Karakuri (Japanese traditional mechanical devices) (からくり)

Karakuri means a Japanese traditional mechanical doll or miniature, or other mechanical device. In Chinese characters, karakuri is written as 絡繰, 機巧, or 機関, and in the old days, it was written as 唐繰.

Originally, karakuri was the general term for mechanical objects, and today, it mostly refers to the Japanese traditional mechanical devices intended for amusement, such as karakuri ningyo (a mechanical doll).

The etymology of karakuri is said to have been the nominalized adverbial form of the Japanese verb 'karakuru,' which means 'move something by pulling the strings attached to it,' and the word karakuri was found to have been used as early as in the late 16th century.

The English word "Karakuri" means karakuri ningyo.

History of karakuri

The oldest karakuri in Japan is said to have been shinansha (an ancient Chinese vehicle with a compass whose needle always pointed south), which came from China in the Heian period. It was a practical karakuri that always pointed south, utilizing the differential motion of the left and right wheels. A description of shinansha is also seen in "Sangokushi" (Annals of the Three Kingdoms). Volume 24 of "Konjaku Monogatari" (Tales of Now and Then), written in the last days of the Heian period, says that Imperial Prince Kaya produced a karakuri. Therefore, karakuri has a long history. Incidentally, in those days, only aristocrats enjoyed karakuri. Dashi karakuri (karakuri placed on a parade float) in Takayama Festival is famous.

Although karakuri is unique to Japan, its origin owed much to Western techniques that were introduced into Japan in the Muromachi period. When a harquebus came to Japan, mechanisms, such as that of a watch, also came. At that time, mechanical devices were generally called karakuri. The devices were watched with curiosity, since the devices themselves were peculiar things for Japanese at that time. And so, Japanese in those days associated the word karakuri with an amusing (or surprising) thing.

From around the 17th century, craftsmen began to produce karakuri ningyo by applying some techniques, including gears used in a watch and other things, to the devices for the movements of the doll. At first, it was owned only by daimyo (Japanese feudal lords) and others as a toy of refined taste, but as it was shown to the public and gained popularity, it spread nationwide. Professional craftsmen were born, and they crafted extremely sophisticated dolls. In those days, only aristocrats enjoyed karakuri ningyo. In 1662, Omi TAKEDA gave a performance of a play of karakuri ningyo at Dotonbori, Osaka. This play is said to have descended to dashi karakuri in some local communities.

During the Kyoho era in the early 18th century, a new land-ship car (today's tricycle) was invented by Kuheiji Tokimitsu HIRAISHI, a feudal retainer of the Hikone domain.

In the 19th century, at Tsukuba, Igashichi IIZUKA (so-called 'Karakuri Iga') invented a man-powered plane and a karakuri ningyo that went on an errand to a sake (Japanese liquor) shop. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the creation of the most sophisticated works.

In the last days of the Edo period, Benkichi ONO, who was called the Second Gennai HIRAGA in Kaga (Gennai HIRAGA was a great inventor in the middle of the Edo period), invented an air gun, a miniature of a steamship, and a camera.

Varieties of karakuri

Zashiki karakuri (an indoor karakuri)

Karakuri ningyo and others

Karakuri gangu (a mechanical toy) :

From many years ago, local communities all over Japan have produced various toys of their own as a folkcraft, or as a folk toy, equipped with various devices, and even today, many of these toys are sold as souvenirs. The devices of a 'tin toy,' which once backed up the Japanese export industry, originated mostly from karakuri gangu.

Karakuri bungu (trick stationery)

Karakuri gasa (a trick umbrella):

Karakuri gasa concretely meant a Japanese-style umbrella (oddly, also described as a Chinese-style umbrella), and the name karakuri gasa was given because a mere canopy of Chinese origin was changed into the convenient tool equipped with the device for opening and closing in Japan.

Karakuri kagu (trick furniture)

Karakuri tansu (a trick chest)

Karakuri mato (a trick target for shooting) :

Born in the festival culture that flourished in the Edo period, karakuri mato was a target for an arrow (or a blowgun dart), whose painted board had a device that made a comical movement when the archer shot it appropriately. Karakuri mato could be seen until the Taisho period at shooting galleries in major cities' downtown areas and in local spas, but today, only its trace can be seen in an amusement park attraction called 'ogre crying game' (a mechanical doll in an ogre figure, a target for a ball).

Dashi karakuri

Dedication of karakuri to the deity in Takayama Festival

Butai karakuri (karakuri theater)

Karakuri yashiki (a house full of tricks)

For example, a house of a ninja (a professional spy in feudal Japan highly trained in stealth and secrecy) was a karakuri yashiki.

Famous karakuri

Yumihiki Doji (archer doll)

Crafted by Hisashige TANAKA. It is zashiki karakuri, whose doll takes an arrow out of a basket, fits the arrow to a string of a bow, and shoots at a target.

The movements of the doll are controlled only with coil springs, cams, and strings. The doll shoots several arrows, and when one of these arrows goes off the target --- this is intentionally crafted as such --- the doll expresses regret - when it hits the target, the doll expresses joy - with its head movement. This doll is said to be the best masterpiece of all Edo karakuri.

Two original yumihiki doji were found at the house of the Maekawa family in Fushimi in 1990. At present, one of them is owned by Toyota Motor Corporation, and another belongs to the National Museum of Nature and Science. A kit of a model doll that makes the same movements as the above is sold by Gakken Holdings Co., Ltd.

Chahakobi ningyo (a tea-serving doll)
Chahakobi ningyo is zashiki karakuri that holds a tray. This is a typical karakuri. When you place a cup of tea on the tray, the doll carries it to a guest, and when the guest picks it up, the doll stops. The carrying distance is set beforehand. When the guest places the empty cup on the tray after drinking the tea, the doll turns itself, carries the cup to you, and rolls to a stop. The doll's movements are controlled only with coil springs, gears, cams, and strings.

The doll often seen today is a reproduction, which is based on the design included in "Karakuri zui" (Compilation of Illustrated Mechanical Arts), an old book written by karakuri craftsman Hanzo HOSOKAWA in 1796. There has not been found any original chahakobi ningyo produced by a craftsman in the Edo period.

Karakuri mikuji (a mechanical messenger of a fortune-telling slip)

Karakuri mikuji exists at Nishiki Tenman-gu Shrine situated on the eastern edge of Nishiki Food Market in Kyoto City. When you come near to the karakuri mikuji, kagura (the sacred music performed at shrines) and a mechanical Japanese lion dance automatically begin, and when you put coins into a box and select a fortune-telling slip from among the six kinds (including that in English, that in both Japanese and English, and that for a child), the mechanical lion brings you the slip, performing the Japanese lion dance in accord with kagura --- these comical devices have become popular.

Karakuri and the robot

Between the Edo karakuri ningyo and the present robot, there exists no technical link, but not a few cultural links do exist. Some say that Japanese feel familiar with robots because they were used to seeing a karakuri ningyo and the like, in contrast to the Western people who feel antipathy to robots. And others say the research and development of robots is active in Japan partly because of the tradition of karakuri.

Mechanical dolls and the like seen in places other than Japan

At a church or an old municipal office in Europe, a mechanical clock is often seen. Most of the old mechanical dolls seen outside Japan do a simple reciprocation, such as sawing and ax-swinging. In the 19th century, a mechanical doll called an automaton appeared, which was crafted to mimic human movements. Some automata are said to have had a conversation with a human, done a calculation, or played chess.

[Original Japanese]