Shockwaves spread throughout the camera world this week when it was reported that Nikon would end 70 years of camera production in Japan and move manufacturing to Thailand. How do you feel about this? And how do Japanese people feel about this?
When you think of the big camera companies in existence today, Nikon will almost certainly be a part of the conversation alongside the likes of Canon, Sony, Panasonic, and others. However, financially, things haven’t been going too well for Nikon in recent times and reports out this week suggest that Nikon is taking itself out of Japan and moving its camera production division to Thailand. There are a number of reasons for this, including the most obvious: economics. Wages, taxes, production costs, and so forth will no doubt be cheaper in Thailand. Thus, when you’re struggling financially, it makes sense to find ways to cut costs.
Also, the factory in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, and its surroundings were significantly affected by the earthquake and resulting tsunami back in March, 2011. One employee died, three were missing, and there were power outages for a number of weeks. Some of Nikon’s parts and materials suppliers were wiped out by the tsunami and at least one camera model, the D800, was directly delayed due to the quake. At least one Coolpix camera model was canceled due to loss of parts supply. Even though the plant was back in full production by 2012, perhaps the current circumstances of COVID-19 have simply accelerated prior held plans to cut and run from the area and move production offshore. Nikon hasn’t released a statement yet so we’ll have to wait for confirmation.
It is worth noting that Nikon’s headquarters, and home to the production of many of its profitable arms, is in central Tokyo, and not at the plant that is reportedly winding up. Indeed, as far as I can find, there are only about 350 employees at the Sendai plant, as opposed to 20,000 plus within the entire Nikon company. Be that as it may, it is still quite a shock to see Nikon’s camera manufacturing move offshore. I’ve lived in Japan for 16 years now and have bought a house here and become a permanent resident. Thus, I know that many company employees, or “kaishain”, in Japan still harbor the desire to work for one company for life, and salaries and annual bonuses are heavily tied to the length of tenure within a company. As a result, there would be employees who have worked at that Nikon plant in Sendai for 40-50 years who may well be left in limbo now with regards to pensions and retirement plans.
With this backdrop, I asked a number of Japanese people how they felt about the news of Nikon moving its camera manufacturing offshore to Thailand. I am pretty fluent in Japanese, but recorded the answers so my wife could translate if there was anything I didn’t quite understand. I also endeavored to ask people with no real ties or deep, historical connections with Nikon, cameras, or photography. The answers I got were rather fascinating.
First up I asked my wife how she felt. She’s not really into photography and simply said it was a sign of the times. This was a common theme throughout the answers. She did some checking herself when I told her the news and seemed somewhat relieved when she found out it was just the Sendai plant that was closing, and not Nikon itself. This was actually quite salient, because it showed that she hadn’t heard the news at that time. She said that if it was the whole company that was going under rather than just one plant moving its operations abroad, then it would be far more shocking to her.
This was a sentiment repeated by my wife’s father and her uncle. My wife’s father is a man in his 50s who lives on a tiny island in the far south of Japan and spends his time mostly on the family’s farms. Both my father-in-law and my wife’s uncle were actually up to date on things because they follow the news religiously. Almost in unison the two of them said “shouganai” when I asked about the situation and how they felt, which is a very common Japanese word that translates to “it can’t be helped.” They said it was sad that a Japanese company with the history of Nikon had to take such cost-cutting measures but in the next breath, both said that 2020 was a year like no other. Thus, nothing surprised them these days and they simply shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, and had another sip of shouchu (similar to sake but made from potatoes as opposed to rice). Nonetheless, they were a little saddened that 100s of employees might be affected in an area that has already been devastated over the last decade.
Next, I asked some of my photography students from the college where I work. Their answers were quite interesting. Most of them were quite shocked but wondered how Japanese consumers might react if it meant Nikon cameras and lenses were no longer made in Japan. They clearly understood the economic side of the argument and pondered that it may well mean cheaper Nikon cameras in the future, but said traditional consumer sentiment in Japan meant there was a tendency to buy Japanese-made goods, especially when it comes to expensive purchases such as electronic goods and cars.
Japan has a shrinking population and has been overtaken by China as an economic force in the last decade. Salaries are comparatively high here so it makes sense that Nikon moves its production offshore if it’s more economically viable. The fact that it’s only one (smallish) plant that’s moving means it hasn’t really sent massive shockwaves throughout the news cycle here this week. Nonetheless, is this a sign of desperation from Nikon’s camera arm in a bid to stave off the inevitable, or just a response to the reality of the situation Nikon is now confronted by? And I wonder what competitors like Canon and Sony make of it all?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.