(Scroll down or click on links)
The War had left much of the Japanese photographic industry destroyed or damaged. However, things changed quite quickly. Whereas before the War, photography had been the past-time of the wealthy and well to do, post-War, it was adopted by the masses. By early 1952, Japan was again an independent nation but the Korean War was in full swing. A snapshot of the Japanese love of photography and the impact of United Nations service personnel (the great majority being US servicemen) is provided in an article, “Japanese Camera Sales Boom” by an unknown AAP-Reuter correspondent, which appeared in the small New South Wales country town of Lismore newspaper, The Northern Star, on 17 November 1953:
(Article displayed in accordance with National Library of Australia policies)
(Click on article for full size PDF of both pages)
To put the Japanese photographic industry into perspective, quoting from the article, Japan produced 402,769 cameras in 1952 of which 72,483 (approx. 18%) were sold to United Nations forces. Clearly, at the time of writing, camera production was booming and export markets were already being developed.
Originally founded as a small munitions related business in 1945, Yashima Seiki Co., Ltd. (Company, Limited) formed in 1949 and produced parts for electric clocks and other equipment at a facility in Nagano, Japan. The business established itself in the post-World War II period of US led Allied Powers occupation followed by the Korean War and like many other small Japanese firms, got into the business of making Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras.
In early 1953, Yashima Seiki produced its first camera, a Rolleicord copy TLR using 120 film. This was marketed by Endō Sashin Yōhin as the Pigeonflex. Subsequent versions of the Pigeonflex , including those with Pigeonar lenses and the 1B with separate shutter cover plate adjoining the lenses, were manufactured by Shinano Kōki (this site has a page devoted to Pigeonflexes in general - The Pigeon Loft). In June of the same year, the company changed its name to Yashima Kōgaku Seiki Co., Ltd. The change was also reflected in the company name which appeared under “Pigeonflex” on the nameplate. Later in 1953, it introduced a mildly revised version of the Pigeonflex under its own name as the Yashima Flex and in a very short time, this changed to Yashica Flex (“Yashi” from Yashima and “ca” from camera, a practice made popular by Leitz with the legendary Leica). A succession of Yashicaflex models followed and in 1956, the first “Yashica” named models appeared, although the “Yashicaflex” name would also continue in parallel for the next few years. Also in 1956, the company name was changed to Yashima Kōgaku Kōgyō Co., Ltd. (above company and date information based on Camera-wiki.org and other net sources with similar details). When the name appeared on the side of the Yashica-Mat, it was in the Anglicised form of Yashima Opt. Ind. Co., Ltd. (Yashima Optical Industries Company, Limited).
Why did Japan produce so many TLR models? Obviously, the demand must have been there. TLRs used bigger format 120 film but were generally cheaper to produce than full featured 35 mm models and the smaller format was still establishing itself at a time when film quality and enlarging processes were more of a handicap. TLRs were represented by the German “hero models” of Rolleiflex and Rolleicord from Franke and Heidecke and whilst Zeiss roll film cameras were highly regarded and also copied, they didn't seem to have the same impact. Another reason is that according to Camera-wiki.org, the camera maker Tougodo, as well as producing the “Hobiflex”, used at least 21 other brand names for its “Toyocaflex” TLR! However, most significantly, it was relatively easy for small firms with no previous photographic industry experience but with some technical skills to engineer and produce the basic body components and buy in complete shutter and lens assemblies and other parts (and maybe even many body parts were bought in). Design was easy – most TLR designers didn’t stray far from the early Rollei and in that early post-War period, pre-War German patents had little currency. Perhaps the US even encouraged this type of production as part of the demilitarisation process.
In 1957, Yashima released the Yashica-Mat with crank film advance and control wheels for setting aperture and shutter speeds; effectively, a Rolleiflex clone, at least in appearance and operation. The same year, it established its first overseas subsidiary, Yashica Inc., in New York and released its first non-TLR camera model, the Yashica 8T 8mm movie camera.
By the late ‘50s, the TLR boom was well and truly over and the only Japanese company to persevere through to the 1980s with a “traditional” TLR was Yashica. (Mamiya made it to the 1990s with its more sophisticated, interchangeable lens professional models but these are in a different league to the other Rollei inspired copies.)
