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First Camera, Kuribayashi, Tokiwa
(and Kiyabashi?)

This is a convoluted history, and I have had to interpolate a considerable amount about this company/series, as parts of the main sources are rather confused. In order to unravel the background (which I have only partially achieved so far) I have often had to rely on physical aspects and shared parts in the cameras to indicate or confirm relationships.

The story below is only partly chronological, as it to some extent reflects the detective process I have followed. If any reader knows more than I do and would like to add to this or correct any error,
Kuribayashi/First Camera "First Reflex" II

The story starts here, with one of the very first generation of Japanese TLRs. In
The History of The Japanese Camera (ed. Lewis), an article by Tanaka and Miyabe states that "the first Japanese TLRs were the 1937 Minoltaflex and Princeflex, followed by the Lyraflex, Firstflex and Taroflex". Unfortunately, they say no more about this original Firstflex, dating from 1937. I have two of these cameras, pictures of which, with further details at which are on the linked page (click on the thumbnail picture).
    First ReflexTaking lens is Tokiwa Anastigmat or First Anastigmat 75mm f3.5
Shutter is Hit-Rapid 1 to 1/500

There is however considerable confusion here. McKeown (quoting from a book by John Baird on Kuribayashi-Petri cameras) pinpoints this and its very rare predecessor as Kuribayashi models from 1937-40 and says they were only marketed in Japan. Sugiyama - I think wrongly - dates it from 1944 and from "First Camera Works", along with several other "First" cameras (non-TLRs) which McKeown shows as Kuribayashi's. Both agree it's very rare, and both suggest the common lens is the "Hit" Anastigmat (along with Hit-Rapid shutter).

Adrien Rebollo wrote to me from France in March 2007; he has researched the First series and says:
"It seems from the dates of articles and advertisements that the First Reflex was made between 1938 and 1944. There were two models. The First Reflex I has 1-300 speeds and a three-element First Anastigmat 75/3.5 lens. The First Reflex II has a Hit-Rapid 1-500 shutter and a four-element taking lens. It seems that there were two lens suppliers for the four-element model: the Hit Anastigmat 75/3.5 was made by Tokyo Kogaku (later maker of the Topcon) and the Tokiwa Anastigmat 75/3.5 was made by Tokiwa Kogaku, which was also supplying the three-element First Anastigmat".

Here's where it gets complicated. One of mine has a First Anastigmat viewing lens, but a
TOKIWA taking lens. (It also has "MSU Tokyo" on the shutter escutcheon). The other has exactly the reverse lens combination - although they might have been swapped around. Adrien Rebollo suggest that this is probably the case, as the four-element Tokiwa would logically be the taking lens.

Now, check the Tokiwa models below and you'll see that in the fifties, they made a lot of rather cheap and grotty geared-lens TLRs called Firstflex. I recently bought a metal lenscap with the "First" logo exactly as on the top of this First Reflex II (see at right); however, when I received it, I discovered it did NOT fit this camera - but it IS a perfect fit for the geared-lens Tokiwa model...

McKeown mentions no association between Kuribayashi and Tokiwa, and Tokiwa doesn't make an appearance in the histories until the 'fifties (Lewis describes it as
"a small manufacturer" in 1952), but this is just too much of a set of coincidences. So it is clear to me that there is a generic link between this rather nice and sophisticated early model and the later Firstflex. According to McKeown, Kuribayashi itself (which evolved into the successful Petri company, producing an extensive range of 35mm rangefinders and SLRs into the late 'seventies) only produced one postwar TLR - the rare Petriflex. The First name seems therefore to have only been carried forward by Tokiwa - perhaps First was a spinoff company from Kurabayashi and either merged or evolved into Tokiwa postwar?

For what it's worth, the design of the First Reflex is overall very similar to the pre-war Minoltaflex
(see my Minolta page), but actually rather more sophisticated in the viewer area. The First Reflex has a complicated periscope arrangement with a second hinged mirror in the front hood which allows one optionally to view horizontally at eye-level. This is somewhat less useful than might be expected, since the resulting image, whilst moving correctly in horizontal terms (unlike the normal top-view TLR where the horizontal movement is reversed from normal expectation), but unfortunately the image is now upside down!

