Karakuri Dolls – Japanese Robots dating back Hundreds of Years

By Mike Sullivan

Today Japan is very famous for robots, recently on a trip to Japan President Obama of the United States of America met ASIMO. This incredible robot from Honda can walk, go up and down stairs, and even run, and it even played football with President Obama. Japanese robotics is very advanced and every year various companies create more and more useful robots which are capable of doing more and more things. However, interestingly robotics, or some form of it, is not a recent development in Japanese history, if we look back a bit we can discover a relatively unknown craft from Japan otherwise known as Karakuri Dolls.

asimoasimo / bluXgraphics(motorcycle design Japan)=Midorikawa

The History of Karakuri Dolls
karakuri doll: archer / bunnyhero

These dolls, or puppets, originate from the 17th century and were capable of doing simple tasks, when powered by a wound spring. There are loosely three kinds of doll; the Butai Karakuri (舞台からくり or Stage Karakuri) got their name from their use in the theatre, while the second type Zashiki Karakuri (座敷からくりor Tatami Karakuri) got their name from being used in homes. The third kind was called Dashi karakuri (山車からくりor Festival Car Karakuri) were used in religious festivals. In the brief period that Japan was open to limited international trade in the 17th century the knowledge of mechanical clocks became spread across Japan and were adapted for use in Japanese clocks, this knowledge was then applied to dolls. In the eighteenth century a famous book was written which explained the making of Japanese clocks and the application of that technology to Karakuri dolls.


karakuri doll: archerkarakuri doll: archer / bunnyhero

The Zashiki Karakuri Doll

This kind of doll is perhaps the most famous, they were quite small which made their creation that much more fascinating. The tiny parts required to power the doll required great artistry and skill. A standard doll would move forward in a straight line when a tea cup was placed on its tray and stop when the tea cup was taken off, another feature would be that it could be configured to turn around and return in the direction from which it had come from. Japanese nobles were fascinated with this kind of entertainment and loved to show off to their guests their own little moving doll.

The Butai Karakuri Doll

One of the first appearances of Karakuri Dolls was in 1662 when they were used in a theatre show, due to their use of wound springs to power the dolls the performances typically lasted about ten minutes. A direct influence of their slow movements coupled with a lack of speech can be seen in Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theatre. These kinds of shows were popular for hundreds of years.

TakayamaTakayama / Francesco_G

The Dashi Karakuri Doll

These are the largest of the dolls and can be found on floats made up of two or three decks with several puppets performing stories of Japanese legends. Inside the float there were the puppeteers and musicians while the float itself was pulled by ten or twenty people. Due to their limitations the dolls would only perform one scene from a story, but the story would be so well known by everyone that it was still sufficiently entertaining. These floats are still paraded in festivals, such as the Nagoya Festival in October, the Takayama Festival in April and October, and the Gion Festival in July.

Karakuri makerKarakuri maker / jeremydeades

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