Now this is something really special. We see a lot of pretty cool cameras coming through the doors here at JCH, but this is on a whole other level. This is a Hansa Canon. And it holds a very special place in history as it was the first commercial 35mm camera produced by Canon, or Seiki Kōgaku Kenkyūjo (Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory) as they were known at the time. Making it Japan’s first commercial camera. This is one of the most important cameras in Japanese history. If not the most.
The early days
Back in 1925, Leica wowed the world with the release of the Leica I, Leica’s first commercial camera and the first mass-produced 35mm for the public (they didn’t do it anyway. get that much). This was a breakthrough and created many companies that wanted to replicate this success. In Japan, Seiki-Kogaku Kenkyusho is one of those companies. In 1934, under the leadership of Goro Yoshida, the company began to develop the Kwanon camera named after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. Yoshida is a devout Buddhist and the choice of the camera’s name reflects his beliefs.
Supposedly four prototypes have been made, although in Peter Dechert’s book on Canon cameras he suggests there could be only three. But these have no function and are made from wood. Goro Yoshida later said he had built 10 cameras out of metal, but had never seen one of them. Looks like no Kwanon cameras exist anymore. But what they did was become Hansa Canon.
What happened to the name Kwanon? Well, Yoshida’s brother-in-law and business partner, Saburo Uchida, decided to change the name to Canon in reference to biblical laws and standards. But why Hansa Canon? Seiki Kogaku’s main dealer is Omiya Photo Supply Co., Ltd. owned by Hikotaro Noro. He and Uchida persuade Yoshida to drop Kwanon and add Hansa’s name. The name Hansa comes from a medieval treaty between European regions known as the Hanseatic League. Hansa is used to denote that the camera has been sold by Omiya Photo Supply. Cameras without Hansa are sold directly from the factory. The name Hansa happened to be owned by Omiya Photo Supply until 2004 when they were acquired by Fujifilm. A strange twist of fate.
In 1935, Seiki Kogaku announced the Hansa Canon and began work on cameras using parts derived from the original Kwanon designs. This workshop is based in Roppongi area and is very small, with very low production rate. But this is the beginning of something huge. In fact, the world is changing.
Unfortunately, the initial workshop had limitations as the staff were still learning the difficult art of camera assembly. In the summer of 1936, the workshop was moved to a larger space in Meguro so that it could produce cameras on a larger scale and with more precision. During this time, the company’s name was also changed to Japan Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory. Although this production is very slow with only one camera being produced a week.
In 1937, it was decided to form the company to beat the difficult financial situation. This is considered by Canon as the year the company was founded. With a more stable factory and financial situation, Seiki Kogaku eventually went on to produce 1100 cameras with Hansa or Canon at the top. The situation was helped by Omiya Photo Supply which incentivizes its employees by rewarding 5 yen per sale for a standard model. This helped build morale in the staff, supporting the business.
Hansa Canon can be shown to have some original design ideas from Kwanon. Include the recessed area next to the pop-up finder (or surprise box as it is known). The hot shoe features rounded cuts not seen on later models. This particular camera is an early model with a body type 232. There is also no marking on the top plate for rpm. This is the first Hansa Canon camera series. The Hansa Canon is a very simple camera, but that shows how important it is. This camera helped launch possibly the largest camera manufacturer in the world.
What’s really cool about this camera is that it has a Nikon lens. Back in 1936, before Canon was Canon, they couldn’t make lenses. But Nikon (or Nippon Kogaku as it was then) has been making lenses and optical instruments for a long time, mainly for the military and government. They wanted a piece of the civilian market, so a man named Toyotaro Hori was tasked with researching ways to break into the market.
By chance Ryonosuke Uchida, brother of co-founder Hansa Saburo Uchida was working at Nikon as an auditor. Hansa Canon needed a lens and they had a hole. Development began on the Nikkor 50mm 3.5 Tessar formula lens for Hansa Canon with the full support of Nippon Kogaku. The lens uses a J-flange with a Nippon Kogaku focusing element.
It’s hard to overstate the extent of this camera import for Seiki Kogaku and the Japanese photography market. The camera came into existence 12 years before Nikon released their own commercial camera with the Nikon I in 1948. During that time Seiki Kogaku managed to release their own ‘Serenar’ lenses and manufacture the camera. new photo.
When the Hansa canon was released, it was priced at 275 yen with the lens included. Keep in mind that the average worker’s salary is around 40 yen a month and skilled workers can expect 70 yen per month. The camera is an expensive proposition, but still cheaper than the offerings Leica offers at 420 yen. The Japanese call these cameras Takane no hana (something beyond reach) to own them will take months of savings and sacrifices. Goro Yoshida wanted to change this when he started dismantling Leica cameras, with the aim of creating cameras for the masses. Which I think he definitely achieved.
I feel extremely honored to be able to hold a camera like this in my hand. This camera is a remarkable piece of history. This camera transformed a small company interested in cameras into a huge multinational that continues to produce some of the most remarkable optics in the world. I was sourcing this particular camera for a client and it was not for sale. What’s remarkable about this particular camera is not only that it’s a very early release, there are some really important transitional design points. But it also comes with the original brochure and warranty holder. It’s like a time capsule.
I was so excited about the camera that I got together with the JCH team to make a video about this remarkable piece of camera history. We hope you will like it.
I’m pretty sure I’ll never see something like this again, but then you never know what’s around…