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Amazing Automatons


Automatons are the historical predecessors of modern-day robots.  Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for a mechanized suit of armor, and the recently reconstructed mechanical lion, are two of the most famous examples of automatons in Western history.  This feature focuses on the Japanese tradition.


An Appended History of Japanese Karakuri

In the past, clock mechanisms were among the most technologically sophisticated devices around.  I-Hsing, a Chinese monk and mathematician is credited for having created the world’s first mechanical clock.  By 604 A.D. this technology had migrated to Japan, where it set in motion a culture of automatons called Karakuri.  Although a Spanish missionary is known to have brought a Western mechanical clock to Japan in 1551, Western ideas and technology could not permeate due to prohibitive laws that famously isolated Japan from the rest of the world for hundreds of years.

One of the most famous and important Karakuri masters is Hisashige Tanaka, who created the “10,000 year perpetual clock” and the “archer puppet” (considered the peak of Edo mechanism arts).  He was also the founder of what would become the Toshiba Corporation.  Around 1852, and within less than one year, he built Japan’s first working model of a steam locomotive, having only studied diagrams from a Dutch reference book.  His firm also created electric bulbs, prototype telephones, steam boats and trains, iron bridges, and more.  Needless to say, Toshiba maintains a strong interest in the historical tradition of Karakuri and is heavily invested in robotics technology today.

Examples of Karakuri Ningyo


[movie: Acrobatic Puppet]

This Karakuri performs its acrobatic feat by changing its center of gravity, caused by the mercury moving inside it.


[movie: Archery Puppet]

Karakuri were often owned by rich merchants and land owners, so one might assume if the Karakuri fails it would be a huge embarrassment. Actually, the 50cm tall Archery Puppet is designed to miss its target, stationed approximately 2 meters away, 1 out of 10 times.  This is to give an added sense of drama – the doll’s face has been sculpted such that one could interpret its expression as one of both disappointment when it misses and happiness when it succeeds.


[movie: Tea Serving Doll]

Perhaps the most well-known of the Karakuri, the 40cm tall Tea Serving Doll was used to impress important guests.  The tea cup would be placed in the doll’s hands, at which point it would scurry towards the guest and stop in front of him.  When the tea cup is removed the doll waits patiently until the cup is returned, at which point it pulls a U-turn and marches back to its owner.


[movie: Shamisen Player]


[movie: Micro Tea Serving Doll]

This is a miniaturized version of the Tea Serving Doll.


[movie: Jumping Frog]

Check out the ornate detailing on this mechanized hopping frog.  One could almost mistake it for a real specimen!


[movie: Fanning Doll]

This Karakuri fans you to relieve the heat while slowly bobbing its head.


[movie: Walking Dolls]

This video showcases two walking dolls (that actually move on wheels): the first gives a religious blessing while the second is a young boy riding a toy horse.

Robots: The Legacy of Karakuri Ningyo

Considered one of the leading English-speaking authorities on the Karakuri tradition, Kirsty Boyle is currently completing a documentary film about Karakuri which I eagerly anticipate.  Having studied under Tayama Shobei IX (a 9th generation Karakuri Ningyo craftsman and Japan’s last remaining mechanical doll master), Boyle has this to say about the Karakuri tradition’s influence on current robotics trends:

“The history of the Karakuri Ningyo highlights how anthropomorphic views of robots differ between the East and West. Central to the Karakuri philosophy is concealment of technology, to evoke feelings and emotions, and a sense of hidden inner magic.

“This trend can be traced to contrasting Eastern and Western marionette traditions. In the West marionettes have traditionally been strung and operated from above with the operator preferably obscured from the audience during the performance. Eastern marionettes tend to be strung and operated from beneath. This is apparent in Japanese and also Thai puppetry traditions.”

This concealment of the inner mechanisms can be seen in most examples of Japanese robots, who’s designers pay equal attention and care to the outward appearance of their robots.  The Karakuri lineage is more evident in some robots than others (such as those of Tomotaka Takahashi or Tatsuya Matsui).  In some cases, such as in AIST /Kawada Industries’ famous HRP-2 Promet humanoid, the robot’s external body was even deemed more important than the freedom of movement of certain joints.

Contrast this with most Western robots, often appearing unfinished, with their innards grotesquely displayed.  The Western approach is certainly valid, but one can hardly imagine a Western roboticist willing to sacrifice functionality for “mere” aesthetic reasons.  In Japanese tradition, the Karakuri (and their modern-day descendants) are infused with a spirit which transcends the mere sum of its parts, which I would argue explains a large part of our fascination with them.

For much more relating to the art & history of Karakuri, visit Kirsty Boyle’s

[Videos: Science Portal]

Additional Videos:


Image Credits:

Impress Robot Watch | Toshiba

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