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Three best selling camera makers are all japanses firms - Canon, Sony and Nikon. The other companies selling a lot of cameras are Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic and Pentax. How is that hapen that there are no other countries in top camera makers? I know that Leica still exists...

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    You left off who are probably the top two sellers of cameras in the world: Apple and Samsung. One is based in the U.S., the other in South Korea. – Michael C Sep 29 '20 at 2:55
  • @MichaelC Are they making their own cameras or is ot outsourced? – user3624251 Oct 1 '20 at 10:48
  • Your question asks why do Japanese companies (that is, companies based in Japan) dominate the camera market. It doesn't ask where are the most cameras made, it asks where the companies who sell them are based. – Michael C Oct 1 '20 at 13:17
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Excellence in camera manufacture was mainly in Europe, specifically, Germany prior to world war2. The war forced Japan and Germany to collaborate and share technology for instrument making. After the war Japan’s heavy industry was devastated. The remnants of Japan’s instrument industry retooled to produce commodities that could be sold via export. This was the renaissance of Japan’s camera industry.

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Because doing something just good enough is not even an option in Japanese culture. Do it right, do it the best you possibly can, strive for perfection. It is a reflection on you as a person and the collective culture.

The western corporate practice of planned obsolescence is not something that would have been considered in Japan when Canon, Sony, Nikon, et al., started making cameras, (and everything else Japan makes.) That has change somewhat for some things as the world is taken over by Mega-corporations dependent on continued conspicuous consumption. A Toyota of today is not a Toyota of 1972.

These are my words from my understanding of the Japanese Culture and mindset that was forged from century's of striving to be the best and do it right.

Why do Japanese companies dominate the camera market?

Because they produced the best, people recognized that and purchased their products, and because of the their cultural mindset they spent the profits on seeking to do it even better.

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Part of the answer is that IIRC investing in cameras and optics was a policy of the MITI in the 60s. Japan needed an industry that

  • could use skilled workers
  • had significant added value (to be able to give these workers decent wages)
  • wasn't too dependent on imports.

The Japanese camera companies ended up seizing the middle to top range of the amateur market and some of the pro market. In the 80s and 90s they started adding a lot of electronics in their cameras, so when the cameras went full digital it was a natural evolution for them.

Furthermore the addition of cameras to phones has somehow killed the low end of the camera market, so companies that where mostly in that market suffered a lot or disappeared completely.

Kodak is one of these companies that invented a concept but, fearing that it would kill their traditional business, didn't really invest in it and let competitors take their place.

  • Even earlier, during the U.S. occupation following the end of hostilities in WWII Japan needed to make products they could export that were not militaristic in their purpose. For the previous two decades, Japan's large industries had concentrated almost solely on production of war materials and machines. Cameras and automobiles were the first two major product lines that post-war Japan turned to. – Michael C Oct 1 '20 at 13:21
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I think the current situation has a lot to do with the reaction to digital technologies and the relative focus and size of the businesses.

Europe had a lot of camera makers even after WW2. North America has them too. These did progress quite well, but competition from Japan was targeted first at consumers/amateurs (which created brand recognition) and pros as they developed. These businesses (in Japan) also moved into related technologies (e.g. medical optics). In Europe and North America this happened less but worse was to come.

As digital technologies developed and early digital models started to appear, Japan moved rapidly to enter the computer and consumer electronics markets in a way that led to them becoming far more important than European and North America companies. Japanese camera and optics companies were simply quicker to recognize that digital was the future, not film. This made it almost impossible for European and North America's late (or non) starters to break into the market.

They did something else. They largely respected the lens mounts they had. Oh, there were changes, but Pentax and Nikon kept their mount pretty backwards compatible for decades. Canon made one significant change but made it strategically and managed it well (in business terms).

European makers never really got into digital and never invested before that to compete with Japanese companies. They settled for being niche players. North America companies never seemed able to create a real "North American" camera brand. Kodak certainly tried but Kodak's response to digital is what led to it's collapse. I think once the money started going Japan's way, they simply bought any competitors and IP they wanted and the rest died out naturally from being small players in a big market.

It's worth noting that significant parts of Canon and Nikon and Olympus are involved in non-still camera optical businesses. Panasonic and Fuji are large corporations involved in many industries and Fuji practically ran the camera business as a hobby - a well run and interesting hobby, but it was a tiny part of the balance sheet. Pentax never really diversified away from stills cameras and that is pretty much why they are not a major player (they're barely a minor player now, sadly).

As I understand it Japanese investment culture is quite different and, from what I have read, is not above dubious collusion with banks to keep alive companies that in any other part of the world would be declared dead as dead can be. It sounds rather shady to me, but best check this with an expert - I'm not one. :-)

I think it boils down to targeting the right product at the right market segments at the right time and shifting to new technologies better than others, perhaps with the failure of European and North American companies to compete or link together.

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    Kodak approached their camera manufacturing division as a way to create demand for their film and associated film products (developing chemicals, photo paper, etc.), which was always their primary business. Thus they were philosophically opposed to replacing their film cameras with digital cameras. – Michael C Sep 29 '20 at 7:20
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    One could argue that for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century Graflex (and its predecessors) were as recognizable a brand of camera as any other - from any country of origin - in North America. They were ubiquitous among press photographers, even in Europe. Japan only ever dominated the 135 format and smaller market, and this rise to supremacy over European (German) companies in the 135 format space only began in the 1950s and didn't reach its peak until the 1970s or so. – Michael C Sep 29 '20 at 7:25
  • @MichaelC I don't know if you'd agree that owning much of the IP for systems probably helped Japanese companies make money and hence grow even when their competitors were paying Japan one way or another. But I think it's as much about what other countries did wrong as what Japan did right. – StephenG Sep 29 '20 at 9:49
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    Camera makers in other countries weren't paying Japanese companies for IP in the mid-20th century. The Japanese companies were copying the designs of German camera makers. David Douglas Duncan of LIFE magazine famously used Nikkor copies of Zeiss Sonnar lenses in his Leica in Korea when the war broke out in the Fall of 1950. The home office saw his first images and wanted to know how he managed to carry a large format camera with him while covering combat. – Michael C Sep 29 '20 at 17:29
  • @MichaelC Surprising to me, given how much IP is a commodity is the modern world. Thanks. – StephenG Sep 29 '20 at 19:01

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