Reflections on the JCII PASSED oval stickers

Figure 1. Example of JCII PASSED sticker.

The gold-colored sticker shown in Figure 1 is a small historical curiosity. An oval PASSED sticker similar to this was attached to virtually all camera equipment exported from Japan between the 1950s to the mid-1980s. JCII stands for Japan Camera Industry Institute, and JMDC for Japan Machinery Design Center. These stickers were attached to camera products that satisfied minimal quality requirements and were not blatant copies of German camera products of the time. The sticker does not mean that the individual item was tested, only that its model had been deemed to be usable and not a knockoff. At that time, goods manufactured in Japan were regarded abroad, often with good reason, as cheap trash or (externally at least) exact copies of patented items made in other countries, and this sticker was an effort by Japanese companies and government to improve their image.

Several changes were made to these stickers during the years. In addition to stickers, larger PASSED round tags were sometimes attached to camera products with a thread or ribbon. JMDC was probably not used on early stickers. The two digits after JCII changed often. Fake stickers that only say PASSED were used by manufacturers not connected with JCII or JMDC, as a way to bypass the verification of usability and patent non-infringement.

Today, some second-hand sellers seem to attribute an extra value of sorts to items carrying these stickers, and recently-produced fake stickers of this type are apparently available. There are even reports of JCII stickers seen attached to second-hand cameras and lenses made in the Soviet Union, China or East Germany, which cannot possibly have been exported from Japan. As explained above, there is no intrinsic value in these stickers, either real or fake. A (real) drawback of these stickers is that they may leave permanent marks or discoloration on the surface to which they are attached.

In a handful of countries, imported cameras used to carry an additional sticker issued by the country's authorities. This was probably restricted to a span of a few years, mainly in the decades after WW2. These stickers may resemble a postage stamp, and were supposedly proof that the camera had been imported through legal channels and that customs duties had been paid. It is not clear what happened if a photographer was caught carrying a camera without the official import sticker, or whether the authorities carried out inspections in camera stores to verify that all cameras carried the sticker.

Some official importers/representatives of certain camera brands in some countries attached their own stickers (sometimes screen-printed on a durable metal tag) to their camera equipment, and refused to repair under warranty any equipment that lacked these stickers.

More subtle differences were used by certain camera brands to distinguish items produced for the domestic market from those destined for export. For example, some Nikon Coolpix cameras sold in Japan in the early 2000s had red color accents on the hand grip, while the same model for certain foreign markets had violet accents. This may have been connected to the fact that Nikon representatives in some countries refused to service under warranty cameras purchased in Japan at presumably lower prices.

Historical developments

In the 1950s and early 1960s, everybody knew that Germany was the only country where all good cameras came from (or rather, from the part of Germany on our side of the Iron Curtain, also known as West Germany). People in the West were dimly aware that there were countries and people beyond the Iron Curtain, but no one paid any serious thought to them, except when reading ominous titles about the latest Cold War scare in newspapers. The Japanese, not having significant skills in the design of consumer products, found it easiest to make a living by producing exact copies of cameras and other photography items made in West Germany, and to export them by the shipload to the West. Some of these items, especially the simplest ones, were exact copies of the German originals, sometimes down to the branding. Others looked like the original items, but often failed to perform equally well. However, unnoticed in the West, something else was happening in Japan. After tearing down German cameras to the last screw and reverse-engineering them, the Japanese engineers started to tinker with them, and to do absurd things like trying to improve them. This is when the golden JCII stickers started to appear.

By the mid-1960, Japanese camera products had become technologically superior to German ones. The Japanese industry is not the only one to deserve credit for this, since they received a considerable help from the German camera industry. In the post-war period, West German camera makers, together with smaller European makers like Hasselblad, had decided that they needed no effort to remain at the top of camera industry, since their own products were already perfect. Therefore, it was only a waste of time and money to try and improve on perfection, so, they simply continued to crank out the same cameras and lenses that sold so well in the 1950s. The Soviet Union largely removed the threat of competition by East German camera makers by forcedly moving most of their factory equipment to Soviet territory, where they were used to produce poor-quality products under Soviet brands, and by introducing their five-year plans into the remaining East German camera development.

By the 1970s, the German camera industry had been left so far behind by the Japanese that Germany had no hope of catching up, and in the 1980s the golden oval stickers were no longer necessary because everybody knew that Japan was the only country where good camera equipment came from. In the 1990s, Japanese salaries and production costs became too high to remain realistic, and Japanese camera brands kept their development centers in Japan but started to move their factories to China and, when Chinese production costs started rising, Thailand and Vietnam. In future decades, Japanese cameras and lenses might well be produced in Zambia or Venezuela.