As for Kurabayashi/Petri itself, the company name means "Acorn Grove" and they are one of the older Japanese camera manufacturers, started in 1907. The company went bankrupt in 1977. If you know more about the story of the First Reflex, and the relationship to Tokiwa,
PLEASE LET ME KNOW and I'll publish the details here and give your input prominence!.

NOTE: In response to this appeal, Adrien Rebollo wrote to me with various suggestions about the history of First. His comments are set out at the bottom of this page for comparison to my notes.
Tokiwa Models(See also "Kuribayashi/First" above)Tokiwa Seiki produced a small range of TLRs in the early 1950's, all essentially similar, mostly badged as Firstflex models. It also used the "Firstflex" name for a number of very different 35mm models. As I have detailed above, I am now convinced that Tokiwa evolved from Kuribayashi/First after World War II (The logo used by First appears on a lenscap which I have that doesn't fit the First models, but does fit perfectly on the Tokiwas). Tokiwa Seiki as a name seems to have been used by more than one company, but I note that there is (or was until recently) a "Tokiwa Co" making projectors, which may be related. Kuribayashi itself took a separate route, evolving into Petri (in 1962) and produced the successful 35mm range under that name until its 1977 demise.

These Tokiwa models are a distinct step backwards from the original Firstflex, with geared lens focusing and cheap construction (albeit all-metal). I'm not sure about the strict order of introduction. The descriptions in McKeown aren't a lot of help, since he shows only one poor photo, and his descriptions of several models are effectively identical. There is a number of rebadged versions of this basic camera, including "Kenflex" and "Bioflex". On the Firstflex I page, you'll find a picture of a Kenflex (not mine)

Now, here's where things become even more complicated. In early 2006, I obtained a new and different Firstflex, looking to date from around 1954-ish. It has no sign whatsoever of common ancestry with any other First or Firstflex model, and I haven't found any reference to it in the main catalogues, although someone had sent me a very old and grainy magazine shot of one a couple of years earlier. The description is below, but the main area of interest is the Tokinon lens, which is a Tokiwa product or tradename, used on its 35mm models. This seems to confirm the camera as a Tokiwa model.

Tokiwa Firstflex

This seems to be the first of the Firstflex series (1951), with geared-lens focus and limited capability. Later the company produced the uncommon and more upmarket Pentaflex SLRs, before disappearing from the scene around 1958/9.

Taking lens is First Anastigmat 80mm f3.5
Shutter unnamed 1/10 to 1/200

Tokiwa Firstflex

This must be a little earlier than the model at left, since it lacks the flash synch socket on that, although the shutter range and lens are the same. It has a neater finish and nicely picked-out coloured lettering on the lens surrounds.

Taking lens is First Anastigmat 80mm f3.5
Shutter unnamed 1/10 to 1/200

Firstflex - Late Version (undocumented)

As discussed above, this is not in any of the standard catalogues or reference works, but seems to be a Tokiwa product, by virtue of its Tokinon lens. It is clearly very rare.

Taking lens is Tokinon 80mm f3.5
Shutter unnamed 1 to 1/300

Shortly after first writing this page in late 2006, I came across
another variant Firstflex on a Japanese auction site. Pictures of it and its case are on the linked page for the late Firstflex pictured at left (click the thumbnail picture). As far as I could see, it is exactly the same as mine, with a Tokiwa "Tokinon" lens, and except for a differing nameplate design. What is interesting, however, is that this late camera's case has the old prewar-style "First" logo on the front, as you'll see.

I believe this is a further proof that, whatever the corporate history, Tokiwa and "First Camera Co." - if the latter ever really existed beyond a logo and some cataloguers' imaginations - are inextricably interlinked, as a postwar spinoff from Kuribayashi, which went its own way with the Petri product line.

Kiyabashi(?) Autoflex and Skymatic

Here's another obscure and complicated piece of detection work. I first bought the Autoflex and tried to pinpoint its origins. The Autoflex is not in Sugiyama, but IS listed by McKeown as the only product of the Kiyabashi Kogaku (Optical) company. It shares its name with the prewar Czech Autoflex, but nothing else.

