Japan is known for its deep passion for robots. Though this may seem strange to outsiders, this fascination is nothing new. One of these robots is a traditional mechanized puppet known as “Karakuri Ningyo (からくり人形)” or Japan’s clockwork puppets. Their history is deeply rooted in the interaction between Western technology and Eastern philosophy to the outside world. These puppets were originally made to create wonder through their mechanical clockwork which gives them a magical quality and allows them to move. Let’s learn more about this incredibly sophisticated mechanized puppet which has greatly contributed to the production of Japanese robots today.
Karakuri Ningyo served several functions in the Japanese society, one of which is its role in the ritual life of the Japanese people. Before the onset of a new season, these puppets were used in telling stories. Stories were centered on spirits, gods, and goddesses, and were a means to call down rain, drive diseases away or prevent epidemics, drive away noxious insects, and ensure safe travel. People, particularly Emperors of the Edo (江戸) period, enjoyed this kind of ritual. Later on, the clockwork system was incorporated into the puppets, making them even more functional. It allowed the puppets to move on their own.
During festivals, these ritual puppets are displayed on triple-decker dashi floats (山車). Up to three puppets would usually perform plays and stories regarding traditional Japanese myths and legends. People also join this event to compete for the best dashi float.
The most popular Karakuri are the “Zashiki Karakuri (座敷からくり).” They are small, domestic clockwork servants that are often used as tea-serving dolls. Their mechanisms are more complex than those puppets used in plays.
When it comes to serving tea, a host would first place a teacup on the tea tray which the doll is holding. Once loaded, the doll will move towards the guest. Once the guest takes the cup, it will stop and will move back towards the host only when the cup is placed back on the tray. This is made possible through the energy derived from the wound spring made of whalebone. The action is controlled by a set of cams and levers.
For the aristocrats, additional mechanisms were added to their dolls. They could set the distance of the robot’s movements which gives it an illusion of having sight. It was used as a recreational way of treating a host.
Another popular domestic automation is the “Yumihiki Doji (弓曳き童子).” This is also known as an archer doll which can pick up an arrow and fire at a target. It was produced by master craftsman Tanaka Hisashige (田中久重). The archer wasn’t only designed to shoot arrows but could also make natural gestures. It moves on its own by wounding up its spring.
Nowadays, Japan’s technology is considered top-class. However, this would have never been possible without the efforts of the inventors and craftsmen of the Edo period. The significant role of Karakuri puppets in Japan’s robotic industry is something that people should always look back to.