Today, Zeiss, the famous German brand, is at best only a niche manufacturer of camera lenses, catering mainly to professional photographers who have money to waste on expensive brand names to impress their customers. Leica-branded lenses are now produced in Japan by Panasonic. Hasselblad pathetically attempted to put its brand name on Japanese Sony cameras externally retooled to look like futuristic art objects and offered for sale at tenfold the original price. Perhaps they sold a dozen of them worldwide.

Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, the digital revolution was over and Japanese camera makers were at the head of it. Film cameras were a thing of the past and Kodak and Polaroid went the same way as the German camera brands. Kodak was an early pioneer in digital photography technology and teamed up with Nikon for several years in digital photography products addressed to professional photographers. However, Nikon understood what was coming and used its past experience, while Kodak didn't. The Kodak name was licensed a few years ago to JK Imaging Ltd, which has been marketing digital cameras made in China that carry this brand name but have no connections with the original Kodak. It was a rather inglorious end for a brand name that for decades had been synonymous with photography. Literally, in some languages of the Philippines, the word for photography is kodaki.

The Chinese industry is today in a partly similar position as the Japanese industry of the post-war period. Knockoffs (officially known as counterfeit consumer goods) are very common among Chinese products, but are mainly restricted to fashion and clothing or, in the case of camera products, to cheap and easily falsified items like cables, lens caps, memory cards, camera batteries and the like. Some of these items, while still being unashamed copies, are fully functional, as well as slightly more honest in that they do not display copied brand names. I own and use several of the latter. It would probably be too expensive to fight this type of counterfeit items, and the results too uncertain.

In about a decade, China turned from a manufacturer of cheap and poor-quality trinkets to the industrial factory of the world. Lately, a few Chinese companies decided to use the expertise acquired while manufacturing high-quality consumer equipment for Japanese and Western customers, and started to make products, like the Sunwayfoto tripod heads, designed to directly compete with the best Western brands.

In the 1990s, the Japan-based NEC company was surprised to discover that a broad range of NEC electronic products it had never designed or produced was sold throughout Southeast Asia.

The Vivitar brand, founded in the USA, became famous worldwide from the 1960s to the 1980s for Japanese-made third-party camera lenses, cheaper than brand lenses but often competitive in quality, and for popular models of battery-operated electronic flash units. This brand essentially failed the transition to digital photography, was sold to different owners, lost all connections to Japanese industry and gradually faded from memory except on the second-hand lens market, where this brand still remains popular. In the late 2000s, Vivitar regained some market footing with technologically simple but reliable electronic flash units made in China, in part thanks to the once-popular Vivitar name. History seems to keep repeating itself.

The coming challenge

It has become clear in the past 2-3 years that the camera industry will soon have to fight for its very survival, and that the near future will be strewn with gravestones of many of the popular camera brands of today. Some may find it difficult to believe that the likes of Canon and Nikon may become things of the past, but as late as the 1980s and 1990s, few would have believed that Kodak and Polaroid, just like floppy disks, compact cassettes, LPs and VHS were not to remain part of everyday's life.

Updated An even clearer sign of things to come is that, in mid-2020, Olympus (otherwise well known in recent years for its cutting-edge digital photography technology) sold its whole camera division to a Japanese investment firm known for purchasing faltering industrial assets and either trying to parsimoniously revitalize them, or selling them onward piece by piece. Reassurances that this company would continue to develop Micro 4/3 cameras and lenses without the Olympus branding were initially met with skepticism, as a mere PR exercise to avoid a sudden crash in the value of their newly-purchased assets. Surprisingly, OM System (the new company) so far in 2022 has kept their promises and released new lenses and even a new flagship camera, expensive but very capable, and sufficiently innovative to tempt many owners of earlier Olympus cameras.

Other brands like Panasonic may be giving up the development of new models of their lower-tier consumer cameras, given the competition by mobile phones, and concentrating on higher-tier cameras.

In the low-end camera market, many occasional camera users no longer feel the need to purchase a consumer-level camera, since they already have a camera built into their mobile phones. Although image quality and flexibility of use of mobile phone cameras still cannot compete with even consumer-level dedicated digital cameras, nothing beats the ease with which a mobile phone can be whipped out of one's pocket to snap a quick photograph. Carrying a separate camera involves additional weight, reasonable care not to damage the camera, and remembering to charge the camera battery in addition to the phone, as well as the need to move the pictures to a phone or computer. Compared to these headaches, a poorer image quality is not a high price to pay, especially for consumers who only watch pictures on the small screen of a mobile phone and have no better pictures or displays to compare them with.

The high-end camera market is equally entering an existential crisis. For nearly two decades, photographers were told that DSLRs were the only "serious" cameras for professionals and advanced amateurs (and in the past 10-15 years, lower-priced DSLR models targeted virtually all levels of amateur photographers). However, the DSLR market is now saturated, and sales have been steadily decreasing for a few years.

