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 also attached their stickers to camera equipment.

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.


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