Sep 09, 2014 I Brent Swancer

The Bizarre Robots of Old Japan

The field of robotics has made great strides in modern times. Although we are far from the self aware androids of science fiction, robots have evolved to fulfill a myriad of roles and have permeated many areas of our civilization. One of the world leaders in the field of robotics is the island nation of Japan. Robots have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese and in addition to Japan making groundbreaking progress in the development of robotics, robots have permeated many aspects of Japanese culture. They are ubiquitous; appearing heavily in comics, TV, movies, animation, toys, and even in elaborate robot-themed dance shows complete with showgirls dressed up in futuristic neon costumes cavorting around on stage with actual giant robots.

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Yes, really.

With all of this high tech imagery and scientific advancement, it is easy to get the impression that robots in Japanese society and science are a purely a modern phenomenon, a feature inextricably linked to the country's meteoric rise from a shattered, defeated country at the end of World War II to one of the most economically prosperous nations in the world. However, robots in Japan are actually nothing new. In fact, the country has a long history of tinkering with and developing robots and automatons from at least the 17th century. Let us take a look at the weird, wonderful, and indeed certainly creepy world of the robots of old Japan.

We can trace the history of robotics in Japan back to the Edo era, which occurred from 1603 to 1868. It was this time in Japanese history that saw the development of what are referred to as the karakuri ningyo, or roughly translated "mechanical dolls." These early robots were somewhat different than the modern image of robots that most people have. The karakuri ningyo did not utilize computer systems, electricity, or indeed any sort of fuel or exterior power source, but were rather fully analog, intricately-designed, mechanized, clockwork automata made up of wood, string, gears, levers, springs, and cogs, that gave the illusion of moving of their own free will. The development of these contraptions was greatly influenced by the mechanical and clockwork technology that trickled in from China across the Korean peninsula, as well as European technology such as mechanical clocks and steel cannons, that was brought to Japan over the years near the end of the Muromachi period (1333–1568). It was during this time that wondrous inventions came to these shores, such as the the first Western mechanical clock that was introduced here by the Spanish missionary Francisco de Xavier in 1551. These various clockwork technologies that poured in had a profound impact on the advent of the karakuri ningyo, as the dolls relied greatly on such mechanisms to work and were easier to conceal than other methods.

The Edo period is known as being the Golden Age of the karakuri ningyo, and was when most progress on such creations came about. It was during the Edo period that Japan closed its doors to the world and became an isolated nation cut off from the world around it. It was during this time that the technology for making the dolls really took off. In their isolationism, the Japanese took these various technologies they had accrued over the years from abroad and improved upon them, developing their own homegrown clockwork technology to utilize in the creation of their early robots, and working this into ever more elaborate automatons. Different individual craftsmen toiled away on ever more sophisticated mechanisms, and would also develop their own unique karakuri ningyo technologies that were most often closely guarded secrets passed down from generation to generation.

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A karakuri ningyo compared with its inner workings.

The craftsmanship involved in making the karakuri ningyo is truly astounding. All of the materials used in their construction are completely natural, such as wood and whale bone. Rather than metal, the gears for operating the dolls were all meticulously fashioned from wood by hand. This is especially impressive since if the grain of the wood was aligned poorly, the teeth of the gears could break or become warped or crooked. One of the Japanese additions to the technology was to borrow from traditional handicrafts and painstakingly affix tiny wooden triangles by hand to the wooden wheels rather than carve the gears directly into the wood. The gears were then cleverly connected to strings, cogs, springs, and other devices to create the movements of the doll. Han’ya Harumitsu, one of the few modern day craftsmen who still makes and restores karakuri ningyo explained the inner workings of the dolls thus:

The way that these dolls employ gears and other clever techniques to control and redirect the clockwork motion has something in common with how modern robots are directed by computer programs

The result of all of this effort, technology, and ingenuity were purely analog automatons that were renowned for their fluid, life-like movements. Aesthetics were also of utmost importance when making the dolls. The karakuri ningyo were intricately hand painted with expressive faces to further enhance the natural, life-like appearance of the dolls. In addition, the dolls were also usually dressed in lovingly crafted traditional clothing such as ornately woven kimonos specially made for them. Craftsmen also went through great lengths to ingeniously hide the clockwork mechanisms and other components that powered the the dolls. The overall result was a stunningly detailed and beautiful doll that moved and performed tasks seemingly by magic. The karakuri ningyo had an otherworldly vitality to them that made them seem to be real living creatures.

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Yes, that is a bow it is holding, and yes, it really does shoot an arrow.

Japan was not the only nation to develop such robots at the time. Europe also had similar crude automata, but the differences in the philosophy behind the two are significant. Early robots of the Western world were mostly constructed for the purpose of showcasing sophisticated technology and with the ultimate aim of utilizing them for practical applications. On the other hand, rather than having any particularly practical goal in mind, the karakuri ningyo of Japan were created more to inspire wonder and awe in those who saw them. Karakuri ningyo were treated almost like a magician's trick, meant to surprise and amaze. The dolls were also meant to imitate life and to enchant onlookers with their life-like movements and carefully clothed and painted visages. To the Japanese, these were more than just simple dolls or toys. In short, the karakuri ningyo were designed to appear to have a heart and a soul, and it was not uncommon for people to speak to these mechanized wonders as if they were actual living beings such as a child or a pet.

