If you’ve clicked through to this incredibly niche article about Japanese lens names, congratulations – you’re a real geek. But that’s okay; we are too. Casual Photophile is a site made for and run by photo geeks. I mean, who dedicates nearly two thousand words to a plastic camera named and styled after a tomato? Who pens a heartfelt obituary for a broken point-and-shoot? Who writes a ridiculous satire on trends in photography using the milk bath photo for a laugh? Yeah, we’re photo geeks and today’s topic is true photo geek fodder – unearthing the mysterious origins of Japanese lens nomenclature.
Anybody who shoots a vintage camera will, at some point, have puzzled over the weird names proudly engraved around the front element of their lenses. On several occasions I’ve been asked what exactly a Zuiko is, why Nikon calls their lenses Nikkor, and if Minolta really loved rock music enough to name an entire range of lenses after it. It’s a topic deserving of our brand of geeky obsession, so I’ve done some research into four of the most famous Japanese lens brands and I’m here to shine a light.
A Brief Note On Suffixes
Many of the names that brands use for their lenses seem to end in –or, –ar, –gon, or –non. This practice has its root in Greek and Latin words relating to optics and light, and the use of such suffixes was first made popular by famous German lens makers who sought to brand their lens formulae. German lenses such as the Planar, Biogon, and Xenon were so ubiquitous as to become synonymous with optical excellence. The fact that Japanese lens makers used similar sounding names when branding their own lenses can be thought of as an attempt to invoke or even copy the great lenses of decades past. The result is that we’ve ended up with a bunch of derivative lens names that sound vaguely similar. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t soul and heart behind the Japanese names. You just need to dig into history a bit.
The name Nikkor comes from a pretty reserved place, especially considering that it’s the brand name of lenses made by Nikon, a company that had the audacity to name and style itself as Japan’s foremost optical company (Nikon’s original name was Nippon Kōgaku Kōgyō Kabushikigaisha, or Japan Optical Industries Co., Ltd.). The logic behind the Nikkor name is briefly mentioned on the official Nikon website, where it’s explained that the name “was created by adding an ‘R’ to ‘NIKKO,’ an abbreviation of Nippon Kogaku K.K.” So, yes, Nikkor seems to simply be the result of smashing “Nikon” together with the photo-y sounding suffix –kor. If i’m honest, that’s the disappointing equivalent of slapping “o-matic” or “3000” onto a product and calling it a day.
But Nikkor does actually come with other connotations. In Japanese, “Nikko” translates to “daylight,” an extension of Nikon’s relationship to the Japanese name for Japan. “Nippon” roughly translates to the phrase Westerners know as, “Land of the Rising Sun.” Considering Nikon’s success in bolstering Japan’s reputation in the international marketplace after World War II, it’s only natural that they decided to marry the country’s name to the very idea of optical quality through the use of the brand name “Nikkor.”
Historically, only Nikon’s best lenses are allowed to bear the name Nikkor. This makes sense once we know where the name comes from – Nikkor lenses not only represent the company, they represent the country from which they come. Nikon unsurprisingly takes the Nikkor name so seriously, in fact, that they even excluding its use on some legendary lenses like the one developed for the “Pikaichi” Nikon L35AF, a nearly perfect 35mm f/2.8. These are high standards indeed, and judging by Nikon’s current status as one of the world’s top lens manufacturers, the standards of that name haven’t flagged in the company’s hundred-year history.
When it comes to company philosophy, the natural foil to Nikon’s nationalism is Minolta’s regionalism. The brand was founded in the city of Osaka, in the Kansai region of Japan. That hometown pride is reflected in their lens name, Rokkor. It’s a reference to Mount Rokko, a mountain range and symbol of the Kansai region, the highest peak of which could be seen from Minolta’s glass-making factory in Mukogawa.
