Every major camera brand is Japanese. Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Sony, Pentax, Sigma, Panasonic, and Olympus are all 100% Japanese owned companies. Why?
The extreme dominance of Japanese companies in the camera industry results from the wartime degradation of the German camera industry, extreme economic recovery in Japan, and Japanese intellectual property standards in the post-war period.
There are really three key areas of competition in the camera industry: sensors, camera bodies (and their electronics), and most importantly, lenses. Camera sensors are essentially a commodity at this point, with many companies buying their sensors from the same company (Sony). The sensors are still touted as points of differentiation, but there is little difference between sensors of the same size and megapixel count.
Camera bodies and their electronics do provide points of differentiation between brands, but only for features and ease of use that does not heavily affect image quality. Consumers still care about things like battery life, ergonomics, and shooting modes, but this factor still plays second fiddle to the most important point of differentiation.
Lenses are what makes the camera. This factor has the largest impact on image quality. This is what matters when it comes to answering the question of why all camera companies are Japanese.
Lens manufacturing is difficult and not easily commoditized. It requires extreme precision and the execution of complex design. Both the Germans and Japanese have excelled at these qualities for hundreds of years.
Prior to World War II, the Germans ruled the lens manufacturing industry. Japanese companies such as Nikon had been around since 1917 (the companies that combined to form Nikon had been around even longer), but they had no impact on the market. The German’s technology was superior.
It’s important to remember that lens manufacturing is difficult, precision work when understanding why Japan dominates the camera industry today.
The diagram below showcases the amount of complex precision parts required in a camera lens.
So, what happened to Germany? They were leaders in the global camera industry and masters at lens design and manufacturing. WWII.
The War decimated both German and Japanese industry. It was made worse in Germany by the splitting of Germany into east and west. The communist Soviet Union controlled the eastern portion and unfortunately for the German camera industry, many companies were located on that side.
Leica survived in the West, but the camera giant (at the time) Zeiss and many others in the East fell on prolonged hard times. The Russians stole many of the dies and casts used to manufacture Zeiss’s cameras such as the Contax, an advanced 35mm camera.
After the war, Leica managed to stay afloat, but only as a niche brand. Zeiss came out with several failed products that were overly complex and expensive. Zeiss and others such as Kilfitt, Meyer, Schneider, Voigtlander, Steineil went bankrupt, sent production to East Asia, or were sold as failures by the 1970s. This left the camera and lens market wide open to new players.
Japan was similarly devastated by the war, but camera companies there were able to recover faster and stronger due to a couple key factors.
The Japanese economic miracle refers to the period of extreme economic growth from post WWII (1945) to the end of the Cold War (1991). In this period Japan went from the 9th largest economy to the 2nd largest following only the United States.
Following the war, the United States sent General Douglas MacArthur to demilitarize Japan and aid in reconstruction under a Western framework to combat rising communism in the region. Using Emperor Hirohito, he instituted a new U.S. written constitution, performed major land, education, and labor reforms, broke up monopolies, and led the modernization of Japanese industry. The United States occupied Japan from 1945-1951.
The U.S. Marshall plan also provided economic assistance to Japan, leading to a faster recovery.
Some of these reforms, most importantly allowing women into the work force in large numbers, export standards, unchallenged economic protectionism, and the concentration on competing in global markets led to a quick recovery and economic boom.
Towards the end of the U.S. occupation, Nikon and Japan’s camera industry as a whole received a new level of global recognition. Photographers from Life Magazine stopped in Japan on their way to Korea and purchased Nikon lenses for their Zeiss Contax cameras. The suburb image quality the lenses produced stunned the photographers and cemented Nikon’s reputation, helping Japan enter the global market.
Later, the Korean War provided stimulation to Japan’s economy as the US depended heavily on Japanese manufacturing for wartime goods.
After the end of U.S. occupation in Japan, the Japan Camera Industry Association (JCIA) started promoting development of higher-quality products in order to compete globally. In line with these goals, the Japan Machine Design Center (JMDC) and the Japan Camera Inspection Institute (JCII) banned copying competitor’s designs and exporting low-quality photographic goods. Only goods issued a shipping permit in the form of a gold sticker reading “PASSED”.
This program greatly increased the level of innovation in Japanese camera companies and led to higher quality exports. With this system in place paired with the quick recovery of the economy, the Japanese started to surpass the Germans by the late 1950s.
Like I mentioned earlier, many German companies stopped innovating and were out of the scene by the 1970s, a point when Japan was rapidly growing its economy and industry was thriving. The Japanese camera companies continued to thrive and grow under the rules of the JMDC and JCII. When dominance in the industry was assured, the quality assurance program ended in 1989.
Kodak and Polaroid were huge players in the camera industry for a time but were focused on film. While major brands like Canon, Panasonic, Nikon, FujiFilm, and Pentax were focused on lens technology and building their camera and lens ecosystems, Kodak and Polaroid kept to film and camera body production.
Kodak was the first company to create a digital camera because of their size and wealth, but went after the technology too early, when components were too large, processing power too small, and image quality nonexistent. When the world did catch up to the concept, Kodak and Polaroid couldn’t compete and lost out to the Japanese companies with their developed ecosystem of high-quality lenses and camera bodies, which were easily adapted to digital technology.
Japanese technology companies are masters of iterative design (making things better over time). Their mastery stems from the belief that things can always be better. In the camera industry, this design philosophy is necessary. Lens design is the cornerstone of their competitive advantage, and strong iterative design is necessary to excel. The same model of lens may be out for many years, just with improvements to the components, materials, and design.
The focus on iterative design falls under the more general business philosophy of “Kaizen”. This philosophy is one of continuous improvement, lean business practices, and personal efficiency. This is one of the reasons Japan has been able to dominate the photographic industry.
The following is a diagram of the kaizen cycle.
There are many reasons why all major camera brands are Japanese. Japan focuses on precision, quality, and iterative design, which are all important to getting competitive lens technology. Competing in lenses is key to winning in the camera industry. WWII destroyed both the German and Japanese camera industries, but Japan was better able to recover and had extreme economic prosperity after recovering. Finally, players like Kodak in the United States were controlled the market for film technology but failed to compete in the digital age. I hope you enjoyed the article. Thanks for reading!
For a more general history of photography, see: When Was Photography Invented? A Complete History