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...
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.
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.
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.
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.