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Monday, October 8, 2012

The Japanese Automaton - #5

 Welcome the the fifth installment of a thoughtful thread I have conceived. And like any traumatic child birth, it takes time to get to the point where you are comfortable. This is the point. This topic is the one I wanted to learn about, but realized that to 

I have been interested in automata, aka automatons, aka mechanized puppets since I was a kid. Recently re-introduced to them by my friend Morgana who thought my son and I would like to watch the movie Hugo (it's brilliant and sad and an exciting look at the early history of movies and movie-making - two things I had no idea I was interested in, but apparently am because I like to learn new things), I thought I would look up and discover if Japan had any automatons.

I shouldn't have been surprised, after all, isn't Japan the self-professed leader in robotics?

But, I thought automatons were a late Victorian-era invention... sort of steam punk-ish? Imagine my surprise when I discovered I was off by nearly 200 years.

Do you see that image up above? That is a manual for a Tea Serving Doll (Chahakobi Ningyo) taken from an illustrated anthology called Karakuri Zuii, published in 1796 (it can be seen in the third video below)... and Japan was constructing automatons in the 1600s! It should be noted that Leonardo DaVinci drew up plans for a human robot in 1495 and the Arabian Al-Jazari supposedly created an automaton band back in 1206 - he also invented the camshaft.

In Japan, the mechanized puppet or autamaton are called karakuri ningyo (からくり人形). The Japanese term 'karakuri' means 'mechanism(s)' or 'trick', while ningyo  means 'person +shape'... and not the same pronounced word, but spelled differently via Japanese kanji meaning mermaid.

So... we have a mechanical human-shape. A robot, if you will, though the term 'robot' did not come about until Czech playwright Karel Čapek created the science-fiction play: R.U.R.... which when played before English audiences, it was translated to Rossum's Universal Robots. However, Karel does not take credit for the invention of the term... he says that when looking for a name for the creatures in his play, he turned to his brother Josef, who actually coined the term 'robot'.

Oh... and Caroline? Dollhouse's Rossum Corporation was indeed named after the robots in this play. 

Look at us... talking about movie history, science-fiction plays and automatons...

Automatons were created to amuse people. Probably very rich people.

Let's take a look at a few Japanese automatons in action:

The archery automaton is known as the Yumihiki Doji is considered the peak of Edo-era  automaton craftsmanship. The doll sits on a 30 centimeter high stand, picks up an arrow and fires it at a target a fair distance away. It does this four times on a single play - BUT - and here's the cool part - one out of every 10 shots will miss on purpose to create an element of suspense for the audience.

Called the first Japanese home entertainment robot, the Chahakobi Ningyo tea-serving automaton is Japan's most famous automaton.It works when a teacup is placed on the tea tray held by the doll. The automaton then moves straight to a guest who takes the tea. The automaton waits for the guest to drink and replace the tea cup back on the tray at which point it turns and heads back to its starting point. The server moves its feet and nods his head up and down as it advances. This automaton also comes with a mechanism allowing the host to measure by eye the distance to the guest, so he could set in advance the place where it would turn around.It took some practice.

There are three main types of Japanese automaton:  
  • Butai karakuri (舞台からくり stage karakuri) were used in theater;
  • Zashiki karakuri (座敷からくり tatami room karakuri) were small and used in homes;
  • Dashi karakuri (山車からくり festival car karakuri) were used in religious festivals.
For the religious festivals, the automaton were used to perform reenactments of traditional myths and legends, and actually influenced the Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku forms of traditional Japanese theater.

So... how was this related to Japanese clocks (and thus to calendars) in the previous blog? Well, the Japanese clocks were made of wood and required some superb carpentry. So too do the karakuri ningyo.

The original Japanese automatons were made from natural materials and did not utilize metal screws or nails. These automaton makers used native woods from the area in which they built - probably because the Ohmi Shonin (traveling salesman) had not begun trading products from area to area yet.

The cut of the grain of the wood is very important, for example the grain of the wooden driving gears is radially arranged to provide equal strength in all directions. Different parts of the mechanism are produced at specific times of year, as seasonal conditions such as humidity affect the properties of the wood. (Here's the calendar in action!).

Karakuri moved via pulleys and weights - all without electronics or a power source... just like the Japanese clocks.

Originally, because of the complex nature of  constructing the proper parts, different craftsmen were required... but eventually one Master karakuri builder would construct all the required pieces.

The mechanisms that made the automaton automated were designed to be removable for ease of repair and maintenance, guaranteeing a long life span - which is why they are still functional to this day.

Here's some more relevance to clocks! A gentleman named Hosokawa Hanzo Yorinao wrote a three-volume set of books known as the Karakuri - An Illustrated Anthology published in 1796 (mentioned all the way at the beginning of this blog!) explaining how to make four types of clocks and nine types of mechanical puppets with precise diagrams. Because the technology of building Japanese clocks was classified and only handed down to his apprentice, this was the first time the public was allowed to see this technology thereby influencing many others to become karakuki masters.

Next... from Japanese automatons to Japanese robotics.

Andrew Joseph


  1. spanks for the Rossum info!

    - c

  2. birthday paddy whacks to the birthday girl and boy!

    1. You kill me, anonymous c. My birthday is one month from today.
      Everyone should remember that and provide the appropriate tribute. Whatever you think I deserve for being patient and for providing so many great blogs and the other blogs, too!

    2. All hail the mighty Scorpio! (and I knew that...figure I'd split the difference, more or less)

    3. I knew you knew. Your memory is as good as mine - hopefully better! I know you know a few Scorpios - not all as cool as me, of course. this time you won't think I'm joking to get 'pity' when I say it's my birthday.

  3. Awesome articles on Japanese ways geared for uneducated english speaking
    curiosity seekers. You write comics? Where's the link? The humor here is like
    a gratifying sledge hammer. Love your style! As far as Karikuri go, how many
    Japanese subculture teenagers appreciate their own history? Fascinating .

    1. Thank-you very much! Comics? here's a couple:

      I love the gratifying sledge hammer comment! I appreciate it!