■ A bit of history
Konica was Japan’s first maker of photographic materials and cameras and, until 2006, one of the world’s four largest manufacturers of such products (the others being Kodak, Fuji and Agfa). The company was established in 1873, seven years before Eastman Kodak Co. Its owner, Rokuemon Sugiura was a Tokyo businessman who had operated a chemical supplies store (a pharmacy in some sources) since the early 1860s, and decided to branch out into a somewhat kindred area, that of photographic materials. His move is considered to mark the birth of the Japanese photo industry.
Sugiura’s example was soon followed by others. At first, the materials such companies imported or manufactured themselves could only be used with the foreign-made cameras that had begun to appear in Japan. Before long, however, these companies set up workshops in which fine craftsmen, the heirs to Japan’s long cabinet-making tradition, began making wooden studio and field cameras..
Konica FS and FM with a number of F-series Hexanons
Well into the 20th century, the Japanese photo industry remained quite small and heavily dependent on imported lenses and high-precision shutters. Given its modest R&D base, its products were unable to compete on foreign markets with cameras and lenses produced in Europe and the USA. Even as more companies were established in the 1920s and 1930s, the industry remained focused on the domestic market, for which it made an increasing number of cameras and lenses, most of which were copies of established European and American models.
Political developments hapmered the growth of the Japanese photo industry throughout the 1930s. As Japan became increasingly embroiled in military interventions abroad during this decade, its military authorities progressively placed Japan’s photo industry and, especially, its optical industry, on a war footing. During the entire decade, the military were the chief buyer of photographic equipment made in Japan. In the summer of 1940, the Japanese government banned all production for non-military use. During the war, much of the industry’s production facilities were destroyed.
After the war, the industry was left to recover from extensive war damage and had to deal with a dramatic shortage of raw materials. The efforts made by the Japanese to restart the production of photo equipment were initially stifled by the American occupation authorities, which were reluctant to encourage any industrial recovery in Japan. In the late 1940s, when the Americans decided they needed to help Japan rebuild its economy, Japan’s photo manufacturers slowly got back into business. Exports, however, were not helped by the widespread enmity felt by most westerners towards Japan after the war, and by the prevailing view that goods “Made in Japan” were of poor quality - “Jap crap” was a term in frequent use in America at the time.
Such perceptions began to change as US servicemen came back home carrying Japanese cameras, most of which were quite well made. Things were greatly helped along when a few American visionary businesspeople began to import Japanese cameras and building distribution networks in the US. Such entrepreneurs were a godsend for the Japanese photo manufacturers, which had no experience of foreign sales, no knowledge of America’s vast market and no familiarity with marketing as such. Before the war, export in Japan had been the domain of a number of trade holdings with official foreign-trade concessions to whom domestic manufacturers turned over their products.
The collaboration that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s between the Japanese photo manufacturers on the one hand and a handful of American businesspeople on the other allowed the Japanese industry to rise from the ashes and brought relatively cheap and excellently made cameras to the enormous American market. Although this wasn’t clear at the time, it also set the Japanese photo industry on a course that turned it, within a couple of decades, into the world’s prime manufacturer of photographic equipment.
This process was given great impetus by an entirely unforeseen event, which drew the attention of professional photographers and the general public in the West to the quality of Japanese cameras and lenses: The Korean War. Photo reporters from the entire world descended on Japan to cover this conflict. As a large number of Japanese cameras at this time were copies of German cameras, the foreign reporters' could mount Japanese lenses directly onto their Leica or Contax cameras. The images those photographers took using Japanese lenses were widely disseminated in the Western world – notably by Life magazine - and drew universal acclaim. The Western public in turn, especially American consumers, discovered Japanese photo equipment largely thanks to the thousands of cameras brought home by demobilized servicemen when the Korean War ended.
As the unflattering “Made in Japan” associations still held strong in many quarters, representatives of the Japanese photo manufacturers and their American distributors met to discuss means to promote quality control methods and verification standards. Their deliberations led to the establishment in 1954 of the Japanese Camera Inspection Institute (JCII) under the auspices of the Japanese government. For 35 years, this institution inspected and certified all photographic equipment exported from Japan. Its ubiquitous little golden “passed” sticker adorned Japanese-made cameras and lenses until 1989. The JCII is largely responsible for turning the “Made in Japan” label into a mark of superior quality.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that approximately 170 Japanese camera manufacturers competed with each other in the 35 years that followed the establishment of the JCII, and by the end of this period only 32 were left. Of those, only 11 had been in the business in 1954. These figures reveal not only the fiercely competitive environment Japanese camera manufacturers had to operate in, but also the fact that their prime competitors were not foreign but other similar manufacturers at home. In the end, four elements made it possible for Japan’s photo industry to take the world of photography by storm: The ability to elaborate and improve on technical solutions that had originated elsewhere; a consensus-based long-term policy pursued by government and industry; sustained and stringent quality control measures; and the ability to deliver a staggering variety of products at very competitive prices.
