Yashica - Success & Failure
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Between the two World Wars, Japan had developed a photographic industry but it was still feeling its way, still a long way from being a player on the world stage. As an example, because of scale, or the lack of it, and raw materials costs, Japanese lenses were often more expensive than the more highly regarded German optics.
The second World War 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)
Clearly, at the time of writing, camera production was booming and export markets were already being developed by existing manufacturers. To put the Japanese photographic industry into perspective, quoting from the article, Japan produced 402,769 cameras in 1952 of which 72,483 were sold to United Nations forces. Whilst representing approximately 18% of production, it is likely that United Nations personnel would have been buyers of the more sophisticated and expensive models (some of the data in the article regarding monetary value does not compute for me). Also, I assume that the 18% represents “official” outlets like the US Army PX stores. In fact the article below puts forward quite a different set of figures. The scan is from the April 1954 first edition of “Orient Photography” and the article initially appeared in the 20 March 1953 edition of “Stars & Stripes”:
(Click on article for larger image)
Whilst the first article quotes 72,483 Japanese cameras sold in 1952 to United Nations forces (in Japan only?), the second quotes 227,620 cameras sold through US PX stores in 1952 in both Japan and Korea. Presumably, Kodak and other US makers are well represented and PX stores may have carried European cameras as well. Quite a lot of 1950's Rolleis and Flexarets, not to mention Leicas, etc turn up on Japanese auction sites. Both figures could be right but measuring different things, or one set might be wildly inaccurate. Regardless, we can accept that photography was very popular for both the Japanese population and overseas service personnel.
Up to the end of the 1950s and probably beyond, there were few English speakers in Japan. Even today, the percentage of English speakers remains relatively low. In his book, “TLR Compendium”, Australian journalist and author Andrew Fildes notes that he is not aware of any Japanese camera, from at least the 1930s onward, that uses Japanese characters for its name and/or lenses and/or shutter, even those intended only for the Japanese domestic market. His question “why” remains unanswered but it does make life a little easier for linguistically challenged researchers.
In my experience, that applies to Yashima/Yashica products as well. It extends to all text found on the camera itself and most of the text on boxes, including boxes for domestic only models. One exception is the Yashicaflex C box which on one side of the lid has a large red rectangle with white Japanese characters “ヤシカフレックス” (“Yashicaflex”). This is in addition to the English name. On the other hand, early Japanese market brochures and user manuals use mainly Japanese characters - an early circa 1954 Yashica Flex brochure for models B and S only has the “B” and “S” in English as well as the shutter name “NKS-FB” and “B” for Bulb. By the release of the 1957 Japanese market Yashicaflex AS (new model), the user manual cover has the name in English. Contemporary brochures continue with Japanese characters with only model descriptors in English, e.g. “A-2”, but by 1958, the camera names, e.g. “Yashica” and “Yashica-Mat”, are in English too.
Pre-War, 35 mm cameras were uncommon in Japan. There was the Leica inspired Canon with interchangeable lens, focal plane shutter and rangefinder. Also some odd side by side 35 mm TLRs produced by prolific post-War 6x6 TLR maker Tougodo. Post-War, the current Olympus website claims that the Olympus 35 I released in 1948 was “the first 35mm camera sold in the Japanese market.” What does that mean? Presumably the first without interchangeable lenses, focal plane shutter, rangefinder or a TLR viewing system. Much like the Pigeon 35 in fact. After that, the momentum started building fairly quickly. The main reasons for the initial slow take up were the quality of film emulsions, the need to enlarge whereas many people made do with contact prints from the larger formats and quality 35 mm cameras were more complex and expensive yet with potentially inferior results to their rivals.
Although the number of TLR models exploded post-War, pre-War there were up to 20, and maybe more. However, copies of German folding cameras seemed to have the larger share of the market, mainly in 6x4.5 cm format, known as “Semi” models in Japan, but also 6x6 cm. Of course, there were also fixed focus box cameras etc.