Yashima continued to prosper by getting into the 35 mm business by fortuitously buying the bankrupt Nicca Camera in 1958 and then releasing the Yashica 35 rangefinder model “for the masses” (Nicca based YE and YF Leica copies also continued initially). Also in 1958, the company changed its own name to Yashica Co., Ltd. Other milestones were the release of its first 16 mm sub-miniature model, the Y16, in 1959 and the first 35 mm SLR, the Pentamatic, in either 1959 or 1960 (depending on which reference is preferred, occurrences on the net are about 50:50 although there is another claim of a “Yashica/Kyocera sourced” date, March 1960). Whilst competent products, neither model was particularly successful in terms of sales. There was a flurry of 35 mm rangefinder releases but it was the mid 1960s before Yashica found the magic formula with the Electro 35 rangefinder camera. Yashica finally became a large and respected player in the Japanese camera industry until under Kyocera ownership, its demise as a camera manufacturer in the digital age. Along the way, it bought its lens maker, Tomioka, and developed a relationship with Carl Zeiss and licensed the Contax name for some of its 35mm models. Although some of the other post-War start-ups also produced very good product, they didn’t have the business and marketing skills and perhaps luck of Yashica and disappeared quickly from the marketplace.
A 12 page catalogue by Australian Yashica importer Swift & Bleakley Pty. Ltd. from most probably 1962 illustrates how quickly Yashica's focus had turned from TLRs which five years earlier had been its only product. The catalogue contains only the Yashica 635 and Yashica Mat-LM plus a Yashica-Mat used to highlight accessories (5 items listed, 3 of which are filters). There are also some 44 series accessories but no cameras. The total space given over to TLRs and their accessories is less than one page. The rest of the catalogue is given over to 35 mm cameras, movie cameras, binoculars and general photographic accessories.
It is interesting that not only the general design and layout but the body casting in particular of the original Pigeonflex was very similar to both the Rolleicord models of 1936 to 1938 and to other Rollei clones from post-War startups at the time e.g., Cosmoflex, Nikkenflex, Malcaflex, Manonflex and others. The more established brands often showed more individuality and innovation but the clear link to Franke & Heidecke design was common to all.
It would be a mistake to think that copying was a post-War phenomenon. Although the number of TLR models exploded, there were at least 20 pre-War models and these were much more likely to be a carbon copy of a Rolleicord down to trim and feature-set.
(Left image courtesy of Tom Heckhaus, right, detail from larger web image)
The right image is of an early Rolleicord II. Note the body casting detail. Some cameras were already based more on the 1940's Rolleicord and Rolleiflex type bodies (the differences were mainly cosmetic around the focusing lens board panel surround) and the remaining makers, including Yashima, seemed to move to the newer design as one (see “Bodies & Lenses”). Below is a later Rolleicord II from probably the early 1940s with the newer style casting which Yashima adopted in 1955. The first Yashima models didn't include some of the contemporary Rolleicord's more advanced and costly features such as the auto-stop film wind with film counter and Bay 1 lens mounts even though auto-stop film winding had been common on pre-War Japanese clones.
(Image courtesy of Göran Årelind)
The copying of Franke & Heidecke TLRs was more than skin deep. Below are film spool knob side castings and mechanisms from both makers:
(Image 1 is detail from larger web image, images 2 and 3 courtesy of Göran Årelind)
Image 1 is a 1953 Yashima Pigeonflex. Image 2 is a post-1958 Yashica 635. Image 3 is a 1940s Rolleicord. Pretty much everything looks the same and fits in the same place. The only significant differences are that the Pigeonflex doesn't have the spring and other parts associated with the film counter shaft even though the casting makes provision for it (slot left of top spool knob), the Yashica cameras have an additional part at the bottom to assist with the focus mechanism adjustment and the 635 has a hole for the 35 mm rewind release (middle of the right edge). The Rolleiflex shows a similar heritage to the Rolleicord but it's casting has an additional reinforcing rib and the mechanisms, although operating in a similar way, are different. In comparison, the Yashica-Mat is virtually identical to the Yashica 635 except that the focus shaft is extended.
In that context, it is important to appreciate that the Rolleiflex is a more expensive and sophisticated tool than the Rolleicord. The Yashica crank wind models, starting with the Yashica-Mat, may bear a passing resemblance to the Rolleiflex and operate in a similar way but in reality, they are typical Yashica 66 models with the crank wind adaptation bolted on. Mechanically, the most generous comparison to a Franke & Heidecke model would be to think of them as crank wind Rolleicords.
