The Tomioka Story

Tomioka has acquired a peculiar mystique among collectors, artificially inflating the value of some otherwise unremarkable lenses. The making of often-spurious connections with Carl Zeiss has at times felt like a conspiracy to overheat the market. The Tomioka brand has become a talisman, indiscriminately conferring desirability on a wide range of optics. However, some of these well-known taking lenses – and overlooked industrial designs – absolutely do merit the highest plaudits. In the companion article, we give a wide range of Tomioka’s forgotten lenses their deserved moment in the spotlight. But first we delve into the history of this distinguished company.

The Company

This portrait of Tomioka’s founder, as well most of the information contained in this short summary are from a document, written by Kiyomi Tsunoda (角田清美) published here:
https://www.city.ome.tokyo.jp/uploaded/attachment/10086.pdf

The history of the company dates to at least 1924, when Masahige Tomioka – who had worked for Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) – started a business producing optical lenses and devices both for civilian and military usage.

Despite setbacks (some of the company’s facilities were completely destroyed by bombing during the second world war) and financially difficult situations the company survived and flourished after 1945.

Masashige Tomioka also wrote a book called “Lens Aberration Theory” together with Seiji Nakamura and translated into Japanese Frank Twyman’s “Research on Prism and Lens Making”.

In 1960 Tomioka was sold to a company named ‘Japan Film Machines Co.’ (see also Osawa) and in 1968 to its long-term business partner Yashica. Tomioka’s expertise played an integral role in the success of its parent company by designing and manufacturing high quality lenses.

In 1983 Yashica was acquired by Kyocera – however Tomioka was kept as a separate business unit until at least 1991 when it was renamed to Kyocera Optec. It continues to manufacture lenses and optical tools for the company’s ever-growing product portfolio even today.

Here’s an official history from Kyocera’s website, with some added points and remarks . . .

1924Tomioka Optical Laboratory was founded by Masashige Tomioka
1932A manufacturing plant was opened, the first lenses released and the company Tomioka Optical Instruments Manufacturing Facility created
1938The first (Tessar-based) enlarging lenses are released.
1949Incorporated as Tomioka Optical Co., Ltd in Ome City, Tokyo, Japan
1960Commenced production of SLR camera lenses & copier lenses
Japan Film Machines Co., Ltd (a subsidiary of J. Osawa, later named Bell & Howell Japan) acquired Tomioka. You can find more on that under ‘The Osawa connection’.
1968Corporate capital source changed from Japan Film Machines Co., Ltd to Yashica
This likely means that J. Osawa sold Tomioka to Yashica
1969Company renamed Tomioka Optical Co., Ltd.
1974Started technical alliance with Carl Zeiss Foundation and commenced consigned mass production
1983Became a member of the Kyocera Group with merger of Kyocera & Yashica
1986Commenced series production of laser printer lenses
1990Commenced production of video microscope lenses (machine vision lenses)
1991Company renamed Kyocera Optec Co., Ltd.

The Yashica/Zeiss Connection

After Tomioka’s acquisition by Yashica in 1968, the parent company evidently felt the Tomioka brand had positive connotations worth maintaining – as did the Rank Organisation in the UK when they acquired Taylor Hobson. Yashica continued labeling many of their post-1968 lenses Tomioka or Tominon.

The esteem in which Tomioka was held only increased by the association with Carl Zeiss commencing in 1974. Zeiss, whose reputation was (as is) second to none, then joined a “technical alliance” with Yashica and started “consigned mass production”. At some point the Tomioka plant produced Carl Zeiss licensed lenses, but the extent to which know-how and equipment was shared there between the two companies was uncertain, and is still debated. Noted collector and administrator of the Yashica Boards forum Lumiworx put it:

“As the “Made in…” stampings on the Zeiss Contax lenses show both Japan and West Germany as points of origin, there were indeed (at least) 2 plants running at the same time and making the Contax lens lines. I’m fairly certain that most, if not all, of the glass used in both country’s plants originated in Japan, so not only was the chemical composition of the glass well known to Yashica, but also the composition of the coatings and the method for applying them. Essentially the coatings are ‘baked on’ at the end of the polishing process, so there’s no way to get around them not knowing quite a bit about the materials and techniques.