Why did Japan produce so many TLR models after the War? Obviously, the demand must have been there, probably helped by value for money considerations. Like the folders, the 6x6 TLRs used the larger 120 film. TLRs were represented by the German “hero models” of Rolleiflex and Rolleicord from Franke and Heidecke whilst the folders were “copies of”, “inspired by” or “adopted the features of” a range of European models by makers such as Zeiss, Balda and Welta. In other words, the folders represented greater variety, less standardisation and hence less opportunity for shared componentry. With TLRs, it was relatively easy for small firms with no previous photographic industry experience but with some technical skills to buy in parts from larger suppliers and simply assemble them into a working camera. Lenses and shutters are the two most obvious and complex components bought in but there is also evidence of common die cast aluminium bodies and shared focusing hood components, camera backs and other parts. 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 this type of production was even encouraged as part of the demilitarisation process.
One Japanese website lists 85 separate TLR brand names but there are probably more. As impressive as that sounds, according to Camera-wiki.org, the camera maker Tougodo, as well as producing the “Hobiflex”, used at least 21 of those brand names for its “Toyocaflex” TLR (mainly to give distributors their own brand name)! Taiyoda and the company that became Topcon also used a number of brand names. And to put all that into perspective, there is a list of something like 135 brand names of pre-War and post-War Japanese Semi models (many from very small makers with no surviving examples).
At one end of the spectrum of “real” TLR models (with matched, focusing viewing lens as opposed to the simple non-focusing viewfinders of cheap “pseudo” TLRs) were the pressed metal Richoflex models with geared lenses which owed more to the post-War Kodak Reflex interpretation of a TLR than any direct link to Franke & Heidecke. Nevertheless, quality shutters and respectable lenses featured and helped to popularise the TLR in the consumer end of the market. Many consider that it was the Richoflex that ignited the TLR explosion. There were quite a few Richoflex imitators too. From the top end of the market to just above the Richoflex and its clones were the models that, by and large and except for minor trim and lens and shutter specs, looked like either the Rolleicord, the Rolleiflex or something in between. From a distance, the similarities are remarkable, close up and in detail it is fairly obvious that some examples were better built, and hence more expensive, than others. Unlike the Rolleis, many featured film advance by red window and Bay 1 lens mounts were even rarer. Price was also somewhat reflected in their operational feel. However, the biggest quality and price differentiators were the lenses and shutters.
As an example, in August 1952, Olympus produced its first TLR. With control wheels, it looked like a cross between the 1958 Yashica D and trim wise, the Rolleiflex Automat. It also featured the Rolleiflex type viewfinder with a drop down mirror to allow horizontal eye level viewing through a lens in the back of the hood. Both viewing and taking lenses were f/2.8, the taking lens an F.Zuiko six element type. Impressive. As was the price, 52,000 yen. Compare this to the 14,800 yen of the first Yashima camera. Despite lowering the specs and removing features in subsequent models, the last Olympus TLR was released in June 1956. The 1954 Fujicaflex was the only model produced. It was the Rolls Royce of Japanese TLRs, its Art Deco flourishes and some novel design at least differentiating it from the ubiquitous Rollei look-a-likes. It cost 65,000 yen whilst at the same time the Yashicaflex A-II cost just 9,500 yen. There was simply no space in the Japanese marketplace for expensive domestic TLRs.
The rise of Yashica is a fascinating story, amongst all the post-War camera maker startups, it was the only one to succeed long term and then became one of the major photographic companies in Japan. Only to be the first of the major companies to come crashing down, the seeds sowed by corporate greed and skulduggery in the early 1970s. It would make great reading but whilst we have a synopsis, no one has stepped up to write the detail.
The following article appeared in the English language The Free Singapore Express, 24 November 1960, page 14. It is republished with the kind permission of Singapore Press Holdings Limited. I also want to thank contributor Chris Whelan for bringing it to my notice and retyping the article for me:
YASHICA - A DECADE AND IT'S AT THE TOP
The Yashica Company, within less than a decade, has risen to become in terms of production and sales the largest manufacturer of cameras and exporter of photographic products in Japan.
The driving force behind Yashica's amazing climb to this position is its president, 37-year-old Yoshimasa Ushiyama.