The early Japanese leather camera ever-ready cases also all closely matched the Rolleicord early 50's style (at least the ones with the top and front riveted together like the Yashima Flex and later cases do).
The established Japanese camera makers like Minolta, Ricoh, Olympus and Mamiya arguably produced some more sophisticated products with more highly regarded optics (although the Lumaxars and Yashinons are very good) but what made Yashica successful was excellent value for money and using the same effective and reliable basic body structure to plug every possible price point in the market. Brochures and catalogues from the late 1950s always show a considerable price differential in favour of Yashicas against the “old order”. For example, the 1960 Olden Camera and Lens Company catalogue lists the top of the line Yashica-Mat at US$75.50 and the Minolta Autocord (without meter) for US$99.50. The difference in quality was almost certainly much less than the price differential suggested. Even compared to a similar camera from another “start-up”, the 1955 Yashicaflex C was 11,500 yen and the Walzflex IIA was 12,500 yen.
Inevitably, comparisons are also made with comparable Rolleiflex and Rolleicord models. Certainly the photographic concept is the same and the Yashicas have a strong design and functional relationship to the earlier Rollei models. Is the comparison favourable? Of course not! Webb's Photographic Gift Guide (c1964) lists the top of the then line Yashica Mat-EM at “less than” US$85, the Minolta Autocord at US$109.45 and the Rolleiflex 3.5F at US$299.50. If more than three times the price did not buy better lenses, more reliable mechanics with a better precision feel and consistently excellent quality, then Rollei would not have sold many cameras at all. What is surprising is that for amateur use, the Yashicas weren't that far from the Rolleiflex experience but for professional use, their crank wind mechanisms were perhaps too fragile.
There is probably not a lot to choose between the Tomioka triplets, especially the Yashikor, and the similar Zeiss Triotars. Whilst Yashica's Tessar lens designs (Lumaxars and Yashinons) were respectable, they couldn't match the Rolleis in either choice or sophistication (Zeiss Tessars and the equivalent Schneider Xenars and the more complex Zeiss Planars and Schneider Xenotars in both f/3.5 and f/2.8 forms) but again, the differences were not as great as maybe expected and even less when stopped down.
Little seems to be known about Yashima's early marketing push. We can speculate that in the early 1950s, the domestic market was still somewhat constrained economically and that as cashed-up servicemen began leaving Japan after the Korean War, companies like Yashima would have been seeking alternative markets to sell to. Obviously the US, as the world's greatest consumer society, would have been at the forefront of planning. However, there is one much smaller market which has been a real surprise.
In parts of Europe, post-War import restrictions were in place for a long time. Here is a note on a UK importer Photax brochure from 1961:
(Document image courtesy of Leigh Harris)
The first evidence of a US push is a review of the “Yashicaflex” (actually a Yashicaflex S, but the “S” is never mentioned) in the March 1956 edition of Popular Photography. The review seems to be introducing the brand to the magazine's readers for the first time:
(Document image courtesy of Tom Heckhaus)
(Click on article for larger image)
A forum discussion on photo.net in 1999 refers to an ad for the Yashicaflex S and AS models found in a 1955 magazine. I have found no other US references to Yashicaflex. The first confirmed ad is in December 1956 for the Yashica A, C and LM and from 1957, there are regular ads for Yashica models.
(Detail from web image)
(Click on ad for larger image)
This is an early brochure for the “new” Yashica A, C and LM. Printed in Japan but with US address already, 329 Fifth Avenue, New York. Note that there is no reference to Yashica Inc. yet (see below). Later addresses are initially given as 234 Fifth Avenue.
(Scan provided courtesy of Tom Heckhaus)
(Click on cover to view full brochure as PDF)
In 1957, Yashima established the subsidiary, Yashica, Inc. in New York. Below is a USA Brochure from about 1959. Two things to note are the range of cameras already in addition to the TLRs and the prices of TLRs both in comparison to each other and to the 35 mm and other cameras. In terms of the quality of negative obtainable from them, the TLRs were absolute bargains.
