Beginnings (1873-1903)

The history of Konica started when company that would come to be known by that name was founded in 1873 by Rokusaburo Sugiura in Tokyo. Sugiura saw the opportunity to diversify the offerings of his pharmacy, Konishiya Rokube, the biggest pharmacy leader in Tokyo, to include the then-novel photographic materials and equipment being imported from the West. This decision marked the inception of the Japanese photo industry, predating the establishment of Eastman Kodak.

History of Konica
The Konica I – the model that created the Konica brand name

Sugiura launched a new shop, Konishi Honten in 1878, and by the 1880s, Konishi began manufacturing its own cameras and photographic materials, establishing itself as a pioneer in the Japanese photography sector. In 1902, Konishi Honten, still largely an importer, established a new division called Rokuosha Tokyo to mass produce it’s own brand of photographic plates and printing paper.  

The introduction of the Cherry hand camera in 1903, Japan’s first brand-name camera, solidified Konica’s reputation as an early leader in photographic innovation.

The Cherry was a simple box camera with a single speed rotary shutter with Instant and Bulb settings. The lens was a single element (imported) meniscus lens with a fixed aperture and fixed focus, producing 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ inch images on dry plates. The meniscus lens was the first camera lens and in itself has an interesting story, which you can read about in The First Camera Lens article on this site.

In 1907 the company launched Japan’s first SLR, the Sakura Reflex Prano. The box-shaped design was based on the  Rochester Premo Reflecting Camera and it was constructed of wood. The camera has a focal plane shutter with a 1/1000 second top speed. It was offered with various lenses from Carl Zeiss or Goerz and took 8×12cm plates.

Early Twentieth Century (1907-1923)

The history of Konica, like any long-lived, successful company, is one of tests of resilience as well as innovation and growth.

Early Japanese camera makers struggled to sell their cameras in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the value Japanese culture put on imported goods, at the expense of domestic models which created tremendous price pressure.  Most Japanese cameras had European lenses and it would not be until the 1930s when domestically manufactured cameras became common.

World War I forced many industries to become less dependent on foreign goods, and photography was no exception. During the war, the importation from Germany of barium compound-coated paper and paper base was banned. Konishi Rokuosha’s response was to cooperate with Mitsubishi Paper Company to develop a method of producing photographic base paper. The company’s resilience was also tested with the devastation of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

Interwar Period (1923-1938)

In 1925 Konishiroku received orders for gun cameras from the Japanese Imperial Navy Command developed the first domestically produced photographic lens for the navy’s gun cameras that year – the Hexar F/4.5. The name was comes from Roku, which means six, hence Hexa. The lens was a copy of a lens made by Thornton-Pickard, a British camera manufacturer which operated from 1888 to 1939 and an early camera pioneer. Thornton-Pickard had already produced a number of cameras for military use, including the Mark III Hythe gun camera.

In the same year, the company introduced the Pearlette, a folding camera taking 4×6.5 cm and 3×4 cm exposures on 127 film. The Pearlette was the first mass-produced Japanese camera and the first metal-bodied camera produced by Konishiroku. It was also the first Japanese camera that only took roll film. It was produced from 1925 to the early postwar period and was considered innovative, despite its close resemblance to the Piccolette by Contessa-Nettel, itself inspired by the legendary Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK).  In addition to using 127 “Vest Pocket” film, the Pearlette, like the Kodak VPK, the lens panel pulls out on a pair of double scissors folding struts and had a fixed-focus meniscus lens.

The company went onto introduce its first movie projector in 1931 and its first movie camera in 1935.

World War II (1939-1945)

In 1938, as war loomed, the Japanese government placed restrictions on cameras produced for consumers, and Konishiroku directed its major efforts to military products, developing compact aerial cameras for the Japanese Army in 1939 and 1940. The Type 99 Handheld Aerial Camera (150 mm) was produced for the Japanese Navy. The name “type 99” stands for year 2599 in the Japanese imperial calendar (1939). It was the smaller of the Japanese Navy’s aerial cameras and was mainly used for hand-held shots taken from reconnaissance planes

In 1940, five years after Kodak introduced its Kodachrome colour film, Konishiroku unveiled its Sakura natural colour, Japan’s first colour film. Sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossom, and is rich in symbolic meaning including birth, life, renewal, and beauty. 