Mr. Ushiyama and his younger brother, Jisaburo, started things rolling when they established their factory at Suwa in 1946.
They expanded into watch parts and optical instruments and incorporated the business in 1949 as the Yashima Precision Machinery Company. Shortly after Mr. Ushiyama theorised that mass-produced, low-cost, high quality cameras would effectively break through the luxury barrier and take advantage of the deep, widespread popular interest, actual and potential, in photography.
The success of the early Yashica reflex cameras led to the company's decision to concentrate on the camera field. The large volume sales were the result of competitive low prices which in turn came from efficient mass production.
At the time when the top monthly production of rival companies was 500 cameras, Yashica was turning out 3,000 to 5,000 a month. The firm's cameras quickly moved to the top among some 40 competing brands.
The company's many firsts include the Yashicaflex A, and the Yashicaflex S, introduced in April 1955, which was the world's first reflex to incorporate an exposure meter.
Yashica still maintains its leadership in the twin-lens reflex field. Its cameras of this type still outsell all other brands combined in Japan. Yashica reflexes accounted for 68.8 per cent of all Japanese cameras of this type exported in 1959.
Note: All other sources claim that the Yashicaflex S was released in 1954. Independent corroboration comes from a December 1954 Swedish ad and a photograph of the camera taken in Australia in October 1954 (photograph and supporting evidence held by the State Library of NSW, Australia - see Yashicaflex S).
A portion of a slightly earlier article in English (unattributed as far as I know) is included in the Japanese language Yashica AIII user manual published 5 April 1959:
(Document image courtesy of Chris Whelan)
The text, including missing parts of words, is as follows (some I have only been able to guess at and some I just don't know):
The Yashica Story
The Yashica Company, within less than a decade, has risen to become in terms of production and sales the largest manufacturer of cameras and exporter of photographic products in Japan. The rapid progress of the company can generally be credited to the concentration of its research, design, engineering and production resources to satisfying one very important person - the customer.
Yashica's main offices in Tokyo have (quite?) possibly the only board room in (Japan, or, the world?) with colored charts showing by (age?), sex, occupation and other classifications what the customers for the (various?) Yashica cameras are like. In (an, or, the camera?) industry which has in the past (....?) stuck to traditions of limited production, high prices, passive methods of merchandising, and research along (classic?) lines, Yashica's policies of volume production, popular prices, up-to-........
........ with the development of precision industry in the area in which Yashica has played a major role, has earned for it the name of Japan's Switzerland.
The Ushiyama brothers, who (had?) considerable experience in ma(king?) valves and military precision instruments during the war, began turning out communications components and electrical testers (and?) meters. They expanded into w(?) parts and optical instruments(. They?) incorporated the business in 1949.......
Note: The first sentence of each article is the same. I would not be surprised if Yashica had some input into the stories. The claim that by 1959, Yashica was “the largest manufacturer of cameras and exporter of photographic products in Japan” has taken me somewhat by surprise. The obvious question is, “by what measure?” So far I have not been able to confirm or deny the claim. Also the reference to the unnamed area as Japan's Switzerland is taken to be the Lake Suwa region of Nagano Prefecture. In Yashica's 1956 booklet, translated further below, it is referred to as the “Switzerland of the East”. In the late 19th and first half of 20th centuries, the area was known for its silk reeling factories. During World War II, Olympus relocated its microscope and camera business there, Seikosha (Seiko) established its watchmaking factory at Lake Suwa, and at some point Chinon and Cosina had factories there too.
Very little is known about the people involved except that, as noted above, the business was started by two brothers, Yoshimasa Ushiyama and younger brother, Jisaburō. Brazilian visa records from 1957 tell us that Yoshimasa was born in Nagano on 18 July 1922 to parents Yasumasa and Takeko Ushiyama. Yoshimasa went on to become president of the company and later, as company chairman, had a key role to play in our story to come. He died on 5 November 2000.
I have seen no further mention of Jisaburō other than according to Camera-wiki.org, he headed up Yashima Kōgaku, a much later and short-lived optical company that was a division of a Yashima company that was an OEM for audio components. In 1976, Yashima Kōgaku produced an auto exposure, aperture priority M42 screw mount SLR called the Yashima EMC750, also sold as the Osanon Digital 750 and Rony EMC 750. The company went bankrupt in the early 1980s.
Note: Japanese names are usually written with surnames first. I have followed the European convention based on the first English language article above. Also, for anyone doing research, Google and and other machine translations seem to translate “Yoshimasa” as “good government”.
The various wikis tell us that originally founded as a small munitions related business in 1945, Yashima Seiki Co., Ltd. (translated as Yashima Precision Works) formed in 1949 and with eight employees, produced parts for electric clocks and other equipment at a facility in Nagano Prefecture on Honshu Island, Japan.
It is not known why or how but in early 1953 (advertised from March 1953), Yashima Seiki produced its first camera, a basically specified Rolleicord copy TLR utilising 120 film. This was marketed by Endō Kamera-ten (Endō Camera Stores), to become Endō Sashin Yōhin (Endō Photographic Supplies) in June 1953, 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 and perhaps others (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, it is claimed, 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). In reality, this Yashica Flex, called the model B, and revolutionary Yashica Flex model S with built-in selenium cell exposure meter, were both probably released towards the middle of 1954 (there is ample evidence, see Yashica Flex B and Yashica Flex S, to support this proposition). 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).
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 but the value of the Nicca acquisition was access to its focal plane shutter expertise for SLR development. 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 early 1960. Whilst competent products, neither model was particularly successful in terms of sales.
(Note: The release date for the historically rather important Pentamatic is contentious. Occurrences on the net are roughly divided between 1959 and 1960 with perhaps 1959 favoured, however, there is another claim of a “Yashica/Kyocera sourced” date, March 1960. The Trademark filing date in Japan was 18 September 1959 and in the US, it was 12 February 1960. The official Kyocera Optec website of today lists Tomioka SLR lens production as commencing in 1960. Contributor Chris Whelan notes that the earliest US ad he has found is in the June 1960 edition of Popular Photography. Chris also believes that he has decoded the Pentamatic serial numbers, with which I concur, and that the camera in the user manual is from December 1959. He believes he has one of the earliest production cameras which he also believes has a March 1960 serial number. Release could have happened at any point from then on but it would seem to be reasonable to expect it to coincide with a marketing onslaught.)
Although many sites repeat the claim that Yashica acquired bespoke camera and lens maker Zunow (maker of the “Zunow” 35 mm SLR, the first SLR with fully automatic aperture diaphragm) and its undoubted technical skills, some have questioned this and suggest that the company simply shut its doors. According to Japanese Wikipedia, Zunow went bankrupt and was acquired by Yashica in January 1961. The Pacific Rim Camera site has examples of “Yashinon-V Zunow” cine lenses found on a Yashica 3T movie camera thus confirming at least some level of tie-up. There are also references to these lenses on other sites and a casual search of auction sites will easily turn up combinations of Yashica movie cameras with Zunow lenses.
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 (production ceased in 2005 and the “Yashica” brand sold to an unrelated Hong Kong based business). 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 around 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.
One aspect of Yashica's operations not covered in the various English language wikis and many references is Yashica's bankruptcy in 1975. According to the Google translation of the Japanese Wikipedia Yashica entry, the company was beset by a “perfect storm” of embezzlement by its accounting manager, over-investment in new plant at Okaya, Nagano, and recession caused by the the 1973-1975 “oil shock”. There is also reference to issues with investment in a television receiver business. Reading from a different source which seems to be related to this entry, I understand that with government urging, Kyocera was involved in the initial 1975 bankruptcy bailout with the merger of Yashica into Kyocera finally occurring in 1983.
An earlier article by Richard Halloran of the New York Times which appeared in a number of regional US papers including the St Petersburg Times of 18 November 1974 and The Ledger of 21 November 1974, starts with:
TOKYO - Yashica, one of Japan's most widely known camera manufacturers, is skirting the edge of disaster because of poor management, troubles in the Japanese camera industry and overall economic pressures here.
