Kokusaku Auto Keef

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Kokusaku Auto Keef

Now and then, I come across an odd camera, which is the case now. The Auto Keef could be a top contestant for the weirdest camera title. Very little is mentioned on it, online or in print. There is a long Camera-Wiki article about it, but other than the obvious and some immaterial data, there is no tangible background. Several Japanese sites are offering lengthy details, again, of no use.

The camera was made by Kokusaku Seiko, also known as Toa Kokusaku Seiko, a company established in the prewar years. The Auto Keef is said to have been introduced in 1940, which contributes to the oddity. At that time, Japan was deep in regional wars and a short while before the Pearl Harbour attack. It does not seem to have been the right time for consumer goods to debut.

The camera is mentioned under several local distributors, and my database also relates it to Sanwa, a reseller that vanished in the 1950s. There was a second Auto Keef version and a post-war Semi Keef. The Auto Keef uses #127 format, popular in Japan under ‘Best’ or ‘Vest’ names, that could offer 3×4, 4×4, and 4×6 cm images allowing for decent contact prints. The Semi Keef used the larger #120 format, called ‘Semi’ at the time.

As with most online information, the data does not tally. There is a mention of a wide array of lenses, shutter speeds, and prices, as many options as the describing articles. There is no information about the differences between the two Auto Keef models. The online images are marked Auto Keef only, so I am unsure which model they are.

The camera designers ignored all conventions and blazed their own trail. The camera is odd-looking and seems to be assembled of mismatched leftover parts with no harmony. They may have taken design clues from the WWI British Mark I battle tank, the Big Brute, or it is my imagination. The odd design is on par with the WZFO Alfa.

  • The camera is named Auto Keef on top and Keef on the lens ring. I don’t know what the ‘Auto’ stands for, perhaps for the coupled rangefinder, similar to the Mamiya Six Automat.
  • The top cover has a lefty knob winder that stops after each 4x4cm frame. It is uncommon, as #127 paper-backed film has frame sequence markings visible through a back red lens. Here, the back lens and the frame stop coexist. A small push button by the winder overrides the frame stop.
  • At the slope on the right side, there is what looks like a microscope eyepiece. This is a frame counter, I say microscope as the engraved figures deep inside are hardly visible to the naked eye. It makes no sense. A slider at the back moves it one value at a time for reset. It is the same as the frame stop on the winder; it coexists with the red lens at the back.
  • The back top has a tiny viewer, wide angle but scaled down. I’m not sure if it corresponds with what the lens captures. A screw head next to it covers the rangefinder adjustment mechanism.
  • Still at the back, a slider covers the red lens, with a matching hole punched through the pressure plate.
  • The back is removable, released by two thumb nuts.
  • The engineers spent a lot of effort designing the front lens assembly.
    • A body-mounted square baseplate is visible at the top left and the bottom edges. The marking ‘Pat P.’ is assumed to be for Patent Pending.
    • A massive odd-shaped housing, an unequal pentagon, is affixed on the baseplate. A circle at the top right is marked Keef. I’m unsure if it covers any mechanism underneath or just a decoration.
    • The lens assembly pulls out. It has a ring with a scanty finger grip, and if not used for some time, it may need a screwdriver edge to cheer it up. Once retracted, it just stops in place. Other similar arrangements take a slight turn to lock it in place.
    • The said knurled ring doubles as the focusing ring. The helix is exposed, inviting dust and dirt.
    • The next ring is marked with aperture values, selected via a cerated lever, the only finger-friendly feature on this camera.
    • In front of it is the shutter speed dial. If it was made slightly larger, just proud of the previous ring, it could have been almost practical. It is not. Speeds are heavy on the slow side to match the film sensitivity of the time. There is no self-timer, so a remote shutter release would be used.
    • At the bottom left, a bulge mirroring the top right holds the shutter trigger. This mighty bulge is also supposed to keep the camera steady, which is required due to its mass, but it is approximately 3mm / 1/8″ short, so the camera still falls forward. It is an eyesore. There are subminiature cameras at the size of this lump.
    • The lens is atypical to the compact cameras at the time, being a 3.5/60
    • The company also made shutters, which is used here.

The camera is hideous, with no symmetry or refinement. It could be forgiven if the design had caved to mechanical constraints, but it doesn’t seem so.

The few cameras that changed hands were expensive, with Westlicht getting just shy of $600 in 2018. A few marked ‘junk’ were sold on Buyee. Buying at Buyee is a toss of the dice, as cameras marked ‘Junk’ are sometimes flowless, and others are DOA. For the collector, it is a splendid exemplar of the Japanese industry before it was opened to the world.


Camdex list number 15573
Brand Kokusaku
Model Auto Keef
Value Auto Keef
Auto Keef II
Semi Keef
Format 127
Introduced 1940
AKA Sanwa Auto Keef
Country Japan
Qty made
Initial price
Type Rangefinder
Body material Metal
Mode Manual
Weight 705 gr,  Body with lens
Class average weight 620 gr,  Body with lens
ASA range N/A
Kit lens 3.5/60
Lens make Keef
Filter size N/A
Lens mount Fixed lens
Mount size N/A
Shutter Leaf
Shutter make Kokusaku
Trigger On side of lens assembly
Winder Knob
Shutter_cocking Lever on lens barrel
Light meter None
Lock No
Speeds T, B, 1-300
Mirror N/A
Viewer Coupled rangefinder
DOF preview No
Exposure lock No
Exposure compensation No
Shoe Cold
External sync No
Timer No
Battery, original N/A
Sync speed
Battery, replacement N/A
Battery voltage N/A
Integral flash None
Service / repair links See camerlog.com






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