I’ve read several Zeiss articles over the years that explicitly mention that there were official Zeiss advisors and quality control personnel on-site at the plant(s) in Japan to monitor and improve quality control of their branded products, and I have to assume they would have included people with backgrounds in mechanical engineering and optical sciences, and perhaps even metallurgical if they needed that kind of supervisory roles to be present. Between material and process knowledge, I’d be inclined to wonder if there was any area where Yashica wasn’t aware of most of the ‘secrets’, except for the financial and administrative aspects.

Certainly workers in the Tomioka plant gained knowledge during the production of those Zeiss lenses, regardless of what was actually shared in official specs, tools and materials.

While I’ve always been sceptical about the involvement of Zeiss into lenses outside of the Contax umbrella, Illiah Borg (a notable specialist in the field of software dealing with RAW-files –https://www.fastrawviewer.com/) mentioned on forum dprevived.com about the Tomioka/Copal Exx(C) series:

“As far as I remember, ExxC (‘C’, fixed aperture around 12 .. 14mm, depending on the focal) series are Tominons (Tomioka/Copal M39, Noritsu M42mm), designed in collaboration (“technical alliance”, leading to “consigned mass production”) with Zeiss.”

Whatever the truth of that, the Exx(C) lenses are indeed among the most impressive enlarging-type lenses out there. Many of them hold up easily to even the APO labeled high-end series like Rodenstocks Apo-Rodagons, Schneiders Apo-Componon and the best that Nikon or Leica have to offer. Another hint at a connection appeared in form of a Tominon 60/4 prototype lens, resembling a certain Zeiss lens in a couple of ways.

The Mystery

Why is there such mystery and uncertainty around this Japanese maker? Here’s another take from Tim Harris (user M42Junkie on flickr):

“This means I have tested about 60 of the 55mm 1.4’s against the one I chose a few years back. (…) I also have 6 “parts lenses” right now  (…) Now I am going to tell you something I would have not believed 7 years ago, none of my parts lenses have any parts that will fit each other and I have not found any two that had compatible parts with each other every time I get into one it is an adventure. HOW COULD THIS BE!!!???. I do rigorous testing on these lenses also and they have different sharpness and subtly different bokeh the color rendering can be way different, in fact I have tested a few that looked completely different than my standard, which is my lens. The worst of them are still great, I would say that one in five is special and one in ten is magic, and mine is off the charts.
So how did this happen? To start with this lens is almost certainly a knock off of the legendary Carl Zeiss Pancolar 55mm 1.4. Tomioka had a very close relationship with Zeiss at that time and collaborated on many projects and even made the Japanese Zeiss lenses. Now the problem with the Zeiss 55mm 1.4 Pancolar is they only made 5000 of them so you will need a few thousand bucks to get a well worn one. I’m thinking the reason Zeiss made so few is that they were too expensive to produce so that lens got discontinued. Around the same time frame Tomioka was bought by Yashica, this happened as Tomioka was making, and I’m sure had contracts to make many more 55mm 1.4’s for people like the retail God at that time Sears.
WARNING!! now the rest of this is at best a hypothesis. OK that out of the way I’m thinking when Yashica bought Tomioka they might have missed a few things such as it was costing them money to sell that 55mm 1.4. This is pure speculation but if Tomioka had a multi year contract with Sears to make that lens for them they would have to continue to make that lens, you really could not cross Sears back then in any way, putting Yashica in a bad spot. So at some point early on in the production of that lens Yashica put the call out to contract that lens out to anyone in Japan who could make it, maybe down to small shops. Then they tested them to a minimum standard of appearance and performance then sent them on.

