Karakuri ningyo

Karakuri ningyo takes a significant spot in robotics history, as this Japanese automated mechanical doll tradition is largely what has formed the view Japanese have on robots today. As the world is now more interconnected than ever before, this way of thinking has spread around the world regarding at least some types of robots. I’ll tell more about this influence a bit later.

I’ve previously written an article on western automatons. Sometimes people assume that this is it – automatons made by European (mostly) clockmakers. This is wrong, as Japanese automatons – karakuri dolls were created alongside these western creations, yet the differences in purpose and meaning are quite significant.

These early Japanese robot ancestors are often seen as a result of the interaction of Western technology and Eastern philosophy and world view. As I understand, this is partially true, as the history of karakuri ningyo stretches in times before first contacts with Europeans.

After these contacts there was a period of time when contacts with the outside world were very limited because of national policies. So, one can’t say that this tradition is a direct result of Western achievements adopted in Japan. However, some bits of Western technology were borrowed.

As I mentioned, the purpose of Japanese karakuri differs significantly from that of Western automatons. Western automatons were often created as a showcase of available technology with the idea in mind of possible practical applications that could use these technologies. So, it was often important to show the technology behind the device.

Karakuri ningyo, on the other hand, were created to create a wonder. In fact, word karakuri itself means a “mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise” (source: wikipedia). That’s why Japanese masters did their best to conceal technology. Also, aesthetics of the dolls were very important. So, the main reason why karakuri ningyo were created was to create something lifelike, soulful, and magic, not to showcase available technologies.


Nagasaki port 19th century
Nagasaki naval training base, 19th century. The designated Dutch trading post (Dejima) can be seen in the background


Karakuri ningyo have deep roots. The history of these Japanese mechanical dolls stretches as far back as the ancient China and first mechanical devices and clocks created by ancient Chinese. These devices included water clocks, early astronomical equipment and the south pointing chariot.

These mechanisms are an interesting topic themselves, yet what’s important from the point of view of this article is their influence on Japanese automaton tradition. So, Chinese technologies found their way to Japan through Korean peninsula and spawned first Japanese mechanical creations.

This exchange of ideas obviously continued and from time to time different Chinese creations (such as the first mechanical clock) were brought to Japan and built upon by Japanese people. Next important exchange of ideas came when first European people visited Japan.

It is said that the Spanish missionary Francisco de Xavier brought the first Western mechanical clock to Japan in 1551. Events like these must’ve created some impact on Karakuri ningyo tradition, as clockwork was one of the main ways how to power Karakuri, as the clockwork mechanisms could be concealed more easily than other alternative methods.

However, interaction with Europeans didn’t come without unwanted consequences. Growing numbers of Japanese converts to Christianity, Western military technologies and Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the second half of the 16-th century made Japanese authorities wary.

This resulted in a voluntary seclusion in 1635 – Japanese weren’t allowed to leave Japan and Europeans weren’t allowed to enter Japan. Trespassers faced a death penalty. Limited contacts with some European nations (mostly Dutch) and the Chinese were possible at designated locations.

However, the Dutch were asked to give updates of world events and to supply novelties to the Shogun during their allowed yearly trips to Edo. At this time of seclusion a school of thought emerged that sought Western scientific and technological knowledge. It was called Rangaku – “Dutch learning”.

Initially Western books were prohibited, yet in the first half of the 18th century these rules were eased and Japanese translations of Western books appeared. Why all this is important? Japanese automatons – karakuri ningyo of the Edo period (1603-1868) are often seen as a part of Rangaku.

Edo period is regarded as the Golden age of Karakuri ningyo. And, although contacts with the Western world were very limited during this period, Karakuri were still regarded as a combination of Japanese spirit and Western learning. Most famous karakuri were created during this period by most famous karakuri masters.

Today there’s only one Karakuri Ningyo Master in Japan from with an unbroken lineage. SHOBEY Tamaya IX creates and restores Dashi Karakuri mechanisms in the Aichi Prefecture.