(Click on cover to view full brochure as PDF)
Whilst the focus on the US is expected, why this small European country? The evidence from ads is that Yashica cameras were being actively marketed in Sweden from 1954, that is less than 2 years after the Pigeonflex first saw light as a camera to be marketed by someone else. The first ad found is for the Yashima Flex and Yashica Flex S in the December 1954 edition of Swedish photography magazine Nordisk Tidskrift för Fotografi (the Yashima Flex and Yashica Flex S together is strange, the Yashima Flex is thought to be from an earlier period):
(Document image and information courtesy of Göran Årelind, also appears in Model Names and 66 Models)
(Click on ad for larger image)
This ad was followed by the Yashicaflex B (old model) and Yashicaflex S (note the new single word form) in the March 1955 edition of competitor photography magazine, Foto:
(Document image and information courtesy of Göran Årelind, also appears in 66 Models)
Next, in May 1955, came a Yashicaflex AS ad but the ad below is actually from August 1955:
(Document image courtesy of Göran Årelind, larger image appears in 66 Models)
And then in April 1956, the MolfoReflex (probably released in 1955):
(Document image courtesy of Göran Årelind, larger image appears in 66 Models)
The MolfoReflex is unique as the only known rebadged Yashica model (see also MolfoReflex in 66 Models).
Below is a Yashica TLR brochure, printed in Sweden in 1961. Note, that the trim details of the Yashica-Mat on the cover and inside are of earlier versions.
(Original brochure provided courtesy of Göran Årelind)
(Click on cover to view full brochure as PDF)
Evidence may also surface about early export activity in other countries but for the moment, Sweden is unique. Having been neutral in World War II, in the early 1950s, Sweden was in a relatively healthy state whilst much of Europe was still rebuilding and coping with the start of the Cold War.
Whatever the reasons, Sweden is interesting from a Yashica point of view. However, I didn't know this. Like many people, I knew a little bit about the existence of the Molforeflex and that was all. Correspondent and now significant contributor, Göran Årelind, is of course Swedish and he has done some very good research into the MolfoReflex background, the Yashica TLR presence in Sweden and the general Swedish TLR marketplace in the 1950s and early 1960s. That is 50 to 60 years ago - not a simple task!
Göran sees this as a work in progress, particularly regarding the MolfoReflex material. I also have to add that Göran's contributions have been used elsewhere on the site and it is his Swedish ads, along with the Dutch ad provided by Norman Beierle, that have narrowed down the release dates of the Yashica 44A and Yashica 44LM to the middle of 1959.
Whilst it is well known that Yashica started assembly of 35 mm cameras in Hong Kong to reduce labour costs in an ever more aggressively competitive market, it is not so well known that some TLRs were assembled there as well (originally pointed out to me by Leigh Harris). So far, only very late model Yashica Ds have been found which places them in the 1970 to 1973 period. Like the 35 mm cameras, these examples have an “H” prefix for the serial number. The locking knobs on the base have “Hong Kong”, or in one case simply “Japan”, instead of “Made in Japan” (see Yashica D in “66 Models”). Whether any of the Yashica Mat-124Gs were assembled there is not known but I have not found any obviously identified in this regard. Where visible, the locking knobs all have “Made in Japan”.
I am indebted to correspondent Tony Kwong for alerting me to this episode of Yashica history. Quite frankly, I still don't know anything about why, when or how Yashica first established a presence and then a production facility in Brazil, although the assembly of cameras was probably related to import restrictions. From the article at the top of this page, it is known that South America was already a significant export market for the Japanese camera industry in 1953. It is also known that from 1908 until after World War II, Brazil was a significant destination for Japanese emigration with now the largest concentration of Japanese descent people outside of Japan.
A search of the net doesn't bring up much information but there are quite a few examples of images of Yashicas with “Brasil” engraved on the bottom. Of the 35 mm cameras, the earliest seems to be the ME1 from around 1977 followed by the MF-1 and then MF-3 in about 1985 (first and last identified in Camera-wiki.org and all three noted in the “Yashica/Kyocera Battery Chart” floating around the net).
There is also a unique TLR model, the Yashica Mat-124B (see Yashica Mat-124B in “66 Models”). Its presence is identified in the Yashica/Kyocera Battery Chart with the word “Brazil” next to it - somehow, I have missed this model in the past. The Mat-124B seems to be identical to the Mat-124G except that the CdS exposure meter assembly has been deleted and replaced by a plain nameplate unit with the new name. The battery compartment cover is retained but not the compartment itself. The locking knob has “Brasil” engraved on it. None of the cameras that I have seen so far have have lens numbers and all have the later Mat-124G slotted battery compartment covers so I would say they are from 1977 or later (i.e., after the ME1). Compared to 124G serial numbers, I would extend that to 1983 or later.