I don’t think there are that many pure Tomioka 55mm 1.4’s out there, maybe 2% of them. The reason I say this is because all the known Tomioka lenses are made different with much better quality materials. I have worked on many of the lenses I know were made by Tomioka and the only 55mm 1.4 I have seen that looked inside like a pure Tomioka lens is the one I own. (…)  All real Tomioka lenses are thoughtfully made to be easy to get inside of and clean, they are beautiful inside and out.“
(part of a discussion on flickr)

Perhaps Tomioka was overwhelmed with work and outsourced significant parts of their production. If so, it would explain the variation in build quality of supposedly Tomioka-made lenses.

Such uncertainty (and the lack of documentation) has fuelled much speculation. For instance, the German-language website tomioka.de was accused of spreading misinformation about Tomioka-made lenses as well as the role of Zeiss in the relationship between the two companies in order to profit from (then) undervalued used lenses. Because the site is no longer online and only partly available in the internet archive, it’s hard to say for sure how accurate that depiction is. It’s more likely to have been motivated by a surfeit of misguided enthusiasm than by malicious intent. However sellers on ebay and similar platforms took advantage of the hype and today some of those lenses are offered for absurd amounts of money in comparison with similar vintage lenses.

Robert OToole is one of a number of experienced collectors who doubt that there was any involvement of Zeiss into the production of lenses by Tomioka apart from the lenses produced under the Contax/Zeiss banner. But as far as we’re concerned the question is still open. If you have new information you’d like to share, please get in touch! We’re raising questions as much as giving answers on this topic.

The Cosina Connection

Cosina, like Tamron, are the silent types: the ones that don’t make a fuss about themselves but actually have the most influence and reach of all the manufacturers. They are still around today and produce lenses for a good number of the most notable brands out there. The extent of the connection between Tomioka and Cosina is unclear, but it seems to have been significant because even apart from the Cosinon + Tomioka labeled lenses, it appears like production of many of those lenses switched from Tomioka to Cosina at a certain point. User D1N0 on mflenses offers the following theory:

“My theory about the disappearing of the Tomioka’s is that they focused on industrial lens design. They are still part of Kyocera. Consumer lens designs were sold or licensed to Cosina.

Tim Harris went a little bit more into the relevance of Cosina and possible areas of cooperation:

“Now I don’t know where all the lens makers where getting their glass but I do know that Tomioka had a very close relationship with Cosina. And I do know that Cosina was the maker of the best optical glass at that time (…). They also made probably half if not more of all the M42 cameras made back then, they made cameras for Sears, Ricoh, Mamiya Sekor, Yashica and others (…)”

While we ultimately can’t say why so much of the lens production shifted from Tomioka to Cosina, it can be assumed that those companies had a significant influence on each other.

The Copal Connection

Given that there are dozens of lenses in several different designs featuring inscriptions of Copal and Tomioka, a significant collaboration seems highly likely. Nidec-Copal (nowadays known as Nidec) has been known around the world for their range of shutters used by the most notable camera manufacturers all over the world for many decades. They have quite a varied portfolio and Konrad Ritzinger – a former employee in the joint Agfa-Copal factory in Japan, who was nice enough to give me some relevant insights and additional information in regard to the Agfa articles – also made me aware of the fact that Copal has manufactured lenses themselves. They actually still do today. Thus, it’s possible that a number of lenses we ascribe to Tomioka, were really built by Copal. It seems likely though that the lenses in the EXX(C) range were at least designed in a cooperation with Tomioka.

And this cooperation between the two companies goes way back apparently. As user cyberjunkie on the mflenses forum has shared recently, some models of the Royal camera brand used a combination of Copal’s custom leaf shutters and Tomioka lenses already in 1955. There has also been a rumor (originating in part from this japanese blog) that Copal had launched its own camera with Tomioka-made lenses once, which didn’t sell well however and was thus discontinued.

