Of battleships, Korean war and a man from Missouri: How Japan grew to dominate the camera market


posted Saturday, July 23, 2016 at 5:59 AM EST


Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Ricoh, Sigma, Sony: You can't help but notice that Japanese brands dominate the global camera business. (At least, so long as you ignore the now-omnipresent smartphone camera, that is.)

But why is it that tiny Japan, which ranks 10th worldwide in terms of population and just 61st by land area, punches so far above its weight when it comes to photography gear? In the modern world of digital imaging, doubtless the answer has something to do with the country's high-tech nature. Japan ranked fourth worldwide in the UN's 2001 Technology Achievement Index, after all, and for many years has stood at or near the top of the list both in total patents issued and patents issued per person.

But there's a whole lot more to the story than that: Japan's ascendancy in the camera market started much earlier. Going back to its very earliest days, the birthplace of photography was in Europe, and even today Germany in particular retains a strong reputation in the field. But it was shortly after the end of World War II that Japanese companies looking for business in peacetime rapidly caught up with -- and in short order overtook -- their German rivals.

Just how did Japanese cameras start their spread overseas in the first place, and what was it that made them so popular? NHK World, the international arm of Japan Broadcasting Corporation, gets to the bottom of the story in a just-released episode of Japanology Plus, a weekly show hosted by British-born and Tokyo-based freelance broadcaster Peter Barakan.

In the piece, which you can watch courtesy of NHK World's YouTube channel above, Barakan and his guest, professional photographer and writer Chotoku Tanaka, take us back through the history of photography, both inside and outside of the Japanese archipelago. Along the way, they visit Fujifilm's Photo History Museum in Tokyo, discuss the contributions of the Korean War and Missouri-born photographer David Douglas Duncan to the spread of Japanese cameras and lenses, and a whole lot else besides.

It makes for really interesting viewing, and we highly recommend watching it alongside your morning coffee to get your weekend off to the right start, photographic juices primed and ready to capture some great shots. Every time you hit that shutter button, you'll do so armed with the knowledge of just why the camera you're holding most likely bears a Japanese brandname on its front side!

(via Petapixel. Index image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license. Image has been modified from the original.)