Enter mirrorless cameras, which do away with much of the clunkiness of DSLRs. In my opinion, DSLRs are just an awkward hybrid between film cameras and digital ones, and I have always seen them as a temporary stepping-stone destined to be quickly replaced by fully electronic cameras. Mirrorless cameras are the next logical step (although still clunky in several ways, and only one small step forward). Fully electronic cameras like those in mobile phones are for me a clear indication of the direction in which the technology of system cameras should move as quickly as possible. It should have taken only months, rather than two decades and counting.

Mirrorless system cameras have captured a growing portion of the camera market, with many professional and amateur photographers switching from DSLRs to mirrorless systems. Camera brands that entirely switched to mirrorless early on, especially Olympus and Panasonic with the Micro 4/3 format, have done very well so far. Micro 4/3 cameras allow very significant savings in weight and size of both camera bodies and lenses, as well as sturdier cameras.

High-quality Micro 4/3 lenses have initially been slow to appear, but are now coming quite fast, as a result of the unexpectedly high buyers' demands. A Micro 4/3 camera with a top-of-the-line 300 or 400 mm telephoto lens takes the same pictures as a full-frame DSLR with a 600-800 mm lens, which costs and weighs 10 to 20 times more. This is a life-changing experience for a nature or sports photographer, although deeply ingrained professional DSLR users may find this truth hard to swallow.

Sony joined the mirrorless bandwagon a few years later, but also did well thanks to filling a different market niche (APS-C and full-frame sensors in small bodies), in spite of the Sony lenses offering no savings in terms of size, weight and price, compared with DSLR ones. Canon and Nikon, after a few false starts, have recently entered the mirrorless market. They clearly did so because they were forced to by declining sales of DSLRs, rather than because they wanted to innovate. Their mirrorless cameras are more expensive but, until recently, less capable than the competition, and are facing an uphill struggle against the already established mirrorless players. They simply waited too long, in spite of the writing on the wall being there for everybody to read, and unless they can prove their worth, cut their prices and introduce a broad range of excellent lenses within a short time frame, will now get only a small share of the market.

Sales of mirrorless cameras decreased in 2018, a new trend. While for some this is only a statistical fluke, I think we are seeing the beginning of the same downward spiral that we saw for DSLRs. The technical trends for mirrorless cameras of the immediate and intermediate future are easy to predict, for example:

  • More capable bodies with loads of processing power and smart AI functions. Hardware can be built into the camera, while functionality can be gradually expanded via free firmware upgrades, as we already saw with Olympus cameras.
  • Tough and environmentally sealed compact bodies with electronic global shutters, no moving mechanical parts, and possibly a workable solution to protect the environmentally vulnerable lens mount. The latter does not need to remain a wide-open gate to the camera innards. Now that the anti-aliasing filter has been replaced by software anti-aliasing in modern cameras, the UV- and IR-cut glass window no longer needs to be placed close to the sensor. It can be moved forward by about 10 mm to make "sensor dust" on this window so much out of focus as to become invisible in pictures with most lenses. As a side effect, it will also protect the interior of the camera from water spray and dust.
  • Except for two electrical contacts for power to the lens, communication between camera and lens can become wireless. A dozen electrical/mechanical contacts, typical of current cameras and lenses, multiply by six times the number of things that can go wrong. If short-range wireless communication is still too expensive, the number of data contacts could be reduced to a maximum of just one or two, by using a fast serial communication protocol between camera and lens.
  • Video capabilities to match or exceed those found today in professional studio videocameras.
  • A personal high-speed WiFi network integrating camera, a head-mounted display no heavier than sunglasses to replace the viewfinder and LCD screen, and a gesture/eye movement interface that eliminates the physical small screen and the arrays of buttons designed for hobbit's hands, which are typical of current cameras.

It is time for the camera and IT industries to join ranks and start charting a route that will bring large numbers of customers back to the camera and electronics stores. Attempts to profile new cameras as pro-only, high-price devices only incrementally better than their predecessors (e.g. the Olympus E-M1X and E-M1 III, Nikon Z series, Canon RF-mount series) lack a clear vision and are doomed to fail in the long run, as abundantly proved by the likes of Leica and Hasselblad. It is time for a paradigm shift, a totally new product that will create a whole new market for a single device capable of replacing mobile phones, laptop computers and traditional semi-pro cameras and adding a few totally new functions, like continuous health monitoring of the bearer and automated alerts to the appropriate social services in case of detected distress situations (comparable to the autonomous decision systems already present in many modern cars). All this in a compact, durable, wearable and cheap package. I just hope I will not have to wait another two decades for this. I am getting older and more impatient, and less and less willing to buy today a technological product that is only 1.5% better than what I bought three years ago and have been using since.