Copal was also a notable manufacturer of minilabs, and while their own models don’t seem to have been a great sales success (at least they never come up as one of the big players in the big western markets and there barely seem to be any used machines still around), they also worked on Agfa minilabs in a joint cooperation, where they were responsible for the whole printing part in Agfa labs like some of the MSC series.

I have been told by a number of sellers of the E90C line of lenses, that those lenses came from Agfa (MSC) minilabs. So even though they might not have been designed for that initially, the Agfa/Copal cooperation could explain why they ended up being used there.

The Mamiya Connection

There’s not much there, at least in terms of documentation. But it seems likely that Tomioka built some Mamiya-labeled lenses, like the Mamiya 60/2.8 Macro lens, which was also sold as the Macro-Yashinon 60/2.8. This may have been true for other Mamiya lenses according to a couple of online sources, but it’s harder to proof in many cases, as there are notable differences within the lens models.

Here’s an interesting read on the Mamiya Sekor 55/1.4 lens which contains quite a bit of general history of Mamiya and the Japanese lens manufacturer landscape:

This article was suggested by Stephan Koelliker (of artaphot.ch). While it may be tangental, it underlines the complexity of the Japanese optical industry at that point in time. Stephan mentioned the following example on the mflenses forum:

“However I was told, by a very reputable Swiss photographer and photo dealer, that back in the early 1980s he had visited a large Japanese third-party lens manufacturer (Tamron, as far as I remember). To his complete surprise he witnessed Macro lenses for all major Japanese photo companies being manufactured there, in the same large room.

In other words: At that point in time all the “original” Canon / Nikon / Pentax / Minolta etc macro lenses were manufactured at one single company (Tamron). I couldn’t believe the story when I heard it, but said photographer was adamant, saying he had seen it with his own eyes.”

There are lots of stories like that and even if only a fraction of them is true, it seems to confirm that almost anything was possible at that time, when it comes to shared information technology and production among Japanese manufacturers.

The Noritsu Connection

We’ve covered Noritsu and their lenses at length here, but couldn’t find any evidence, that even a single one of the Noritsu labeled lenses was indeed made by Tomioka. However there are reports* that Noritsu used some of the Tomioka E##(C) lenses in their minilabs, so it’s not out of the question that a couple of their lenses (most likely the 32/4 lens or some of their varifocal printing lenses) could have been Tomioka-made as well.

And apart from the (indirect and unaffiliated) connection via Tomioka/Yashica an involvement of Zeiss into the development and production of Noritsu lenses still seems highly unlikely overall. Though the rumor of ‘Zeiss lenses in Noritsu minilabs’ could be considered another point for the E##(C) series made in cooperation with Zeiss.

* one of those comes from Robert OToole who has shared the information he got from a former minilab operator, the other one from Iliah Borg (who has been mentioned in the context of Yashica/Zeiss as well) and who had hands-on experience with those lenses as well.

The Agfa Connection

The only notable (and probably single) connection between Tomioka/Yashica and Agfa is, that they both seemed to have formed some partnership with Copal in terms of developing and manufacturing parts for minilabs: In the case of Agfa for the whole paper processing parts of their machines and in Tomioka’s in the production of the EXX(C) lenses. 

“In 1983, a collaboration with the Japanese company Nihon Densan Copal was started in the minilab segment. Copal developed and produced the complete machine body with the integrated wet end for paper image development. The film input area with the integrated film scanner was developed, produced and provided by Agfa. The customer’s exposed negative films were usually developed in a special machine in the laboratory before being printed.“
Wikiwand.com

Why it’s still relevant to mention, is because several E90C lenses I’ve spotted over the years, came out of Agfa minilabs according to their sellers. It seems likely that Agfa labs got to use these lenses in their machines, because of Copal, which must have had a claim to it. All of the lenses which supposedly came out of Agfa machines, lack the Tomioka labeling and they also look different in design, even though they still feature the E90C name.

We’ve covered Agfa and their industrial lenses in significant detail here if you want to take a look.