Mid-Century Innovations and Expansion (1947-1980)

Before WWII, Konishiroku Konica, known then as Konishiroku had developed and built a prototype called the Rubikon, a general use camera using 35mm film. With the outbreak of war broke the company’s manufacturing base was diverted to the manufacture of cameras and optical instruments for military applications and the Rubikon was converted into a camera for taking X-ray pictures.

After the war, Konishiroku returned the Rubikon to its original design but decided to renamed it, to ‘Konica’, from ‘Konishiroku’ and ‘camera’, a similar naming convention to ‘Leica’ and ‘Yashica’. This was the Konica I rangefinder, the company’s first 35mm camera introduced in 1947. This is a very solidly constructed camera with an excellent lens and one I enjoy shooting with.

Konica cameras became synonymous with quality and innovation and were the first Japanese cameras to be marketed in the US, establishing a significant international presence.

The 1950s and 1960s saw Konica cementing its position as a technological leader, particularly with the introduction of the Konica F SLR in 1960, which featured groundbreaking metal shutter technology – the predecessor of today’s ubiquitous Copal shutters. This era also saw Konica pioneering automatic exposure SLRs with the Auto-Reflex in 1965. The Konica Auto-Reflex was the first auto-exposure SLR using a focal-plane shutter. 

The Digital Era (1980-2006)

Despite its earlier successes, Konica faced significant challenges in the 1980s, failing to keep up with the rapid advancements in auto-focus technology and facing a declining market share.

In 1988, the company decided to abandon the SLR market altogether. During the following decade, most Konica cameras were uninspiring models of the point-and-shoot variety. The exceptions were the Hexars. The Hexar AF, was a fixed-lens viewfinder camera, and the Hexar RF, an M-mount interchangeable lens rangefinder camera. Both were successful and enjoy a cult following today. This, however, was the beginning of the end for Konica as an independent entity in the photography market.

Merger with Minolta and Final Years (2003-2006)

The (surprise) merger with Minolta in 2003 aimed to consolidate strengths in a fiercely competitive market with both film photography giants struggling for a foothold in the digital era. Konica was the world’s third-largest photo film maker and Minolta was a leading maker of SLR cameras.

Despite the innovation and success of digital SLRs like the Dynax/Maxxum 7D, the world’s first interchangeable-lens digital SLR camera with in-body stabilisation technology, Konica-Minolta could not reverse the declining fortunes of its photo division.

The sale of its imaging division to Sony in 2006 marked the end of Konica’s direct involvement in the photography business, closing a chapter on over 130 years of Konica history that included many firsts.

Final Camera and…Irony

The 6MP Konica Minolta DiMAGE Z6 was the company’s last digital camera, and was released back in 2005, the same year Canon’s original EOS 5D full-frame DSLR was released.

It’s ironic that the history of Konica as an independent camera manufacturer ended with Sony’s acquisition. The acquisition included the Alpha (α) series of digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras and related technologies which Sony re-branded under the Sony Alpha name, and went on to became the market leader in the next generation of cameras. Just seven years later in 2013 Sony changed the game with the launch of the Sony Alpha 7 and Alpha 7R, Sony’s first ‘mirrorless’ cameras with a full-frame sensor.

Konica-Minolta Today

Konica Minolta, Inc. exists today as a manufacturer of business and industrial imaging products, including copiers, laser printers and digital print systems for the production printing market. The company also makes optical devices, including lenses, medical and graphic imaging products.

Further Reading on Cameras – and Japan

If you are interested in the history of photography you might enjoy these articles on this site:

 For those interested in travel to Japan you might enjoy: