Photo:Daderot on Wikimedia Commons

Karakuri – Japan’s First Robots

Japan has been known for its high technology for many years, earning the cool nickname, ‘The Land of High Tech Wonders’. This technology comes in many forms from high speed bullet trains that zip around the country at over 300 km an hour to its futuristic robots. Softbank’s intelligent robot, Pepper and Honda’s humanoid robot, ASIMO are just two examples of Japan’s robot revolution that are known the world over. At first glance, Japan’s passion for robots may seem like a recent revolution, but did you know that Japan has been producing robots for hundreds of years?

Yumihiki Karakuri ~ Archer Robot Photo by Bariston on Wikimedia Commons.

Japan’s innovative technology roots date back to the age of the samurai with karakuri ningyo (からくり人形), traditional wooden mechanized dolls that could be called, ‘Japan’s First Robots’. These marvels of craftsmanship were originally made from the 17th century to the 19th century. 

The word, karakuri means ‘mechanisms’, or ‘trick’ in Japanese and these dolls were originally made to entertain people during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Some of the amazing tricks these mechanical wonders can perform include serving tea or sake, writing Japanese calligraphy and shooting arrows accurately at a target. Amazingly, these sophisticated mechanical clockwork dolls use only the power of springs or weights to accomplish their incredible feats.

The tea serving robot is the most common form of karakuri ningyo that you can still see in action today. It starts moving forward when a cup of tea or sake is placed on its hands. It will move in a straight line for a set distance, moving its feet like it is actually walking, and will then bow its head, indicating that the tea or sake is ready for drinking. Once the cup is removed the doll will stop, raising its head when the cup is replaced, turning around and returning to its starting point. 

Zashiki Karakuri ~ Tea Serving Robot Photo by British Museum on Wikimedia Commons.

These days, you can still spot karakuri on top of festival floats entertaining the crowds at local festivals. Dashi karakuri or float mechanical puppets were made to be used in festivals to tell stories, where the dolls would perform re-enactments of traditional myths and legends. You can see some of these magnificent dolls at major festivals around Japan such as the Inuyama Festival in Inuyama City, Aichi Prefecture and the Takayama Festival in Gifu Prefecture.

Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall Photo by Daderot on Wikimedia Commons.

Aichi Prefecture in the heart of Japan is the center of karakuri culture and is where many of Japan’s first wooden robots were made by master craftsmen. Aichi continued to develop as a manufacturing center for Japan and a place of leading innovation and technology. Today, it is home to many world-leading technological giants such as the Toyota Motor Corporation and Brother Industries. 

The karakuri ningyo technique was developed during the peaceful years of the Edo Period (1603-1868), where a long period of stability ensured after many years of civil war during the Warring States Period. It was during this time that local festivals in Nagoya and Aichi would attract large attention due to their decorative festival floats. Each town would prepare their own festival float with sophisticated mechanical dolls and try and outdo each other in a battle of robot technology. 

One of the best places to see the inner workings of these mechanical marvels is at Tsutamo in the Sakae area of Nagoya.

Tsutamo in the Sakae area of Nagoya Photo by The Author on Flickr.

Today, Japan’s technology is considered world-class, but this innovation and technological revolution would never have been possible without the master craftsmen of the Edo Period, who created Japan’s first robots. 

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