Text and images by Barry Kawa for Japan Exposures
Recently, a young Japanese woman brought in an old shiny camera to my office, a curious look on her face. It was her grandfather’s 1950s Konica IIA, a rangefinder. She said her grandmother had wanted her to have it, an old antique that her grandfather, who had passed away recently, had loved using.
The young woman told me that she had taken the Konica to a camera shop, where they had charged her 30,000 yen (about $270) to do a CLA on it. But the young employee at the counter who returned it to her told her he didn’t know how to load film into the camera or use it. I told her that the camera was not worth that much, being an obscure Japanese brand, and she paid more than what it was worth. I admired the 1950s styling, always a sucker for an old chrome rangefinder camera. I asked her if she wanted to sell it. ‘’Oh, no, it was my grandfather’s camera. I will never sell it,” she said. So, I looked up the camera instructions on the Internet, put some film in, and showed her how to set the aperture and shutter speed. Without a meter in it, I printed her out the “sunny F16” rule, and told her to go have fun with the camera. It’s what her grandfather would have wanted.
“It was his father’s camera, and he had too many good memories of family pictures being taken with it.”
Then, another co-worker, a Japanese gentlemen who collects antique tin toys, brought in a Pentax S2 with the standard 55mm F2 lens, sold in the Japanese market, to show me. He asked me if I knew how it worked. When I looked at the viewfinder, I couldn’t see anything, even after checking to make sure all the lens caps were off. When I took off the lens, I noticed there was no prism! I took the camera to Ohba Camera, and they estimated it would cost about 10,000 yen to repair it. I told my friend at the office he should just toss the camera, that it had no value, and I knew he would never use it, even if he got it repaired. But he said he couldn’t do that, it was his father’s camera, and he had too many good memories of family pictures being taken with it.
Even though space is very limited in Japanese homes and apartments, most Japanese seem to pass their cameras down to the next generation. In the United States, looking at various local classifieds sites, Craigslist, Internet camera ads, eBay ads, I’m always struck by how many sellers say the camera was their father’s or grandfather’s camera. Since moving to Japan, I’ve myself benefited by my wife’s family passing down their cameras to me. We moved to Tokyo in 2001, and I became interested in photography. I had worked at many newspapers in the United States as a reporter, and then a bureau chief and editor. I had worked alongside many of the finest newspaper photographers, so I had never had the need to pick up a camera myself. In Japan, however, most journalists have to take their own photos, so it was a skill I needed to acquire.
My wife’s grandfather, a retired architect, had spent his lifetime shooting photos, mostly landscapes around Japan, and family photos. Now in his 90s, shakier of both hand and feet, he can only shoot with a Pentax Espio 115, a point-and-shoot film camera. He lamented the loss of control over his photos, but the convenience of that lightweight plastic body and zoom lens was more important. One night, my wife told me, ‘’Ojii-san (grandfather) wants to give you his camera.’’ She didn’t know what kind, so I was hopeful. Would it be a Leica, or maybe an old Nikon F? In the moment when he handed me the funny box-looking camera, I smiled. It was an early 1950s Rolleiflex, with a Tessar 75mm F 3.5 lens. Never having used a medium-format camera, I had to look up the manual on the Internet. My wife said he had bought it in the mid-1950s when his friend needed to sell it. Ojii-san asked his wife if he could buy it, since even at that time, the purchase of a used Rolleiflex with the leather case and all accessories cost them almost half their savings. It turned out to be a wise investment, back in the days when a good camera was a finely made instrument that would last a lifetime and — as we now see — even longer. In all his photo albums, I see that old Rolleiflex around his neck at family gatherings and visits to hot springs spas. At their small apartment in Tokyo, one storage room is completely filled with albums on the shelves. He still keeps a photo album year by year, his best photos enlarged and cut to fit spaces.
“Now it was me who said that, of course, I would never part with it; it holds too many sentimental memories for my wife’s family.”
Then, another night, my wife told me again, ‘’Ojii-san wants to give you another camera.’’ This time, it turned out to be a Minolta X-600, a model I had never heard of. From doing some searching it turned out this model was a rare one, only made for one year, 1983, and sold only in Japan. My wife’s grandfather had bought it to use in his architectural work. Later, he would travel with his wife on the group tours the Japanese are famous for, with that camera and a Minolta 35-105mm F 3.5-4.5 lens, to take some of the most beautiful landscape photos in Japan and around the world imaginable.
I posted on one Internet site asking about the value of an X-600, out of curiosity and the possibility of finding another one in Japan, and someone immediately sent me an e-mail wanting to buy that old camera. Now it was me that told the requester that I, of course, would never part with it; it holds too many sentimental memories for my wife’s family. I tried the Minolta X-600, even getting a 45mm F2 Minolta Rokkor for portability. It’s a fun camera to use, focus is manual, but there are confirmation dots that light up to tell you the subject is in focus. I mulled just outfitting that Minolta X-600 with the best lenses and making it my sole camera, but my friend at Ohba Camera in Tokyo laughed, and told me that only old men still use and collect Minolta cameras.
In brand conscious Japan, I knew that I would end up eventually carrying a Leica. So, the X-600 went into permanent “retirement.” Since then, my wife’s father also gave me his old camera: a Minolta 7000 and two Sigma zoom lenses. I thanked him, and took the camera, which he seemed pleased was going to someone who would use it and take care of it. I also found the old Minolta 7000 enjoyable to use, fast and responsive. Like the X-600 and Rolleiflex, they are all going into my dry cabinet. Since my wife and I have no children, I’ll pass them down to my nieces some day, with all my wife’s grandfather’s photo albums. Hopefully, they’ll gain that same love of film photography and appreciation for their ancestors and family that these old cameras have given me. For in Japan, there is a reason why family treasures such as these are never sold.
Barry Kawa was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Clearfield, Utah. He has worked as a reporter, bureau chief and editor at the Ogden Standard-Examiner, Times of Gainesville (Ga.), Charlotte Observer, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Dallas Morning News before moving to Japan in 2001 with his wife, Yumiko. He now works at a Japanese newspaper, and has become an avid camera enthusiast and collector.