Main types of Karakuri

You probably wonder what did I mean by saying “Dashi Karakuri” just above. If you don’t, you probably know more about karakuri ningyo than I do! If that’s not the case – read on. Basically, there are three main types of Karakuri, let me explain each of them a bit more.

Dashi Karakuri

During the early times of seclusion invention and mechanization were prohibited by law except for religious purposes. Because of this, talented people started to create and develop mechanical dolls for religious festivals.

As you can understand by now, Dashi Karakuri are Japanese mechanized dolls used on top of Dashi floats (festival cars) used at many different religious festivals. Usually these puppets performed reenactments of myths and legends, often playing one scene from a larger play.

Butai Karakuri

On 25th May 1662, a clockmaker TAKEDA Omi opened a Karakuri theater. At this theater different Karakuri shows where demonstrated with Karakuri Ningyo as actors. This was possible as body language is very important and expresses a lot in Japanese culture.

So, Butai Karakuri were Karakuri Ningyo used in theaters to stage and demonstrate plays. In fact, Karakuri ningyo influence on Japanese theater can’t be underestimated, as movements in other forms of Japanese theater are often an imitation of puppet performances.

Also, many notable plays during the Edo period were written specifically for Karakuri theaters. So, when these plays where transfered to other forms of theater, some characteristics of Karakuri ningyo performance persisted.

Zashiki Karakuri

This type of Karakuri is arguably the most important one in terms of robot history. In fact, these could be regarded as direct precursors of modern day Japanese robots. So, Zashiki Karakuri are mechanical dolls created for amusement at home. They were luxury items in Edo period Japan.

Most sophisticated Zahiki Karakuri were created during mid to late Edo period using Western clockwork knowledge. As far as I know, two most famous karakuri ningyo of this type are the tea-serving automaton and the archer automaton.

The tea-serving doll, as its name suggests, can serve tea. Its working sequence goes like this – when a cup is placed in its hands, the robot will move forward (it imitates walking) until the cup is lifted. When the cup is placed in its hands again, it would turn around and go back.

The archer doll, on the other hand, shoots arrows using a bow. No really, it does! See for yourself:

Of course, there are more Karakuri ningyo than I mentioned here. Not all of them use clockwork mechanisms, other power sources are used too. There’s one more aspect besides sophistication that makes these Japanese robot ancestors so amazing. The tradition demands that these automatons have to be made using natural materials such as wood, whalebone, and others.

Impact on robotics

I’m afraid to sound like a broken record, but I have to say this! As other creations I’ve written about in Robotics history section, Karakuri ningyo tradition is a great example of human interest in mechanisms that imitate life. There, I said it!

But there’s more than that. When I told you about ancient Greek mechanisms, Western automatons, or other devices and robotics-related technological achievements it always went like this – someone created something cool and sophisticated out of curiosity, interest, or some other reason.

These devices were then shown to general public and nobility, they were admired, some innovations later found their way into practical applications, and that’s it. Japanese automatons, on the other hand, deeply integrated into Japanese culture. As you now know, mechanical puppets were used in theaters, religious festivals, and even at home.

In fact, this tradition has defined in past and continues to define the way Japanese create and view robots in particular and other devices in general. Indeed, many karakuri ningyo traits can be found in modern day Japanese robots – concealment of technology, importance of aesthetics, and the purpose itself – to create a sense of magic, to create something lifelike and soulful.

You know what I’m talking about. Many Japanese robots are famous because of these traits not their practicality – AIBO, ASIMO, robots that play violins or pianos, and other Japanese robots that have managed to amaze the world.

If you’re interested in this topic I strongly encourage you to visit this site about Karakuri Ningyo. It’s arguably the richest information source on these Japanese mechanical puppets in English. There you can find lots of useful info regarding the puppets, karakuri masters, links to museums where these puppets can be seen and more. If you, on the other hand, are interested not only in Japanese culture but practical aspects of living and working there, you may find this site about living in Japan interesting. I hope you found this article interesting!

Go back to “Robotics history” from “Karakuri Ningyo”.

Go back to allonrobots.com home.