New Canon 5D and 1980s Japanophobia

Remember back in the 1980s when we were all afraid of being eclipsed by Japan? They started out with a higher average IQ. They added a superior education, work ethic, and devotion to craftsmanship. Nippon’s best and brightest went into engineering and product design while ours went into law and financial chicanery.

We thought our world domination was coming to an end in 1989 when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center. How could we compete with a country where everyone was good at his or her job? Where the crime rate was negligible and therefore expenses for security, police, and prisons were minimal? Then the Japanese economy stumbled and we relaxed. Apparently fat dumb and happy was a fine recipe for economic growth.

As I unboxed a Canon 5D Mark II today, it occurred to me that perhaps our 1980s Japanophobia was justified. It just took longer for the U.S. to fade than we thought it would. The Japanese unemployment rate is less than 4 percent right now and they probably don’t play around with the statistics as much as we do, excluding “discouraged” workers (our rate is 12.5 percent when measured semi-honestly (source)).

What did those Canon engineers manage to accomplish with the 5D Mark II? The camera costs $2700, less than its predecessor did when introduced almost four years ago. The old camera was the best low-light tool on the market for most of its life; the new one has useful performance at ISO 25,000. Resolution is up from 13 megapixels to 21, comparable to the most expensive professional Canon body. The battery lasts longer, the motor drive is faster, the weather sealing is better, the viewfinder is more accurate (98 percent coverage). A lot of extra software goes into making the best possible JPEGs, with more attention to capturing scenes with high dynamic range, face recognition for autofocus, and a database of optical performance for all of the Canon lenses so that light fall-off in the corners is automatically corrected.

In the department of “just because we can”, the engineers threw in the capability of capturing 1080p HDTV video. My friends who work with professional studio equipment say that the Canon 5D Mark II produces quality comparable to $50,000 TV station cameras.

I reflected on the 15 or so Canon bodies that I’ve purchased since 1994. All performed flawlessly from the time that they were removed from the box until they were given away. All of the people to whom I’ve given Canon bodies are still using them with no problems. These are machines with motors, springs, electronics, etc. that are subject to vibration, impact, dust, water, and the other hazards of modern life.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and ask if there is an American company that could produce anything competitive to the Canon 5D. Keep in mind that Canon makes the CMOS sensor in its own fab. Canon writes the software itself. Canon designs and makes the lenses. An American company is lucky if it can handle a challenge in one domain; everything else needs to be contracted out.

What about Japan? How deep is their technological prowess? If they didn’t have Canon they’d have to supply us with cameras from Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony.

[Where can you get a 5D Mark II? is sold out. This one came from Adorama.]

13 thoughts on “New Canon 5D and 1980s Japanophobia

  1. Phil:

    I am not a camera person, and no doubt, it sounds as though the Canon 5D is a nice piece of engineering. However, I get the feeling you are suggesting that American companies simply can not compete with Japan on any front that requires, as you say, more than “one domain” of development. I do not believe that is the case. For example, there are numerous companies that make extremely complex equipment for chemical analysis (Perkin Elmer, DuPont, etc.) which integrate hardware and software requirements at very high levels. So, while granted, Japan may have chosen to take the lead in the photography industry, along with HDTVs, etc., I simply can not buy into the broad based conclusion that the release of the Canon 5D leads directly to the observation that throughout the United States, an “American company is lucky if it can handle a challenge in one domain; everything else needs to be contracted out.”

  2. Forget digital, look at their film history — I think it’ll give an idea of when we were outstripped. I received my first Canon film camera as a gift in 1979 — an AE1 SLR. It finally expired in 2001 on a trip to Africa after being bounced over every pothole in the civilized world and a few uncivilized ones. It died taking a picture of a pissed-off bull elephant at close range (wouldn’t you?). 22 years of nearly faultless service under bad conditions isn’t bad.

  3. Steve: I don’t doubt that there are American companies that can make a mirror for a $1 billion NASA space project or a $2 million machine for a factory. Last I checked, however, these companies contracted out many of the components and ended up being systems integrators rather than manufacturers. Nor are those companies apparently capable of competing in the consumer market. If a huge market developed for some weird $2 million machine and Canon decided to produce one, DuPont and Perkin Elmer would probably find themselves pushed aside.