The article notes that the problems began four years earlier when Yashica last paid a dividend and a director of the company was charged with having embezzled about $1.8m. Apparently, matters came to a head earlier in 1974 when company founder and previous president, Yoshimasa Ushiyama, now company chairman,
publicly accused Yashica's managers of doctoring financial statements to make the company's position look better than it was.
The company president denied the charges and Yoshimasa Ushiyama was voted out of office. According to a similar article in the Wall Street Journal uncovered by contributor Chris Whelan, the president, Yoshihiro Miyata, was responsible for the effective “sacking” of Yoshimasa Ushiyama. The New York Times article tells us that Yashica was running a deficit and using bank loans to stay afloat. The Nissho-Iwai Trading Company, which handled much of Yashica's trade, was asked by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry to help bail Yashica out. By January 1975, the trading company had replaced Mr. Miyata 5 with their own Shiro Kaneko (date provided by Chris Whelan). I understand that this all occurred before Yashica actually became bankrupt.
The New York Times article goes on to note how Yashica, apart from a failed attempt at branching into desktop calculators, had not diversified into other products in the way that Canon, Minolta, Nikon and Olympus had. I think that is a little harsh - there is some evidence of other attempts, although perhaps half-hearted and certainly not overly successful outside its photographic endeavours. Yashica started from virtually nothing to become a TLR company, then towards the end of the 1950s, it began to reinvent itself has a manufacturer of all types of quality consumer still and movie cameras. That took a great deal of investment and determination. Its US catalogue from around 1959 already includes a Yashica YT-100 transistor radio. An article in the Singapore Free Press of 21 July 1960 notes that Yashica “has also become a household word in the sphere of radios and radio-phonographs.” We also have the evidence of the problems with the television receiver business mentioned above. Consumer electronics is where Yashica was heading but for one reason or another, it never became viable.
The 28 page booklet (including covers) below has a publishing date of 15 December 1956 and advertises the Yashicaflex C, Yashicaflex A2 and Yashica Rookie and quotes a December 1956 US review of the Yashica C and LM. It also offers a fascinating glimpse into the Yashima factory and marketing:
(Click on cover for full downloadable PDF)
Below are selected translations from the booklet, very kindly done by Haruko Eaton. The translations, including layout, are pretty much as given to me with any editorialising by me in italics:
News from Service Department
Majority recommended by friends
Purchase reason for Yashica users
Results of survey on choosing Yashica shows that majority of buyers have been recommended by their friends as shown on the graph. It proves that Yashica has reputations of superiority from our customers using our products not just from our advertisements.
A: Recommended by friends (45.3%)
B: Recommended by shop (29.6%)
C: Chose by themselves (20.2%)
D: Other (4.9%)
Photograph above – Service department Osaka
Photograph below – HQ service department
Date published 15 Dec 1956
Birth of Twin Lens Reflective Camera
Our new Yasu optical factory is situated on 10000 tsubo (approx. 8.155 acres) of vast land alongside of beautiful Nagano Suwa lake known as Switzerland of the East. We are proud of our practical production system being one of the best in camera industry, but let us show you here just a small part of more than 3000 precise procedures we do.
Material Warehouse Factory Receiving, Dye cast, Press
Plate coating factory Quality Control Parts Warehouse
Lens factory (Tomioka) Shutter factory (Copal etc)
Assembly factory Final QC Shipping
(Click on image for larger view)
Images from bottom right, anti-clockwise (note corresponding image numbers):
Main picture: Overview of new factory (from the Rookie user manual, believed to be at the town of Shimosuwa)
1: This is a shot of our machinery factory. We produce various parts in this clean and
2: Production of lens is done very carefully because it is, after all the soul of a camera, and after strict selection of raw material, lenses are produced going through hundreds of steps.
3: Shutters are made out of more parts than you'd expect. This is a part of our QC
4: Finished parts mentioned above are brought to the assembly department. They are assembled going through many hands on a conveyor belt.
5: Completed twin lens reflex cameras are transferred to QC department and there,
focus adjustment is performed using collimator.
6: After passing strict resolution measurements and final inspections for finished products, our twin lens reflex camera is born.