During the Edo period, the karakuri ningyo became insanely popular, and all levels of Edo society, from the Daimyo and high ranking nobles all the way down to the lowly peasants, were fascinated and transfixed by these amazing devices. One of the first types of karakuri ningyo to really impress people was the tea serving doll, or ochahakobi ningyō. Using only springs, gears, levers, sand weights, and natural materials such as wood and whalebone, the doll was able to move across a room and serve tea. A teacup would be placed on a saucer held in the kimono clad doll's hands, upon which it would shuffle across the room in an imitation of walking to present the tea to a guest. When the guest removed the teacup, the doll would stop moving and stand still at the ready. When the guest put an empty teacup back on the saucer, this would activate a mechanism that would cause the doll to turn completely around and make its way back across the room to where it had initially started. The mechanical ingenuity and detail on this type of doll is amazing, and it exhibits subtle little touches such as bowing before dutifully walking across the room to a waiting guest.

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A tea serving doll

The tea serving robot was only one of a popular type of karakuri ningyo known as zashiki karakuri, literally "tatami doll," which were basically household robots designed to amuse guests. This type of karakuri ningyo was typically very sophisticated and could perform elaborate movements that really instilled a sense of wonder in the people of the time. Another type of zashiki karakuri was the dangaeri ningyō, or stair walking doll, which used simple physics, shifting weight, counter weights, and mercury to do end-over-end backflips down steps. Then there was the magician doll, called the shinatama ningyō, which was a doll that lifted the lid of a small, ornamental box, each time revealing something different inside. The harukoma ningyō (toy-horse rider doll) was a doll that sat atop a toy horse and would create a realistic impression of riding the horse by pulling on the reigns, which would move the horse's head from side to side. These household automatons were incredibly popular during the Edo period, and were considered to be must-have luxury items by the rich and powerful.

Although perhaps the most well-known and certainly the most popular, the zashiki ningyo were by no means the only type of karakuri ningyo to be found in the Edo era. The dashi karakuri were mechanical dolls that were placed atop traditional floats, or dashi, during religious festivals and would typically reenact scenes from myths and legends. This type of karakuri ningyo was typically rather large and imposing in order to be clearly seen from the floats by surrounding festival goers. Other types of karakuri ningyo acted as well. The butai karakuri were theater dolls that performed whole stage performances, completely through body language. These performances were so popular that whole plays were written specifically to be performed by the mechanical dolls, and there were even theaters built purely to showcase them. Indeed, the movements and style of these karakuri ningyo performances influenced human actors, and had an impact on traditional Japanese performing arts such as kabukinoh, and bunraku theater.

Other karakuri ningyo are even more bizarre. One type of karakuri ningyo was designed to shoot arrows. The dolls would be placed in front of a target with a bow in hand and a spring loaded mechanism would allow it to pull the string back and let loose an arrow. Since the position of the doll was usually meticulously planned in advance, it would hit the target dead on and give the impression that it was actually aiming. Yet another type of karakuri ningyo could actually write traditional Japanese calligraphy, or shodo. Utilizing an extremely complex system of hundreds of gears, weights, and springs, the doll uses a brush to write out the kanji (Chinese character) for the word "kotobuki," which can has the meaning of congratulations and long life. This particular type of doll was especially impressive, as some of them had handwriting that was so flawless that it was considered to be on par with the calligraphy skills of experienced shodo teachers.

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A calligraphy writing doll

Karakuri ningyo reached the height of their fame at the end of the Edo period, but experienced a decline in popularity during the Meiji Restoration of 1868. By this time, the novelty had worn off and the Japanese, eager to embrace Westernization and progress, were off to new and bigger things. Karakuri ningyo fell out of fashion and became sort of like a really popular toy that suddenly no one wants anymore, thus fading into mere nostalgic curiosities. In modern times, there has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in the dolls, and there have been museums opened dedicated to them. However, since only a handful of true katakuri ningyo craftsmen remain to build and restore them, it certainly seems to be a dying art.

Regardless of the uncertain future of this traditional art form and technology, the influence of the karakuri ningyo on modern Japanese robotics and robot culture is undeniable. These early attempts at robotics form a strong connection between the past and the future of robotics here. Many of the design philosophies of the karakuri ningyo remain present even today in Japanese robotics such as the importance of aesthetics and the desire to conceal the technology behind a pleasing, cool exterior. It seems that just as in the Edo period, modern Japanese robotics seeks to instill a sense of awe, wonder, and magic. Indeed, this underlying philosophy has spread out from robotics into the design and creation of a plethora of Japanese electronic devices. One can see in Japanese developed robots such as Honda's ASIMO this desire to create wonder and enchantment, and to make people see them as more than just a collection of parts, but rather an endearing creature with a life of its own. In Japanese pop culture as well, robots are often designed to be warm and relatable, and to make people embrace them, in effect managing to capture the old spirit of the karakuri ningyo of a combination of life-like realism and soulfulness.

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Honda's ASIMO

It is somewhat sad to think then that the tradition of the karakuri ningyo is on its way out. There is something beautiful in their austere simplicity, something charming about the countless hours of thought, handiwork, and craftsmanship that went into the creation of each and every one of them. There is a warm, visceral, and organic element about these dolls that is lacking in the cold, digital, mass produced steel robots of today. I do hope that no matter where the future of robotics in Japan takes us, there will always be those who look back fondly at the karakuri ningyo and appreciate their contribution to the field. More importantly, if robots ever do rise up against us I sincerely hope our new overlords will appreciate their humble beginnings.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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