible by a camera lens, the Nikkor 1.5/50.

Nippon Kogaku constructed a 1.5/50 lens 1949. Around 800 units were produced and sold during 1950. The lens came with bayonet or screw thread, and fit Nikon, Canon, Contax and Leica cameras.

An Assessment
Despite everything, how could this happen? How was it possible for nearly the entire camera industry to move from one continent to another? Just before the war, the leading German camera manufacturer had thirty-two models in its catalogue. The German companies dominated the market completely. For generations of photographers German cameras were synonymous with photography. You can of course argue that the Japanese came when all the hard work had already been done, and critics have spoken of the legalised theft of technology. It is clear that only one of the key patents held by the German optical industry could have prevented all the Japanese expansion: under normal circumstances, the technique of multi-coating a lens would have remained protected for Zeiss until the mid-1960s.

The image of the Japanese camera industry as a gang of soulless plagiarists lived on for a long time, even though it was mostly unfounded. In a difficult situation where the survival of the company was at stake, they had to start as best they could. They developed their own lines soon enough. At the end of the 1940s, to be able to make a lens that could compete with the Zeiss lenses was a great achievement, even if it was basically the same construction. They had a great deal of luck, but also a great deal of knowledge. They showed enormous energy and great ambition, and above all a sure understanding of the market and photographers' need.

The Germans on the other hand were almost arrogant towards the market in general, and more specifically towards any Japanese competition. They rested on their laurels, and refused to notice any changes. At a crucial moment, Nikon proved that Japanese products could measure up to the best on the market. In doing so, they wrote themselves into history - not only the history of photography, but of all post-war industry in the land of the rising sun.

You can see more articles and information by Peter Hennig on the website - a great resource for photographers around the world!

Questions, Comments? Look here: The help section
Broken link(s)? Email us at:
Testimonials. Visitor/Member Comments: News about us!

Select "Photography" under
Program of Study to see
Photo Schools

Our Award Winning Photo Galleries

The Profotos Member Photographer Galleries
The Member Galleries at have won many awards and accolades from around the world. Click here to apply for your own gallery.

Check out the galleries of our member photographers and experience an interactive online photography exhibit like no other!

The Virtual Photography Reference Desk
> Schools/Tours
> Manufacturers
> Profotos Magazine
> Processing Labs
> Magazines
> Digital Equip.
> Stock Agencies
> Photo Glossary
> Organizations
> Technical Charts
> Photo Masters
> Photo Timeline

Free Professional Photography Memberships

> Apply Today!
> The Galleries
> Member List
> Testimonials
> Member FAQ's

Click the button below for help!

You are Here Profotos > Education > Professional Photography Magazine > Pro Article
 Apply for a Gallery
 Member Galleries
 Featured Gallery
 Larry's Galleries
 Gallery Selection
 Profotos Magazine
 Photograhy Glossary
 The Reference Desk
 Search Engine
 Photo Masters
 Become a Member
 Member Selection
 Benefits Summary
 List of Members
 Refer Others
 Photographer List
 Pro WebRing
 Monthly Newsletter
 Link to Us
 Custom Site Design
 Profotos Store
 Advertise With Us
 Online Auctions
 The Bookstore
 Legal Information
 Who We Are
 Company History
 Contact Profotos
 The FAQ's
 Copyright Info.
Copyright ©1999-2011
(an independently owned company). All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site.

Our Address:, 681 Inverness Drive, Fairborn, OH 45324 USA
Contact us via telephone: 937-660-0845