  4. And yet Japan’s stock market is trading at 1980-something levels. What’s up with that?

    Canon appears to be an exception, but my impression is that many Japanese companies are run as non-profits. Their goal is social stability rather than shareholder value. And frankly, I’m not sure that’s a Bad Thing.

  5. Another example: We were listening to the car talk guys when a caller complained that her new Jeep shook violently when going into a turn at freeway speeds. Click and Clack explain that the vehicle’s solid axle suspension was designed in (maybe it was just after) WWII and the only solution is to slow down. I can’t imagine a Japanese company tolerating this kind of design flaw for half a century.

  6. I would not be surprised if a decade from now the US stock markets are trading at late-1990s levels, even if the economy overall is doing pretty well. If the previous market peak was a crazy, unjustifiable bubble then it is natural for that level not to be reached again for a very long time.

    Japan has a stagnant (and now possibly shrinking) population. But this realization, far from dooming the country’s ability to innovate, is driving a new robotics industry to automate tasks that now need humans. (And the place still doesn’t seem to have a labor shortage — look at the number of people involved in filling up your car’s gas tank or wrapping up your purchases in a department store.)

  7. Phil, interesting to note the latest development with still cameras having video capabilities (I have a Nikon D90). Many years ago on (when not many of us had digital cameras at all) you predicted that we in the future would video film everything and just pick out the best frames for still photographs. It seems you were partially right but the technical development is coming from the DSLR side right now!

  8. My photography skills and equipment fall on the mundane end of the spectrum but I would echo the Canon comments. My several point and shoot Canons have been replaced due to greater needs rather than collapse of any functional part of the camera. I also have had 2 Canon video cameras which have held up well in the hands of children and a lack of care on my part in spite of seemingly delicate mechanisms.
    Vidar- my HD video camera stills are getting closer to the quality of my point and shoot camera but still have a way to go.

  9. Phil, Canon has always been over the top in their pursuit of perfection, esp. reliability.

    I was one of the early folks at Imagen, a laser-printer spin-off from Knuth’s TeX project at Stanford (we commercialized a raster image processor design that Luis Trabb Pardo and others had built for TeX printing), and we used the early wet-process Canon LBP-10’s, the first “affordable” laser engines on the market (in the $5K range). These were amazing machines, but the wet process was clearly undesirable; soon thereafter, Canon showed us (we were the first US company to get them) the dry LBP-CX, which was the engine later used in the Apple LaserWriter.

    Canon was so worried about reliability that they spec’ed that machine (which was an incredible, high-quality device, even by today’s standards) for 100K images, but overbuilt it like a tank. Some of those machines went on to print 5M images (some are still going).

    Typical of Canon. An amazing company.

  10. Woodcraft recently sent me a $10 off coupon, so on Saturday I was in the store looking to save some money, and decided that I should try these Japanese pull-saws that I’ve been hearing so much about. Yesterday I was in the shop and used them for the first time.

    They’ve been out-innovating us for centuries, apparently. Thinner kerf, much easier to use, all sorts of reasons why that style of saw is just the right way to build a saw. Now I can’t understand how they lost WWII.

  11. I have the impression that Japanese products are high quality not because they want to win some quality competition but because they sincerely do not want their products to break down. They were a little more expensive but you got some value for that extra money.

    Honda built small cars not because they thought gas prices would skyrocket but because they have a philosophy of ‘blue skies for our children’. They put V6 engines in the Accord not for necessity but because of market pressure. Even now the 4 cylinder Accord is really the standard.

    Maybe the philosophy of how you approach product development and manufacturing effects the final product.

  12. Sure, they make things well, but they just can’t produce the financial results:

    Japan: Where Capital Goes to Die

    “Ah, Japan: land of the rising sun, homeland of the hot dog-eating champions, and capital-sucking vortex.

    ‘Capital-sucking vortex?’ That’s a wee bit harsh, no?

    No, it’s really not
    Japan is where capital goes to die, and I have the stats to prove it.

    Firing up my super-duper stock screener (not sold in stores), I see 2,371 companies with a primary listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. That excludes non-Japanese firms that happen to have local listings, like Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) and Aflac (NYSE: AFL). Out of all those businesses, how many do you think managed a greater-than -4% return on equity — a solid but not stunning result — over each of the years 2005, 2006, and 2007?

    Make sure you don’t guess too high, or you’ll be disqualified. I’ll give you a hint: The answer is less than 800.”

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