From US camera published in December
This splendid camera has superior lens just like expensive counterparts have, also it's advantage is that the price is very reasonable. Yashica has proved that anyone can afford good quality twin lens reflective camera. Yashica C has the same functions as more expensive cameras.
Without being too relaxed with the positive feedback, we would like to keep producing better cameras.
(Background US article text also mentions Yashica LM and another camera but with the text cut-off, presumably the Yashica A)
The April 1957 edition of US magazine, Popular Photography, included a “Special Section” titled “The Japanese Photo Industry”. It starts with “In Japan the People Love Photography” and notes the widespread Japanese adoption of photography as a pastime and a way to keep moments alive, much as in the 1953 article above.
The magazine had visited Japan and various factories and found that the focus on quality control was evident everywhere, including at the delivery of the raw material stage. Comments were made about operations at factories, those about Yashica on page 149 are quite interesting. The number one slogan was “quality through happy employees”. To this end, music was piped throughout the factory and varied in style through the day to suit the mood of the worker. Semi-classical in the morning was to help workers forget about their personal situations. This was followed by Western semi-classical and in the lunch hour, there was classical such as Bach or Beethoven. In the afternoon, there was a period of popular Japanese tunes followed by “juke-box jazz”. “Sections of the plant's interior walls are painted in pink and light blue for effect. And when the day's work is over, every employee can take a dip in the plant's own hot spring.”
Page 154 discusses the establishment of the Japan Camera Inspection Institute (JCII) in 1954 and its government backed industry-wide role in quality control of photographic and optical exports. In the beginning, the seal of approval was a small circular paper certificate with “PASSED”. JCII was later renamed the Japanese Camera Industry Institute (retaining the same acronym), and was responsible for the oval gold “PASSED” quality stickers common on Japanese export cameras from the mid 1960s to late 1980s.
Japanese manufacturers belonged to the Japan Camera Industry Association (JCIA). JCIA established the Japan Camera Information and Service Center in New York “in the shadow of the Empire State Building” (page 158) at an address I believe was 329 Fifth Ave, the address also used by Yashica for its first brochure featuring the Yashica A, C and LM trio. The Center's role was marketing, product information, liaison, servicing and spare parts support for its members.
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. I have seen at least two Yashicaflex Cs for sale on Yahoo Japan fitted with a perfectly natural looking backs similar to those commonly found on some Tōkyō Kōgaku, or Tokyo Optical Co., (later Topcon) made Laurelflex and Primoflex models. The smaller companies were more likely to have started as assemblers of parts than designers and manufacturers - how the early Yashica fits into this spectrum is not known. 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. Pre-War and early War TLR models were much more likely to be a carbon copy of a Rolleicord down to trim and feature-set, some perhaps introduced as the originals became difficult to obtain.
(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 & Trim”). 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 (later), Olympus, Fujica, Mamiya, even new maker Kowa with its sophisticated Kalloflex and possibly others such as early maker Elmo, 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 helped by using the same effective and reliable basic body structure to plug every possible price point in the market. Features and specifications varied between models but there is no evidence that there was additional cost cutting with the more basic ones. The period articles referred to earlier confirm Yashica's commitment to value for money and good quality. Also, there appears to have been a clear understanding of the importance of understanding the mass-market customer.
Below is a table of early 1950s prices for Japanese TLRs compiled from www.tlr66.com and other sources. Comparing prices between years is not that useful because of the volatility of the Yen at the time but even so, it seems that in the beginning, the quite ordinary specification-wise Pigeonflex and Yashima Flex were priced at a level commensurate with their features and similar to equivalent competing products. However, by late 1954 the value for money approach was quite noticeable. It should also be noted that quite a few of the competitor's models at the bottom end, including the Hobiflex III, Amiflex, Silverflex and Richoflex VII listed in the table, had pressed metal bodies and geared together lenses with helical focusing.
Brochures and catalogues from the late 1950s continue to 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. The value proposition was often emphasised in early marketing material in Japan and then in the US, particularly with the release of the Yashica A, C and LM trio in 1956 and the Yashica-Mat in 1957 but also throughout TLR production.