The Polaroid Connection

Tominon labeled lenses were used in a number of Polaroid cameras, namely the MP3, MP4, MP5 and CU models. Polaroid describes the MP4+ system in the following terms:

The Polaroid MP4+ System is an unusually versatile photographic unit. Itsuses in industry, business, medicine,research, education, the graphic artsand in a vast variety of other fields arealmost unlimited. They include photo-micrography, photomacrography, copy-ing, small-object photography, grossspecimen photography, X-raycopying and many others.
MP4+ Manual

It’s debated which of the Tominon lenses were already used in the MP3, but the MP4 and MP4+ systems certainly did use the whole range. According to user Joaquimfp on flickr that system is from around 1973. If this date is accurate that’s really interesting as it is within the time frame where Yashica (who had bought Tomioka in 1968) were initiating their cooperation with Zeiss, which makes me believe Tomioka (as the main lens manufacturer for Yashica, manufacturing contractor of Contax/Zeiss licensed lenses + manufacturer of these Polaroid Tominon lenses in significant numbers) certainly must have been one busy little bee… I wonder if they miscalculated somewhere and the sloppy quality control – which is in part responsible for some of these lenses flying under the radar for so long – was caused by Tomioka being in way over their head with the amount of lenses they suddenly had to supply to big names like Zeiss, Polaroid, Sears etc.

Here’s a comment (supposedly from the son of a Tomioka employee at the time) about the production of those Polaroid lenses on a japanese blog giving some credence to the theory that they were somewhat struggling with the tasks given to them:

“これはインスタントカメラのレンズ供給をしていた時の受注で、精度でかなり苦労したとのこと。”

“As to the Polaroid, these lenses were provided to their “Instant” cameras. Their requested levels of “degrees of precision” were tough.” (Thanks a lot to my friend 情事針寸II for the translation!)

The remaining non-macro Tominon lenses 114/3.8, 114/4.5 and 127/4.7 were used in the Polaroid Land Camera 180, 190 and 195 models and have a reputation of being decent to very good lenses overall. Again, reports about difference in quality and coverage pointing towards a somewhat spotty quality control or perhaps a number of different unmarked iterations.

Going by the number of those Polaroid Tominons still around it’s safe to say, that they were produced in large quantities and probably over a significant period of time.

The Osawa Connection

J. Osawa was a Tokyo based japanese company conglomarate distributing a vast amount of products, among those cameras and lenses. They bought part of Bell & Howell at some point in time and apparently also had a 10% stake in Mamiya, as well as exclusive distribution rights in many countries. The company filed for bancruptcy in 1984, which affected a lot of other businesses.

Osawa also sold a number of (taking and enlarging) lenses, but while Max Grenkowitz claims, that

“Osawa did all their own lens design, engineering, and production on the lenses that carried their name.”
(https://www.max.grenkowitz.net/?topic=1073)

it seems likely that they didn’t manufacture many of their lenses themselves but rather bought and rebatched some of them. Tomioka might have been a main supplier of such lenses (as suggested by the Osawa Tominon labeled ones), Mamiya could have been another one.

There is a twist to this whole thing however, which perhaps explains some of the confusion about this topic, and this detail is highly relevant for the history of Tomioka. It might be summarized as:

Remember that one time when Osawa bought Tomioka?

As you can see in the timeline at the beginning of the article, the official Kyocera history of Tomioka/Kyocera Optec states that in 1968

“Corporate capital source changed from Japan Film Machines Co., Ltd to Yashica”

While that sentence was somewhat confusing to me, the first time I’ve read it, I just assumed the Japan Film Machines entity was some other name or tranlation for what camera-wiki.com mentions as “Tomioka was one of the 17 founding members of the Optical and Precision Instruments Manufacturers’ Association (光学精機工業協会, Kōgaku Seiki Kōgyō Kyōkai)“. Not being able to understand Japanese, I concluded this association might have been one of the financiers of Tomiokas developments, before Yashica became their parent company.

