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The following is an excerpt I am reproducing to share with readers about the Kwanon camera, Canon’s first prototype rangefinder camera. This excerpt is taken from an auction description:

© Frank Mechelhoff

Kwanon Prototype Camera
The Kwanon is the earliest, pre-production form of the Canon camera. Its designer, Goro Yoshida, was born in Hiroshima in 1900 and spent his early career repairing and modifying motion picture cameras and projection equipment, with trips to Shanghai in the late 1920s to procure parts. His skills, combined with the perception that the Leica and Contax Model I were “takane no hana” (beyond the reach) of most people, inspired Yoshida to design the first quality Japanese 35 mm. camera.

Yoshida’s task was made more difficult by the fact that, before 1945, Leitz held all of the major patents for 35 mm. camera production. The Leica’s patented coupled rangefinder and viewfinder under one roof presented a particular problem. As Zeiss discovered with the Contax, anyone wishing to market a new 35 mm. camera, had to come up with a completely new design that was different from the Leica. (After the war, with Germany defeated, this was no longer a problem). However, Yoshida did dismantle a Leica for inspiration, reporting that” I just dissasembled the camera without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found that there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminum, iron and rubber.”

With this in mind, Yoshida enlisted the financial backing of his brother-in-law, Saburu Ochida, and formed Seiki-Kogaku (which became the Precision Optical Works) in 1933 for the development of his idea. He named his prototype “Kwanon” after the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and the lens “Kasyapa” after one of Buddha’s disciples. Although Yoshida claimed to have completed ten Kwanon cameras, the camera was apparently never put on the market, although not through want of advertising. A picture in the June 1934 issue of Asahi Camera magazine showed a black 35 mm. camera, with elements from both the Leica and the Contax, and the enthusiastic claim that “the best submarine is the Igo. The best airplane is the Model 92. The best camera is the Kwanon. They are all the best in the world”.

© Frank Mechelhoff

Although three variations of the Kwanon were advertised, all were apparently non-functional wooden dummies, which varied from advert to advert. This may have been because Yoshida was ultimately unable to circumvent Leica’s rangefinder-coupling patents; he was subsequently “fired” from Seiki Kogaku in 1934, and apparently played no subsequent part in the development of the Kwanon.

© Frank Mechelhoff

In 1934, Seiki Kogaku approached Nippon Kogaku, the largest manufacturer of optics in Japan, in the hope of finding a method of rangefinder coupling that would avoid the Leica patents on this feature. Eiichi Yamanaka was the Nippon Kogaku technician who was primarily responsible for developing what became the new Hansa lens-mount; by contrast, the Kwanon here still retains a disc and lever assembly that couples with the lens Leica-style.

With Nippon Kogaku supplying the optical system and Seiki Kogaku responsible for the chassis, the new design was ready for production before the end of 1935. The name was changed from Kwanon to Canon, and the resulting design designated the Hansa Canon after the trademark of its retailer, the Omiya Shashin Yohin Co. was the first true production Canon camera.

Thanks in part to their experience with the Hansa and the Kwanon, Nippon Kogaku introduced their own first 35 mm. camera, the Nikon I, in 1948. The legacy of this landmark collaboration was the development of both Canon and Nikon into the two largest camera manufacturers today.

As Seiki-Kogaku had already planned for the production of the Kwanon, spare Kwanon parts (such as the base plate with centered tripod bush) that were in stock may have been used on the early Hansa Canon models.

© Frank Michelhoff

There is a story that only one actual Kwanon camera was finally sold, in a Tokyo camera store .The incorporation of a folding viewfinder on the top plate, the advance / rewind knob (which does not appear in the advertised cameras) and the spindle-disengagement were the semi-final modifications of the Kwanon’s body design, and suggest that the camera here probably dates from late 1934 or early 1935.

Thanks to Peter Dechert for his assistance in researching the catalogue notes.”


It is hoped that readers who love cameras, especially Canon cameras enjoy this anecdotal history of Kwanon and the accompanying kasyapa lens.
Readers should be pleasantly surprised to learn that Canon preceded Nikon as Japan’s leading camera makers. Canon, as they say, “Delighting You Always”.

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