Having taken the value for money route also ensured that there were neither the resources nor culture for engaging in expensive research and development activities and no room to make extensive or costly changes to components. The inspired grafting of a Sekonic CB-1 exposure meter to the side of something which was still 85% Pigeonflex is by far the most innovative piece of design that Yashima/Yashica ever attempted with its TLRs. Elegant it wasn't but the Yashica Flex model S certainly got them noticed, and then the market rewarded the company for its conservative, cost conscious approach. The evidence also seems to be that quality levels were more than satisfactory. In other words, consumers were happy to pay for what they were getting.
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 Triotar. Whilst Yashica's Tessar lens designs (Lumaxar 75 mm and 80 mm and Yashinon) were respectable, they couldn't match the Rolleis in either choice or sophistication (Zeiss Tessar and the equivalent Schneider Xenar and the more complex Zeiss Planar and Schneider Xenotar 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)
The Chicago Trade Show report in the June 1956 edition of Popular Photography noted:
"A Yashica-flex Automatic camera with crank-operated film transport and shutter-cocking facilities, M-X synchronisation and shutter speeds from 1 to 1/300 second was presented by Intercontinental Marketing Co., at $79.50."
An early forerunner to the Yashica-Mat, or more likely, a prototype?
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 for any Yashica model is in December 1956 for the Yashica A, C and LM but there is a U.S. Camera ad for the same cameras, claimed to be from November 1956, which states: “Three months ago, many camera store owners had a preview of the Yashica cameras.” A book, Yashica Guide by Richard Lowell, claims that the Yashica name was first introduced to the American public in September 1956, presumably as the Yashica A, C and LM. 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. I believe that this is the address of the Japan Camera Information and Service Center set up by the Japan Camera Industry Association. Note that there is no reference to Yashica Inc. yet (see 1959 brochure below) which I believe was at 234 Fifth Avenue.
(Scan provided courtesy of Tom Heckhaus)
(Click on cover to view full brochure as PDF)
The Yashica-Mat was released in April 1957 and in the same year, Yashima established the subsidiary, Yashica, Inc. in New York. The ad below still refers to the US address as “Yashima Optical” but at the new 234 Fifth Avenue address.
(Click on ad for larger image)
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)
Note that the above ad and brochures use a heavy serif style font associated with the “Wanted” posters and US wild west as popularised in Hollywood westerns. In 1958, Yashica created a new focusing hood logo using this font and also used it for the name between the lenses. There is little doubt that entry into the US market was the prime focus.
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)
Molander & son AB (aktiebolag or company) was the first Swedish importer of Yashima models. 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 (probably for an AS-II) 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 (by trim, 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). It seems that maybe only a couple of ads were run, the second one in June. The “Generalagent” (importer/ distributer) is identified as Molfo Aktiebolag (company), the name “Molfo” is likely to simply be a contraction of “Mol”anders and “Fo”toagenturer (Molanders Photo Agency), a subsidiary company of Molander & son. This company had no other connection to Yashica products.
Molander & son's Yashicaflex S and AS ads, now combined with other photographic products, continued into 1956. In 1957, it was the Yashicaflex S by itself and in the last ad in August, Molander called it the “Yashica S”. In December, Molander was advertising the Yashica-Mat and by May 1958, also the Yashica A, C and LM. However, a different importer, A. B. Fritz Weist & Co., began advertising the Yashica-Mat, Yashica A, C and LM in April 1957:
(Document image courtesy of Göran Årelind)
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)
The Yashica commitment to Sweden was substantial, here is a 1959 ad and Göran's translation below it:
(Document image courtesy of Göran Årelind, also appears in Yashica 44 Series)
YASHICA are Swedish-controlled quality!
Factory manager Werner Falkner at our facility in Jacobsberg – Sweden's second largest plant for photographic products – has the responsibility for the quality control of all Yashica cameras imported to Sweden.
He is the one who knows the most about Yashica cameras, how high and consistent the quality really is of these cameras. This is documented in more than 16,000 tested cameras, plus the same number of pleased Yashica-owners all over Sweden.