The Rokkor name represents the independent, innovative spirit that Minolta was always known for. Be it the invention of matrix metering in the SRT-101, the invention of the first multimode SLR in the XD-11, and even the fact that Minolta was one of the only Japanese lens company that made their own optical glass, Minolta’s choice of branding made sure we knew where it all came from. Kansai’s regional pride runs deep, and if you don’t believe me, check out this video of a stadium full of Hanshin (Osaka) Tigers fans belting out their fight song, “Rokko Oroshi” (The Wind of Mount Rokko).
Olympus could be considered the most dramatic of the Japanese manufacturers, as well as the most ambitious. The name itself tells us as much – Mt. Olympus is the place where the Greek gods and goddesses reside, and a symbol of otherworldly excellence. Olympus’ cameras deserve such a lofty name – the OM-series redefined the single lens reflex camera, the XA redefined the rangefinder camera, and the Pen F created and perfected the half-frame SLR in one fell swoop. It follows that their lenses make reference to that same godly quality – Zuiko roughly translates to “light of the gods.”
Olympus’ wild ambitions for the Zuiko line could have turned into a neck-aching albatross. But through the ingenuity of their camera and lens designers, they delivered on the name. Zuiko lenses are known not only for being stellar optically, but for being minor miracles of lens design. OM-series Zuiko lenses in particular are known for being miniscule compared to many other SLR lenses of similar specification from other companies, with no loss in image quality. The Olympus XA’s 35mm f/2.8 lens, which is even smaller, helped turn the whole rangefinder genre on its head and offers some of the best performance ever produced by a compact camera. That same lens evolved into the Sonnar-pattern 35mm f/2.8 found on the Olympus Mju-ii, the camera that launched a thousand hype trains. Light of the gods, indeed.
Olympus still uses the Zuiko lens branding on their modern lenses for micro 4/3rds cameras. They’re as amazing today as they’ve ever been, and somehow even smaller.
Pentax is the camera company for romantics. Their classically beautiful cameras and lenses have spawned a diehard following uncommon among camera brands. The early M42 mount “Takumar” and “Super Takumar” are a big reason for Pentax’s early success, showcasing a kind of build quality and image quality that rivaled the best that Germany had to offer. But unlike the previous brands, the name of these lenses has nearly nothing to do with the name of the parent company. For the reason behind their naming, we must turn instead to photographic history.
True to Pentaxian idealism, the name Takumar is a tribute to a legendary Japanese-American portraitist, Takuma Kajiwara. During the first half of the 20th century, Kajiwara made a name for himself as a great portrait photographer in the US and a photographic pioneer in Japan, organizing some of the country’s first photography clubs at the request of the Japanese government. Kajiwara’s gentle, painterly style of portraiture became his legacy, and would inspire Pentax (which was founded by Takuma’s brother, Kumao, as Asahi Optical) to name their best lenses after him, perhaps to evoke his pioneering style of photography.
The Takumar lenses went on to become world beaters, and helped Pentax secure its lofty place in the minds of photo geeks past and present. Pentax stopped using the Takumar name by the time the K-Mount was first introduced. Unfortunately they later brought it back, using the brand name of the former glorious Takumar lens to sell a line of budget lenses that, honestly, weren’t up to the name. A sad end, but to hardcore Pentaxians, vintage Takumars represent the company’s golden days.
We’ve covered the big four of Japan’s lens-makers here (the ones who used brand names for most of their lenses, anyway – Canon flirted with brand names such as Serenar, but these didn’t seem to stick). There are plenty of other smaller companies who made lenses using similar sounding names back then, and even today the trend continues (Fujifilm’s X series lens range are still known as Fujinon). But to cover them all would be too long of a read, even for this site.
If you’re aware of any other particularly interesting backstories that we’ve not mentioned regarding all of the odd photographic nomenclature that we all take for granted, let us know in the comments. And here you can see every single one of our lens reviews in this convenient index, listed alphabetically by brand!
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Interesting concept that Canon is not in the big four Japanises lens makers.