On May 1, 1952, a violent conflict between protestors and police officers exploded on the grounds surrounding the Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan.
Towers of smoke reached into the sky above the Imperial Gardens as American automobiles burned on the ground. American military men were hurled into the castle moat and stoned. Policemen were battered with sticks and rocks and pro-communist placards. Warning shots were fired into the sky. Two protestors were shot and killed, and dozens more were badly injured.
The day would come to be known in Japan as Bloody May Day, a day which would eventually lead to the formation of a new and long-lasting U.S.-Japan Alliance, and (importantly for the scope of this publication) a handful of new and unusual film cameras.
Bloody May Day
The May 1st protests began peacefully, with concerned elements of the Japanese citizenry converging on the Imperial Gardens to protest the signing of the Security Treaty between the United States and Japan just days earlier. This treaty had laid out the conditions for ending the American Occupation of Japan that followed World War II, and established a path to restoring Japan’s sovereignty as a nation.
The agreement dictated that Japan would allow the United States to maintain military bases on Japanese soil even after the end of the Occupation. It prohibited Japan from offering the same service to any other foreign power, and stipulated that the United States could launch any military action from Japan-based forces without any need to consult the Japanese government. It further failed to mention any requirement that U.S. forces defend Japan if Japan were attacked. Most troubling for many Japanese, the treaty had no expiration date nor did it mention any mechanism by which an expiration date could be created.
Following the events of Bloody May Day in 1952, and through the work of many other peaceful and non-peaceful protests, and with the help of a massive anti-military base movement that arose in Japan throughout the 1950s, a new treaty was finally negotiated beginning in 1957. By 1959 the negotiations had concluded and the new Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was signed in January, 1960.
This new agreement was far more equitable from a Japanese perspective. It committed the United States to defend Japan in the event of an attack, it required prior consultation with the Japanese government before any U.S. forces could be dispatched from Japan-based military bases, and it specified an expiration date ten years hence. After ten years, the treaty could be abrogated by either party.
Though not without its fair share of detractors, the new agreement was successful in mitigating many of Japan’s greatest concerns surrounding the U.S.-Japan alliance, and paved the way for the long-standing cooperation that has existed between the two countries for over sixty years.
Now Let’s Talk About the Cameras
During the Bloody May Day riot, many police officers were injured while attempting to photograph the protestors and the riot. It can be assumed that the police were photographing the protestors for purposes of identification or to create a record of evidence to be used in future legal proceedings. Whatever their purpose, the police were taking pictures of the crowd, and the crowd noticed.
The protestors quickly adopted a policy of destruction of any camera employed in photographing the riot.
In a Nippon Times newspaper clipping we can read an eye-witness account by someone named Stuart Griffin, who writes of being “in the thick of the violent outburst.” He describes the usual riotous scenes that we’re all so unfortunately still accustomed to today – inflamed crowds and flaming cars, smashed windows, the stumbling body-press of humanity writhing and grappling.
He also describes witnessing the destruction of cameras.
“The rioters tried to prevent cameramen from photographing the vehicles in flames. One cameraman narrowly escaped from having his camera smashed by a unionist […]” [Source]
Police officers photographing the scenes of May 1st necessarily had their faces pressed against the viewfinders of their cameras. They had their hands full. They were operating at a disadvantage, unable to give their full attention to the violence around them and often suffered injuries because of it.
Japanese camera companies had, in fact, already researched the development of pistol-shaped cameras in the late 1940s, as a means for police officers to catch photographic evidence of criminal behavior in real time. But their design was so specialized and their use-case so niche that full development of a pistol-shaped camera had not been a priority. After the events of Bloody May Day, this changed.
Suddenly the police forces of Japan were pressing camera-makers for a solution to the problem of the bulky, traditional camera for in-the-field police work. They wanted a camera which could be used quickly, without the need to hold the camera up to the user’s eye, and a camera which could be easily stored into a belt holster when not in use. It seemed that the pistol camera’s day had come.
Pistol Camera Makers and Notable Models
Prior to Bloody May Day, a number of Japanese camera companies had been toying with development of pistol-shaped cameras. These include the Gemmy and the Seiki 16 Pistol Camera, which were both made around 1950. Another pistol-shaped camera, the Doryu 1, was well-known as a prototype, however it was never produced in numbers due to reliability issues.
After the events of Bloody May Day, the pistol camera became a more well-developed product, the two most successful of which were the Mamiya pistol camera, which was officially called Mamiya Fast-Action Camera (Pistol Shape), and the competing Doryu 2-16.
Let’s start with the Doryu.
The Doryu 2-16 was an ingenious photographic device. It came with an f/2.7 standard lens (and allowed for interchangeable cine-mount lenses) and it exposed 16mm film. The flash magazine was contained in the handle of the “gun” and could hold six magnesium-filled flash cartridges. Pulling the trigger would fire the shutter and light the magnesium flash cartridge on the top of the camera. A photo would be made and a crime (supposedly) recorded.
The Doryu 2-16 failed to find success. The Doryu looked a bit too much like a firearm, and the authorities of the time feared that this might frighten people and lead to unfortunate situations. In addition, development pf the Doryu 2-16 took too long, and by the time it was finally ready for use the Japanese police forces had essentially adopted the Mamiya Pistol Camera as their model of choice. Before they’d sold their first camera, the Doryu 2-16 had lost its customers.
The company decided to attempt to market the Doryu 2-16 to civilian customers, however the highly-specialized design meant that it sold in very low numbers. Doryu 2-16 production was quickly halted. This has lead to a very high valuation of surviving Doryu 2-16 cameras among collectors, with some Doryu 2-16 cameras selling for over $10,000 at recent auction.
The Mamiya Pistol Camera was the most successful pistol-shaped camera. It was designed by Miyabe Hajimu, Mamiya’s chief designer at the time, in a design process that took just six months. Unlike the Doryu 2-16, the Mamiya Pistol Camera uses 35mm film in standard cassettes to shoot exposures measuring 18 x 24mm. The film is advanced manually via a lever, which also cocks the shutter. The shutter is released by the traditional pistol-style trigger. Aperture and shutter speed are controlled by a single ring around the lens barrel (using the EV system).
Through clever positioning of the camera’s controls, it’s possible for the user to shoot an entire roll of film using only one hand. Its compact size and included holster made it an ideal choice. Plus, it looked much less like a traditional firearm compared to the Doryu 2-16.
By 1954, the Mamiya Pistol Camera had become standard equipment for every police headquarters in every Japanese prefect. However, estimates claim that production totaled only 300 units, and many Mamiya Pistol Cameras were scrapped in the following decades. This has lead to valuations as high as the similarly rare Doryu 2-16. One Mamiya Pistol Camera sold at recent auction for close to $13,000.
Fate of the Pistol Camera
Pistol cameras were born out of tragedy, created to better prosecute criminals and to protect police officers working in harm’s way. But their real-world utility is questionable.
Like the Pocketwatch Camera and the Mamiya Camera Clock, that I’ve written about previously, Pistol Cameras were highly specialized, extremely niche cameras. Predictably, the pistol-shaped camera did not last as a photographic tool. It appeared in the early 1950s in Japan and then quickly and quietly went extinct.
And, to be fair, that’s probably a good thing. Perhaps cameras that look like guns was never a very good idea.
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I saw today (March 17, 2023) a Mamiya Pistol Camera on Ebay at 12 000$