Swedish Yashica inspection consists of 23 check-points including: mechanics, film-feeding (with film in the camera) optical (in autocollimator) and exposure times. For film-cameras, also magnifier control of film-feeding and stroboscope-check of film-speed and, finally the finish of the camera.
All Yashicas have 1 year Swedish warranty!
Look at the camera……..look at the price:
Yashica 44 is a super modern mirror-reflex camera with the smooth format 4x4.
Small, light and easy to handle with advanced technical features.
Crank-feeding, of course, shutter with 10 speeds and advanced optical lenses that guarantee extremely good results, both with B/W and color film.
The price is a sensation………268:-
Sweden's most sold mirror-reflex camera is
YASHICA Ask Your photo-dealer for a demonstration!!
The establishment of such a facility and number of cameras sold is impressive in the context of Sweden's population, 7.5 million in 1960. The Yashica 44 price is interesting, it is even more expensive than than the Yashica 635! I don't know if this facility lasted very long though, it is not listed in later Yashica documents.
Evidence may also surface about early export activity in other countries but for the moment, Sweden is unique regarding Yashicaflex models. 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.
Leigh Harris has pointed me to a guy in Denmark that has scanned ads and other bits and pieces from Danish magazines dating from 1934 to 1990. This is the link to the relevant page. I don't know yet whether Denmark received any special attention or it was broadly representative of western Europe. Following reluctant cooperation and then Nazi occupation, Denmark had escaped World War II relatively unscathed compared to other European countries. I don't know whether that is relevant or not.
The first Yashica ad is in April 1957 for the Yashica C and LM. There is a separate ad in the same month for the Yashica-Mat (its month of release) and the Yashica A. There are combined ads for all four models in June and December. Similar ads appear in March and October 1958. After that, there is no mention of the Yashica C and LM. In 1959, the focus is on the Yashica 44. An ad in September 1961 lists the Yashica A, D, Mat, Mat-LM, 44A and 44LM. There are no more Yashica TLR ads. I don't know if Yashica TLRs left the market, simply weren't advertised or whether the owner of the site felt that the ads didn't introduce anything new. Certainly, ads for TLRs in Sweden also petered out in the mid to early 1960s.
Clearly, when Yashima unleashed its export drive into the US with first the Yashica A, C and LM followed closely by the Yashica-Mat, the move into Europe wasn't far behind. Whereas the knob wind models were slightly slower to arrive than in the US, it seems that the Yashica-Mat hit key world markets simultaneously in April 1957, quite a marketing feat back then.
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 two cases 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 have found very little information about Yashica's Hong Kong operations. Both Contax NX and late Yashica Mat-124G user manuals have the following Kyocera address listed amongst worldwide offices and subsidiaries; UNIVERSAL OPTICAL INDUSTRIES LTD. 14/FL. Piazza Industrial Building, 133 Hoi Bun Road, Kwun Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong.
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 most likely 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.
There is a Yashica commercial address, Yashica do Brasil Indústria Comércio Ltda, registered at Rua Yashica, 65 (65 Yashica Street), Sorocaba, São Paulo, Brazil. The Google street view shows some buildings behind a cement block wall without any clue to any previous activities. A Yashica Mat-124G user manual lists the following address amongst worldwide offices and subsidiaries; YASHICA DO BRASIL INUSTRIA E COMERCIO LTDA., Rua Cruz e Souza 59, Aclimacao, São Paulo. A later Contax NX user manual lists; KYOCERA YASHICA DO BRASIL-INDUSTRIA E COMERCIO LTDA., Av. Bernardino de Campos No. 98, 5-Andar Paraiso, São Paulo, Brazil.
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 almost certainly from 1979 or later (i.e., after the ME1), although Wikipedia claims 1975. Compared to 124G serial numbers, I would have guessed a release in 1981. The Yashica/Kyocera Battery Chart says 1981 - that looks like a match. Production may have finished towards the end of 1983 or the beginning of 1984.
This is the list of Yashica's international offices on the back of a post-1983 Yashica Mat-124G user manual.