However while researching the topic and asking the kind people of the mflenses forum for some help, user calvin83 provided a link to a short history of Tomioka in PDF form by the city of Ome/Tokyo. And when I auto-translated that document I stumbled upon this sentence:

昭和 35 年、日本映画機械(株)が成立し、取引先であったため 、富岡光学も傘下に入っ た。

which roughly translates to

“In 1960, Nippon Eiga Kikai Co., Ltd. was established and Tomioka Kogaku became a subsidiary as it was a
business partner.”

So apparently Tomioka was sold to a company called 日本映画機械 (Nippon Eiga Kikai) in 1960. Nippon Eiga Kikai can also be translated to something like “Japanese movie machine company“. Looking up the Japanese name revealed something very interesting, I’ve never heard anywhere, even though I had researched Tomioka’s history quite a bit already. Because the company in question was mentioned on the history section of the J. Osawa website, where they write:

JP-website: 昭和33年(1958): 日本映画機械(株)(日本べルハウエルの前身)設立。国際分業発展の時代に備える。
EN-website: 1958: Established Japan Cine Equipment Co.,Ltd. (later Japan Bell & Howell Co.,Ltd.).

So, if they are indeed referencing the same company – which seems likely in my opinion – it means, that Tomioka was bought by J. Osawa in 1960.

When reaching out to Kyocera for a comment on the matter, they were kind enough to respond and stated:

In 1960, Tomioka became a capital subsidiary of (was affiliated with) Japan Film Machines Co., Ltd(”Nihon Eiga Kikai” in Japanese) and then, as history website has shown, in 1968, corporate capital source changed from Japan Film Machines Co., Ltd to Yashica.” (Kyocera, Corporate Communications Division)

Until I find something clearly contradicting this information, I view that as proof for the validity of the claim above.

Even though Tomioka has only been part of J. Osawa for 8 years, until they were sold to Yashica in 1968, that could explain their ties to that company and why they made a full series of unique enlarging lenses labeled “Osawa Tominon”, which were distributed everywhere around the world by the global force Osawa was at that time. Perhaps the development and manufacturing started during those 8 years or was part of the contract Osawa and Yashica agreed upon for the sale… we’ll probably never know. It’s an interesting bit of Tomioka history regardless.

In this article we’ve summarised and evaluated the accuracy of current information about the history of Tomioka, mindful of many gaps and the necessity of conjecture. If you have any relevant insights or insider intel, we’d love to hear from you! Meantime, for an in-depth look at the lenses themselves, please see the article ‘Tomioka Industrial Lenses’.

4 Comments

  1. paul hofseth

    Sir,

    most interesting reading, BUT your quoted reference to Zeiss pancolar 1,4 55mm is potentially very misleading. That one was produced by the east German Jena Zeiss VEB which had aboslutely no connetion with Oberkochen and their agreement with Yashica.. The Planar varieties can proviude a better foundation for speculations . If you wich to involve DDR- VEBs that company farmed out production to japan of some of the lenses they marketed- see the “Bero” labelling of export optics.
    p.

    • Thanks a lot for your interesting comment, Paul! Reading the quote again I can see where you’re coming from. I don’t think Tim Harris tried to imply that there was a connection between Zeiss Jena and Tomioka. He specifically mentions the Tomioka-made lens being a “knock-off”, which I see as the opposite of an official work by contract. I get that there are different ways to understand it though and the mention of the Zeiss cooperation afterwards certainly does further confuse things… Perhaps Tim is able to respond directly what he meant by that.

      Regardless of that, I’m not trying to present anything in that quote as fact and Tim Harris himself added a big warning in there that there’s lots of speculation involved. In my opinion the quote is valuable however, because it’s from someone with hands-on experience with a large number of official and supposedly Tomioka-made lenses and touches on some possible reasons for the variety of different opinions about those lenses.

  2. One outstanding story, thanks for sharing the known and yet to be known tidbits of the misterious Tomioka company. I have 10 of their lenses and have yet to open one up, so I will for sure be on mu toes. Thanks.

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