The Imai Collection
The Imai Collection* of cameras and related equipment is owned by Sadao Imai, a leading Nikon collector. So extensive in size, it dwarfs the 15-meter long display of cameras at the Nikon Museum. Occupying the upper three floors of a 4-story building, it is housed in display cases that would be 170 meters long if put end to end. Each floor is crammed with cameras and lenses that any enthusiast would envy, including historic masterpieces from Hasselblad, Linhof, Makina, and Leica to name just a few. In terms of scale and quality, the Imai collection is unparalleled as a private collection.
The core of the Imai Collection is formed by Nikon products – Imai’s favorites. There are more than 500 cameras and lenses. In addition to standard models, ranging from the Nikon Model I to the latest digital cameras, the collection includes many rare items such as custom-made and show-window sample cameras. The cases also hold a large number of accessories and not-for-sale promotional items as well as a profile projector and microscope, each of which carries the Nikon brand name.
*A privately owned collection not open to the public.
It’s a truly amazing collection. How did you come to collect all this?
I started to collect cameras that I actually wanted to use, and before I knew it the collection had swelled to more than 2,800 items. I had these wall-to-wall display cases installed on three floors, but they filled up. I didn’t intentionally start the collection. It’s just that instead of trading in an old camera for another model, I always kept the old one as a spare. And as the number of cameras increased, I had to buy lenses for them. So that’s how the collection came about.
I started a company to manufacture and sell snow-melting equipment when I was in my early 30s; luckily, I was able to make a success of it after a few years. But as I got busier I had little time for photography. To make up for this, though, I would visit used camera stores whenever I was on a business trip to Tokyo or Osaka. And if I found something I liked, I’d buy it. My collection thus grew in parallel with my business. You see, back then it was all cash transactions so I had to save up to buy these cameras. Maybe I have made it this far thanks to my enthusiasm for Nikon cameras.
It’s not only cameras that I collect. For example, I have an 80-year old Bentley, and a Porsche 911 that I purchased about five years ago; an Edison wax cylinder phonograph; a Myford lathe of the kind that many Japanese lathes were modeled on; a valve amplifier, custom-made by a friend; and Altec Lansing speakers. The Imai Collection includes all these memorabilia that have played an important part in my life.
Nikon F – the only camera able
the winters of Hokkaido
What was your first encounter with a Nikon camera and how did it come about?
When I was young, I wanted to paint. I did in fact do some watercolors but painting consumes time and money. When I got into junior high school, I joined the photography club and I knew instantly: “This is it! I can paint with a camera.” That’s how I got into photography.
As a young adult, I liked taking photos of steam locomotives as they ploughed through the snow. I guess I’m one of the original railway fans that we call tetchan (train spotter) in Japan. But the camera I had at the time was not made for low temperatures, so the shutter wouldn’t always work smoothly, resulting in uneven exposure. When I asked a guy at the camera shop, he said only a Nikon could endure the harsh winters of Hokkaido. At the time, the performance of Nikon cameras was attracting a lot of attention as it was reported that Nikon had been selected for the Apollo 15 manned mission to the Moon. That was when I bought my first Nikon, the Nikon F.
The F worked flawlessly, as promised, even on Hokkaido’s snow-swept plains. I was able to photograph steam trains to my heart’s content. I made the most of the NIKKOR lens, creating beautiful shots that captured everything from the sharp black contours of a steel locomotive to the thick smoke billowing from its chimney.
Photo of a steam locomotive taken by Mr. Imai when he was a railway fan.
Nikon’s first camera, the Nikon Model I. It is very unusual for the original packaging and leather case to survive in such good condition.
Collecting Nikons for over 45 years
What led you to start collecting Nikon products?
My hobby began to turn into collecting while I was using the Nikon F and Nikon F2. There were various F2 models available and various accessories. It’s the kind of camera that you can play with endlessly. I was completely taken with it. That’s when the collecting started.
You have quite a few rare cameras. How did you get hold of them?
I’ve been collecting Nikon cameras for more than 45 years. When I first visited used camera dealers, naturally no one knew me from Adam. But gradually, over two decades, I became known as a bona fide collector. This meant I could ask dealers to keep an eye out for anything Nikon. Dealers and shop assistants, even in the Ginza, would then think of me when they saw a Nikon. They’d call me up to ask me if I would be interested. So that’s how these rare items found their way into my collection. Of course, rarity meant they weren’t cheap.
Once I was accepted as a camera connoisseur, I started to receive requests from people who wanted me to take charge of their entire collections. I think the fact that I was trusted by prominent collectors may have been the turning point for me to start collecting seriously.
What made you decide to show others the Imai Collection?
About ten years ago, I was using cardboard boxes to store my cameras. But it was a shame to leave them in boxes so I had these glass cases made for my collection. Then started the process of categorizing and displaying. It took about a year to fill up all 170 meters of these display cases. The original point of creating this Imai Collection was to allow me the opportunity to examine each piece closely. Camera collecting is my hobby, after all. When I want a change of mood, I sit on a chair in front of a display case and hold a Nikon Model I in my hand, or listen to the sound of the Nikon F shutter. I can happily spend hours like that. It lets me to forget the irritations of daily life. Sometimes I have a philosophical discussion with a friend about this. You know, I think the good thing about a hobby is that it makes the time fly. You become totally absorbed and forget about the clock.