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The company known successively as Rokuosha, Konishiya, Konishi Honten, Konishiroku and, from 1987 to 2003, as Konica, was the oldest and one of the most important participants in the process which brought the Japanese photo industry to world prominence. Rokuemon Sugiura’s company was the Japanese agent for Ilford and Kodak until 1902, when it began manufacturing its own photographic materials. For several decades it was also Japan's leading camera manufacturer and, in 1923, if founded the Konishi School of Photography to train technicians for the domestic photo industry and photographers. This institution, known today as the Tokyo Polytechnic University, remains the principal photo industry trade school in Japan.
The company's dominant position within the Japanese photo industry in the first decades of the 20th century cannot be overstated: Of 25 memorable cameras produced in Japan between 1903 and 1933 listed in The Evolution of the Japanese Camera, a book published by the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name held in 1984, the first 7 and a further 10 were made by Konica. The company made Japan’s first portable and first brand-name camera in 1903 (the Cherry, a 2”1/4 x 3”1/4 box camera); Japan’s first SLR in 1907 (the Prano, with a focal plane shutter reaching 1/1000s); Japan’s first regular production camera in 1925 (the Pearlette, a bellows-type folder); and also Japan’s first photographic lens in 1931 (the Hexar 105/4.5).
In the late 1940s, known by then as Konishiroku, the company began the production of a series of excellent 35mm rangefinder cameras. These rangefinders were the company's first cameras to bear the Konica name. They stood out for their superior quality of manufacture and were "not at all like the usual badly made slavish Japanese copy of the German precision camera" (W. J. Holbrook, "The Konica Camera", Miniature Camera Magazine, March 1951, p. 198). In 1950, Konica became the first Japanese camera maker whose products were marketed in the US through a network of dealers established by the Konica Camera Company, founded by Marian and Henry Froehlich, to whom this site is dedicated.
Konica began working on its first 35mm SLR in the early 1950s. This was an area in which Konica made its mark as a major innovator, most notably in shutter technology the company's Konica F from 1960 and the KonicaFlex prototype from 1959 it was based on were outfitted with a ground-breaking metal shutter, the predecessor of today’s ubiquitous Copal shutters) and later, as a pioneer of automatic exposure SLRs (with the Auto-Reflex from 1965). Konica knew its best years as a SLR maker from about 1965 to 1980 and was the world’s fifth and sixth-largest OEM for most of this period.
By the early 1980s, Konica had run into difficulties due to a combination of factors, one of which was the head office management’s decision to drop its US distributor, Berkey Photo (with which the Froehlichs’ Konica Camera Company had merged in 1962), and to market its products directly. Another one was a serious image problem caused largely by an ill-managed PR campaign following technical difficulties with the FS-1 camera. Both decisions contributed to a loss of market share in the US and dropping revenues at a time when competition between photo equipment makers was growing increasingly stiff and when all of the day’s major OEM’s were working feverishly on auto-focus (AF) technology.
In the end, Konica failed to keep up with its principal competitors during the transition to auto-focus cameras in the 1980s, even though it had marketed a number of successful electronic models in the early part of the decade. In 1988, the company decided to abandon the SLR market altogether. During the 1990s, most of the cameras produced by Konica were of the point-and-shoot variety and few of them had much to inspire creativity. Among the notable exceptions were the Hexar AF, a fixed-lens viewfinder camera, and the Hexar RF, an M-mount interchangeable lens rangefinder camera, both of which are exquisite cameras that enjoy a cult following to this day (see Section 7).
Konica’s merger with Minolta in August 2003 came as a surprise to many, even if it was a perfectly logical move in terms of corporate and market consolidation. For a few years, it seemed that Konica-Minolta Holdings, as the new entity was called, would survive as one of the major players in the digital photography market with its new cameras, most of which were quite successful and, noblesse oblige, innovative: The Dynax/Maxxum 7D model, the world’s first interchangeable-lens digital SLR camera with in-body stabilization technology, even won the Camera Grand Prix in 2005. Still, those cameras were introduced a bit late to reverse the fortunes of the company’s photo division. And so, in January 2006, Konica-Minolta announced it was selling its imaging division to Sony, with which it had been collaborating for some time, and to withdraw entirely from the photo business, after over 130 years. Sic transit gloria mundi.
1873 - Rokusaburo Sugiura began selling photographic materials in his Tokyo pharmacy.
This timeline is based on a detailed Konishiroku chronology by Ryuji Suzuki
● KONICA ●