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For anyone pondering the secret behind Japan’s postwar economic miracle, a visit to a small museum near Tokyo’s Imperial Palace may offer some clues.

At the Japan Camera Industry Institute Camera Museum, a cozy space with a collection of about 8,000 still cameras — most Japanese — 150 cameras are on permanent display and offer a look back over the history of Japan’s photographic industry.

Kakugoro Saeki of the JCII Camera Museum stands behind a replica of Japan’s first commercial camera, made in 1903.

The museum’s collection includes one of the only two existing prototypes of Sony Corp.’s MAVICA, the world’s first digital still camera, which debuted in 1981, and the world’s first commercial camera, which first appeared in 1839 in Paris.

The history of the precision gadget is, in a sense, the history of Japan’s industrial revival after the war. Postwar camera output started when workers at small plants in war-ravaged towns began selling handmade cameras as souvenirs for Occupation troops.

Supported by diligent and dexterous workers, cameras became one of the few Japanese products that could be exported to acquire precious foreign currency.

The museum’s collection is based on cameras stored by JCII, which was originally established in 1954 as a body to check the quality of cameras for export.

Up until the mid-1950s, most Japanese cameras were basically copies of German cameras.

But Japanese camera artisans were shocked by the high quality and technology of the legendary range-finder Leica M3 camera, which first appeared in 1954, and gave up efforts to keep up with German manufacturers.

Instead, they began developing single-lens reflex cameras with original designs.

A Leica M3, as well as subsequent Japanese cameras, which have since come to dominate the world market, are among those in the museum’s collection.

The domestic camera industry has also played a hidden role in the development of Japan’s high-tech industry.

Lenses with high resolution are essential for exposing miniaturized electronic circuit patterns on silicon chips, and Japanese camera firms, including Nikon Corp. and Canon Inc., are able to produce such lenses with amazing precision. Nikon and Canon are now leading manufacturers of the stepper, a key device for semiconductor production.

“I had the golden opportunity to witness with my own eyes the excellence of Japan’s industrial products,” said Kakugoro Saeki, the former editor-in-chief of photo magazine Camera Mainichi and now a member of the museum’s steering board.

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