Although I created the Imai Collection for myself, I decided to invite friends and acquaintances to see it. But not to show off. It was because I wanted to check if I was doing it right. I wanted to know if the collection had value.
What are the best three Nikon cameras in your collection?
Well, my current first choice would be the COOLPIX P900. I like its solid proportions: it really feels like if you are gripping a lens. It’s exactly what a camera should be. Zoom performance is excellent, all the way up to 2000mm. Everything you need is right there.
My second choice would be the Nikon F2. Now the Nikon F is a good camera, but in some ways it could be tricky to use. In eliminating those drawbacks, Nikon created the F2. There are several versions depending on the finder attached to the body. I’m especially fond of the Nikon F2 Photomic A; it’s compatible with the AI system, so you can use various different lenses with it, which is great.
My third choice would be the Nikon F3. This was the first flagship model to feature an electronic shutter and aperture-priority automatic exposure control. It’s close to perfect, and nicely designed. If you’re like me and want to keep an eye on each setting – aperture, shutter speed, and depth of field – then this is the camera for you.
As regard lenses, I like the AI NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4S. This is an ideal lens for shooting portraits. I also like the 135mm and 55mm lenses made around the same time. In fact, NIKKOR lenses of this vintage are terrific.
From left: COOLPIX P900, Nikon F2 Photomic A, and Nikon F3.
Comparison of old and new 2000mm lenses: COOLPIX P900 (2015) dwarfed by the Reflex- NIKKOR 2000mm f/11 (1972).
AI NIKKOR 85mm f/1.4S lens.
A 1957 Fisheye NIKKOR camera with fixed hemispherical lens discovered by chance at a used camera store.
Exceptionally rare Stereo-NIKKOR 3.5cm f/3.5 lens with Nikon S mount used for shooting stereo photographs.
You have so many Nikon-related items, besides cameras.
As I’m a big fan of Nikon and Nippon Kogaku*, I’ve collected anything labeled Nikon. I own a microscope fitted with two camera bodies, and a large profile projector. There are at least forty years’ worth of calendars. Among the oddities are these Nikon sembei, rice crackers baked with the brand name. I bought them about 30 years ago at a confectionery store called Kibundo (on Kogaku St., which runs past Nikon’s Oi Plant). They only had two boxes left so I bought both. I shared one box with a friend, but the other is still unopened and on display. There’s also some Nikon wine – not something you’ll see very often. And this strap I’m wearing is made in the US but was not for sale. And so on. There are many more curiosities in my collection.
*Nippon Kogaku Kogyo Kabushikigaisha (Japan Optical Industries Co., Ltd.) is the old name of today’s Nikon Corporation.
This British Compass Camera, measuring approximately 57 x 70 mm, fits in a special box together with a tripod, cable-release, and film. It was manufactured by a Swiss watchmaking company.
Visitors to the company used to receive these Nikon rice crackers made by Kibundo, a store just down the street from Nikon’s factory in Tokyo’s Oi district.
An impressive display of Nikon calendars covers this wall.
The collection includes an array of rare not-for-sale items and promotional goods.
Let me paint with a camera!
What would you like to see from Nikon in future?
I hope they don’t just focus on pixels and other specifications. What’s important is whether the camera can produce beautiful photographs or not, so I hope Nikon concentrates on this expressive quality. The camera has come a long way, evolving into a very capable recording device that can even capture what the eye cannot see. But I’m interested in the artistic capabilities of the camera. I first took up photography because I wanted to “paint pictures” with a camera. You see, it’s not about automating everything. Before I shoot something, I want to be able to figure out the shutter speed, exposure, and depth of field – all to my own satisfaction. I don’t mind if it’s a large 6x6, with a tripod, just as long as Nikon creates a camera that lets me enjoy photography at my leisure. My personal request is for Nikon to make cameras I can paint with.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of the Imai Collection?
Actually, I am planning to pack up the Imai Collection and move it to a new facility, which will be located in my hometown of Kamikawa. When I made this decision, I thought I might store the cameras and lenses in boxes, and lock them away. It would be fascinating if someone discovered them, say, half a century after I’m gone. Would they see it as so much bric-a-brac, or would it generate great excitement? An invaluable treasure trove, masterpieces of industrial design? However, I abandoned my time-capsule plan. People said it would be a waste, that they dearly wanted to see the collection. So I have decided to sell this building and erect a new one in my hometown to house everything.
I don’t intend to make the new place public. In addition to a garage for my car collection, display cases will be installed in the 2-story building for the camera and audio equipment, measuring instruments, and transceivers. The total length of these cases will be 200 meters, 30 meters more than there is now. I’m going to call it the Imai Collection 78*1. And, because the collection is like a secondary strand in my life, I’m going to name the building Yokomichi no Yakata*2, which suggests an excursion. I’d like to think of my collection as physical testimony of what I have achieved, the summation of my life.
*1 Mr. Imai is 78 years old.
*2 The building will not be open to the public.
Architectural plans for the new building.
First, I would like to congratulate Nikon on everything they have achieved over the last 100 years. Well done! Nikon is world famous, a brand that Japan is rightly proud of. The Nikon Model I went on sale when I was just a kid, and since then I feel like half of my life has been taken up with Nikon. Since 1948, right up to the present day, Nikon had steadfastly continued to produce cameras that represent Japan. My wish is that the company will continue to take pride in the Nikon name, setting the standard as the world’s leading camera brand.
Mr. Sadao Imai