The Autoflex is an interesting automatic camera - surprisingly solid and sophisticated for a first product, which made me wonder what links Kiyabashi had with other makes. However, the detailed design is not like that of any other manufacturer which I know of - the latch to open the back is particularly unusual (and tricky). To add to the complications, McKeown provides NO historical detail on Kiyabashi and there seem to be NO other references in the literature; a web search reveals absolutely nothing about such a company, which leads to a suspicion that McKeown could have a mistaken attribution due to a faulty translation/interpretation. Kiyabashi is a minor district of Tokyo, so a possible misunderstanding of a label or whatever could lead to this.

Then I recently came across the Skymatic (originally courtesy of my fellow-collector, Terry Hardy). It is in almost all aspects identical to the Autoflex, although the shutter/lens escutcheon design differs significantly and looks rather earlier. The only other specific differences discernible are: it lacks the shutter button lock of the Autoflex; it has a little black diamond centred on the top/eye-level viewer cover; and - very interestingly - the flash shoe has the letters "SK" engraved in a stylised logo (see pic below). This could of course just be the first two letters of "Skymatic", or it could be a company name.

The only companies in McKeown with those initials are Sanei Koki and Shimura Koki (both of which are credited with making only one obscure camera each of a wholly different type), and Showa Kogaku, which made the miniature Gemflexes and the Leotax range (Leica copies). None of these seemed likely. There was another possible long-shot candidate - Shinano Optical, which eventually became Yashica... Shinano is known in Japanese as Shinano Koki, and made the Pigeonflex series, forerunners of the
Yashica TLRs. These cameras bear no obvious resemblance to Pigeonflexes, so this was also a shaky hypothesis!

What changed the picture was my purchase of the late-model Firstflex above, and the subsequent emergence on a Japanese auction site of an Autoflex in it's original box. The picture of this box is now shown on the Autoflex linked page (click the thumbnail picture below). It clearly identifies the manufacturer as
Tokiwa seiki. So it is now clear that McKeown's attribution is in error. Going back to compare the Autoflex/Skymatic with the late Firstflex, it suddenly became clear that they are closely related, with a number of unusual common parts and strong family links (including the nameplate design).

So, there you have it. I am convinced that all the cameras on this page share some common company history, but the exact links and sequence are unclear. What "SK" stands for, I have no idea, and perhaps the Skymatic was actually produced as a rebadged model for another (American or European?) vendor to market. Any information gratefully received!

Tokiwa Autoflex

Taking lens is Tri-Lausar 80mm f3.5
Shutter unnamed 1 to 1/300


Taking lens is Tri-Lausar 80mm f3.5
Shutter unnamed 1 to 1/300
This is an extract from the note that Adrien Rebollo wrote to me in 2007. I should say that I find much of his commentary useful and informed, but am not convinced by his view that "it is equally possible that Tokiwa Kogaku and Tokiwa Seiki were not related at all and that this is only a name coincidence". That is one coincidence too far for me! You can find Adrien's work on Camerapedia; his work on First is at http://camerapedia.org/wiki/First_Reflex

"As for the relationship between Kuribayashi, Tokiwa and First Camera Works, here (are) the conclusions that I could draw:

Kuribayashi was the maker of the prewar and wartime First cameras, which were distributed by the trade company Minagawa Shoten.

For unknown reasons, the Minagawa company used the name "First Camera Works" for advertising purpose. This was not uncommon among Japanese prewar companies, and there are "Gelto Kamera Werke", "Star Camera Works" and so on, all of them I think were fake names. We can guess that for fashion reasons, a Western-sounding name was thought better for advertising than the true Japanese name of the company.

I am convinced that Minagawa, not Kuribayashi, was the owner of the brand name First. After the war, this is surely why Kuribayashi had to look for another brand name and finally settled for Petri. In the 1950s, Minagawa used the "First" and "First Camera Works" brands and logos again when selling the Firstflex and First Six cameras that were manufactured by Tokiwa Seiki. (This is why your lens cap has the same logo as the First Reflex camera.)

Before the war, a company called Tokiwa Kogaku supplied lenses and shutters to Kuribayashi for the "First" cameras. It also made the Zeitax folding camera, and it is related to the Motodori company.

It is possible that Tokiwa Seiki was the postwar successor of Tokiwa Kogaku and continued the commercial relations with Minagawa that began before the war. But it is equally possible that Tokiwa Kogaku and Tokiwa Seiki were not related at all and that this is only a name coincidence: Tokiwa is not uncommon as a family name or company name in Japan".