"Made in Japan."
It's seen as a badge of quality inside and outside the country, as well as an indicator that you're probably paying a bit more. But what does it actually mean? When Fujifilm, a company that proudly etches "Made in Japan" onto almost all of its mirrorless cameras, invited me to its Taiwa factory in Sendai last week, that was the main thing I wanted to find out.
The Taiwa plant handles final assembly on Fujifilm's most prestigious products: the X100T, the X-T1, and the new X-Pro2 — on which I shot all the photos in this article — as well as lenses like the 35mm f/2 and the just-introduced 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. In the case of the X-Pro2, for example, the metal body is cast in a factory elsewhere in Japan, and shipped to Taiwa to be put together with all the other components.
As far as lenses go, Fujifilm says its optics subsidiary is the only company in its field that turns raw materials all the way into finished product. Fujifilm Optics Co. has three other factories in Japan to deal with glass molds, barrel processing, and lens polishing, along with two in China and the Philippines that handle polishing for other lenses and two in China for subassembly. Fujifilm dates the optics business back to the 1940s, and its Fujinon lenses are also used in medical equipment, high-end cinematography, satellites, and countless other products.
I've shot Fujifilm cameras ever since the X100, which boosted the company back into enthusiast relevance in 2011, but I didn't really know how they were put together. The answer, it turns out, is that they're not assembled by robots, but by actual humans with a lot of work and care.
- The Taiwa factory is about 20 miles from central Sendai city, and it takes around 45 minutes to get there by bus.
- Sendai is located in Tohoku, northern Japan, and was one of the regions hit hard by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. This building was used to produce the original X100 at the time, but it suffered structural damage so heavy that it's too dangerous even to set foot inside now. Production was shifted to the opposite building.
- I was surprised at the degree to which everything at the Taiwa factory is done by hand. There's very little automation.
- This is the production line for the X-Pro2, Fujifilm's new top-of-the-line mirrorless camera.
- X-Pro2 bodies wait to be plucked for finishing.
- Workers on the X-Pro2 line.
- This guy looks like he's defusing a bomb, but he's actually working with X-Pro2 circuitry.
- This worker is applying the camera's leather finish.
- This machine applies pressure to make sure the finish is evenly affixed.
- An X-Pro2 in the process of having its firmware installed.
- The final stage of polishing.
- An X-T1 body under the skin.
- X-T1 top plates. The X-T1 came out in 2014 and features a dial-heavy DSLR-style design, as opposed to the rangefinder-influenced X-Pro2.
- Workers apply X-T1 top plates.
- A worker assembling X-T1 dials.
- Although the X-Pro2 is now Fujifilm's flagship camera, the X-T1 will stick around for photographers who value its giant electronic viewfinder and emphasis on physical controls.
- Affixing the X-T1's leather finish.
- Workers on the camera assembly lines wear these suits adorned with Fujifilm's classic logo from the 1980s, nicknamed the "bug."
- A lone X100T awaits transfer.
- Fujifilm's lens assembly line.
- For fear of dust and other contaminants, anyone entering the lens assembly areas has to wear heavy protective gear that covers all clothes. I wasn't even allowed to use a camera strap.
- These are the parts that make up the new 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, Fujifilm's longest, most complex, and most expensive lens for the X-Series.
- 100-400mm components.
- Lenses marked with checks on their assembly.
- The lens assembly line is a maze of shelves, work stations, and components.
- A worker installs a ring on a 100-400mm lens.
- After each lens is assembled, it goes through quality control. These machines test the lenses' mechanics. A similar setup, which I can't photograph because the test charts are confidential, is used to ensure each lens leaves the line with optimal sharpness; if a unit fails, it's adjusted until it renders the test image correctly.
- Workers applying final polish to 100-400mm lenses. Each lens takes 220 minutes to complete from start to finish.
- The new 35mm f/2 is a simpler design, with assembly taking 80 minutes per unit.
- The 35mm f/2 was recently introduced as a sleeker alternative to the 35mm f/1.4, which launched alongside the X-Pro1 in 2012. After the 18-55mm f/2.8-4, which is used as a kit lens for some models, the new 35mm has the highest production output of any Fujifilm X-Series lens.
- The 35mm f/2 is a great match for the X-Pro2. It's weather-sealed, like the camera body, and its compact design doesn't get in the way of the optical viewfinder.
- This machine laser-engraves "Made In Japan" and the serial number on a lens in just a couple of seconds.
- This is the final checking point for most lenses, where they're given one last visual check.
- When everything checks out, the Taiwa plant also handles final packing.
- 10 percent of all packaged lenses, however, are randomly selected for testing on a regular camera to ensure proper operation.
- A worker in the packing and QA department.
- And here's where it all ends up: lenses ready for shipment.