Short history of Nikon Corporation™


Short history of

Nikon Corporation

Nikon and Nikkor are registered trade marks of Nikon Corporation. In April 1946 the name Nikon was derived from the company’s name NIpponKOgakuNNikkor was used since 1932 for its lenses.

As per April 1, 1988 Nippon Kogaku K.K. adopted its new company’s name Nikon Corporation*.

In the beginning……


Emperor Mutsuhito**

The development of the Japanese optical industry is very much linked to the expansion policy of the Japanese government in the 19th and 20th century. Emperor Mutsuhito (1852-1912) came to the throne in February 1867 and at once dispensed with the restraints imposed for centuries by the military leaders (shoguns) on successive emperors. This restoration marked the beginning of Japan’s modernization, known as the Meiji Period and lasting until the end of Mutsuhito’s reign. Restrictions on foreign trade were removed, and the Japanese borrowed heavily from Western methods. A new Army was modeled on the German; a new Navy on the British. Higher education was formed on the principles of the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt; a centralized bureaucratic government was set up, and the country began a swift process of industrialization. The second half of the Meiji Period saw the beginning of Japanese expansion on the Asiatic mainland, marked by the penetration of Korea and Manchuria and by victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. During the reign of the Emperor Yoshihito (1912-1926), known as the Taisho Period, Japan emerged as one of the Great Powers and as an emerging economy, running behind the industrial revolution of the western world. Economic growth was hampered – however – by various military conflicts with continental-Asian enemies, the open rebellion in Korea and a considerable industrial unrest (intensified by the suffering caused by the great Tokyo earthquake of 1 September 1923). Many industries in Japan were set up by national and local governments to supply governmental organizations with special equipment.

After many centuries of importing optical instruments – mainly from Europe – Japanese government advocated and ordered the establishment of a national optical industry. On 25 July 1917 two optical industries {in fact a special department of both Tokyo Keiki Seisaku Sho (Tokyo Measuring Instruments Works, established 1 May 1896) and Iwaki Glass Manufacturers (founded 24 October 1883 by Taijiro Iwaki) merged and formed a new company: Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha, abbreviated to Nippon Kogaku K.K. (Japanese Optical Industry Company). Early 1918 Fujii Lens Seizo Sho (founded by Ryuzo & Kozo (aka Mitsuzo) Fujii in 1909) joined the new company. It opened a factory in Ohi in the Shinagawa district in Tokyo, Japan. This Ohi-factory is still the main office of Nikon Corporation, which nowadays also has factories and production units in other towns in Japan, and in other countries like Thailand and China. Nikon Corporation also has two sales departments in Europe (the Netherlands) and in the United States of America (New York). Nikon Corporation is member of the Mitsubishi keiretsu.

Nippon Kogaku K.K. was actually set up to serve the Japanese armed forces. It was Ryuzo Fujii, graduated from Tokyo Institute of Technology after a 3-year study in Germany, who invited in 1919 a group of 8 German specialists***. They arrived early 1921 and started to make optical surveying equipment (telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, and range finders) and (Anytar) lenses for the Japanese imperial navy, army and – later – air force only. In the 1930´s photographic lenses were produced for fellow camera manufacturers too. In Japanese internal history, the so called Mukden Incident (18 September 1931) marked the beginning of a militaristic reaction until the defeat of 1945. War time increased the need of high end instruments in large quantities. Marketing, consumer relations, public relations and cost effectiveness were not an issue. Nippon Kogaku became one of the largest optical industries in Japan – maybe even in Asia – with some tens of thousands of employees. On 25 November 1936 an agreement (Anti-Komintern Pact) between Germany and Japan was signed; Italy adhered to the Pact in November 1937. On 27 September 1940 the rulers of the so called Axis Powers {Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Hirohito (aka Emperor Showa) of Japan} signed the so called Tripartite Act in Berlin (later some Balkan countries signed, too). In the framework of that mutual assistance treaty Germany gave nearly all Carl Zeiss’ patents for free to Japan! This ‘knowledge bank’ was very much welcomed by the optical engineers.

After World War II………

After WWII foreign currency was desperately needed to feed domestic economy. Military equipment was not needed, not even allowed to be produced. Nippon Kogaku – considerably slimmed down – carefully stroke out upon new paths: camera market.

In 1948 its first range finder camera (partly cribbed from Leitz and Contax) was introduced. Because of the ´Nippon´ film format (24 x 32 mm.) and its relatively high price the camera wasn´t a success on the domestic and export market. An unexpected but welcome introduction on the American market by a few enthusiastic American photojournalists and by a gifted public relation professional (Joseph Ehrenreich) Nikon cameras and Nikkor lenses gathered an almost indestructible reputation in Northern America. The import of Nikon products into the USA was in the hands of the Overseas Finance and Trading Company in San Francisco from 1949-1953. In 1954 Joseph Ehrenreich*, owner and CEO of Ehrenreich Photo-Optical Industries acquired the import of Nikon products, which led to an enormous boost in sales in the USA.

In 1959 Nikon´s first single lens reflex camera – Nikon F – was introduced: a real workhorse like its successors Nikon F2, F3, F4, F5 and Nikon F6. In 1986 the first auto focus SLR (F501/N2020) for amateurs and in 1988 the professional AF-camera – Nikon F4 – was introduced. For amateur photographers the (unsuccessful) Nikkorex, the very tough Nikkormat-series, compact FM/FE-series and a whole range of AF-, APS-, compact, underwater, movie and video cameras – with varying success – were marketed. In 1997 the first Coolpix(digital compact camera) was introduced, followed by Nikon´s first professional digital SLR camera, the Nikon D1 in 1999. After the German camera industry had to bow its head in the early 1970´s for the constantly improving Japanese optical industry, the (late 1980´s) re-named company – Nikon Corporation – became the world´s second most wanted camera and lens manufacturer. To date Nikon, together with its rival Canon, is still one of the leading optical companies in the world. It produces cameras, lenses, binoculars, steppers, sports optics, measuring instruments and almost everything else fitted with an optical lens. Nikon Corporation is – since its foundation – division/member of the Mitsubishi Keiretsu, one of the world´s largest industrial groups. It has production facilities in (among others) Japan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Philippines and official representations in all major countries all over the world.


Despite its presence in all continents and the 2004 announced Consumer Relations Management, Nikon’s head quarters in Tokyo remain almost – due to the inscrutable Japanese communication culture – inaccessible for most foreigners.

Apart from photographic equipment Nikon Corporation is one of the world’s leading producers of so-called steppers. (As to December 2011, No. 1 is ASML (Netherlands), No. 2 is Nikon, No. 3 is Canon). In 1980 Nikon Corporation introduced the world’s first production-worthy step-and-repeat photolithography tool for semiconductor fabrication. With a stepper it is possible to reduce integrated circuits down to microscopic sizes via a complex process called photolithography, enabling to manufacture chips for computer processors, memory sticks, etc.

Quality control……..

Manufacturing with clockwork precision and with minimal tolerance, based on intelligent engineering and artistic design, may be a prerequisite to produce high-end cameras and lenses, but quality control always remains an important factor in a production process. Nikon Corporation has a reputation of employing inexorable inspectors who are testing each product tenaciously. In addition to that Japan has – since 1954 – created an institute which is unique in its kind:


Japan (Nippon) Camera and optical instruments Inspection and testing Institute, famous for its golden JCII sticker (see above) on many cameras, lenses and other photographic gear. It was formed to inspect all cameras exported from Japan in order to maintain quality standards. It is said that when of one production run of 300 cameras 5 or more cameras did not meet the minimum requirements of the JCII the whole party was sent back to the manufacturer! In 1969 JCII was re-named Japan Camera Industry Institute and started to preserve ‘Historical Japanese Cameras’. A very interesting collection of these historic cameras and many proto-types are shown in the JCII museum in downtown Tokyo, open to the public since 1989. The museum has also a ‘Photo Salon’ and a large library.


The Japanese archipelago is located in an area where several continental and oceanic plates meet. This is the cause of frequent earthquakes and the presence of many volcanoes and hot springs across Japan. If earthquakes occur below or close to the ocean, they may trigger tidal waves (tsunami). Nearly every month an area in or around Japan is hit by an earthquake. Some earthquakes were devastating, hitting also Nippon Kogaku alias Nikon Corporation. The Great Kanto earthquake in September 1923 with a death toll of over 100,000 destroyed a large part of the premises of Nippon Kogaku. Also the Hanshin earthquake hitting Kobe in January 1995 caused a lot of damage. The Great East Japan Earthquake – as the Thohoku earthquake of March 2011 is called by Nikon Corporation – that mainly hit the Sendai region with a death toll of over 24,000, was devastating for Japan’s industry and infra-structure, too. By the end of March 2011 Nikon Corporation reinstated all its factories, running to a total damage of 2,313 million Yen. Not all production facilities were fully operational, and some supply companies were not able to operate at full power.

If that wasn’t enough, Nikon Corporation (and others unfortunately) was hit by the devastating flooding in Thailand mid 2011. Operations (stopped per October 6) resumed from January 2012.

Many books have been written on Nikon Corporation and its products. An interesting list of books and publications can be found on the web site of the Dutch Nikon publicist Hans Braakhuis).

An interesting book has been written by the Dutch journalist and professor Karel van Wolferen, titled ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’ in 1989. (ISBN 90-6766100-7), which has been translated into twelve languages and is generally considered to provide the most elaborate intellectual support of what has been called the “revisionist” view of Japan. His analysis is well-known and appreciated among the most prominent reformist politicians of Japan. He has gained a large Japanese readership with some sixteen books (with a total of well over one million copies sold), on political, economical and historical issues relating to Japan as well as on problems of political change and global compatibility among economic systems.


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