The First Japanese Robots: Karakuri Ningyo Ahead of the game, even in the Edo period

    Probably more than anywhere else, robots are a big part of Japanese culture, and it’s no secret that we here at Tofugu think that these machines are evil, human-hating beings. But even with my open revulsion to these sinister automatons, I learned something interesting about them recently – they’re much older than I thought.

    Lots of people think of Japanese robots as a creation of the 20th century, but that’s a few hundred years off. How does the 17th century sound to you?

    Early Japanese Robots

    Way back in the Edo era of Japanese history (1600s-1800s), little contraptions known as karakuri ningyo (roughly “mechanical doll”) saw their heyday. These karakuri weren’t robots in the sense we usually think of them, though.

    Karakuri didn’t have computers, weren’t built of plastic and metal, and didn’t look too eerily lifelike. Instead, they were made of wood, string and cogs; and were very basic analog contraptions compared to today’s digital wonders. If anything, karakuri were more related to wind-up clocks than they are to ASIMO.

    A man in a vest standing with a karakuri ningyo
    The beginning of the end of humanity will come back to this doll
    Source: Josep Tomàs

    A lot of the time, these little machines didn’t really have any especially practical uses, but were mainly used for parlor tricks and impressing people.

    The founder of Toshiba, a guy by the name of Hisashige Tanaka, liked to pass the time by assembling elaborate little karakuri before he moved on to bigger and better things like steam engines and weaponry.

    While there were tons of different karakuri, three different kinds in particular were the most popular:

    1. Household Robots

    Probably the most recognizable karakrui is the zashiki karakuri, or “tatami robot.” Zashiki karakuri were little household automatons people would keep around the house, mostly for entertainment. For instance, this robot shooting arrows was a fairly common design that astounded people at the time. (During the Edo period, standards for entertainment were lower and people had longer attention spans.)

    My God, they’re arming themselves!

    Probably the coolest (and most practical) of the zashiki karakuri were the ones that brought cups of tea to their masters. You would place the cup in their cold, unyielding robot arms, and they scuttled across the tatami floor for a given distance, delivered the tea and bowed to you. Helpful? You could say so, but I still don’t trust ’em.

    Don’t believe the propaganda: robots have no emotions.

    2. Festival Robots

    If you’ve ever seen a festival in Japan, then you’ve probably seen the giant floats and shrines that parade through the streets during certain festivals. People like to make these floats or dashi as huge and elaborate as possible.

    What better way to spruce up a float than putting a robot on top of it?

    This is easily the scariest thing I have ever seen.

    These robots are called dashi karakuri and they aren’t usually as giant or terrifying as the one in the video above. Check out a more tame, traditional dashi karakuri in the video below:

    3. Theater Robots

    Yes, karakuri even appeared in Japanese theaters in the Edo period. You’d think that acting would remain squarely in the domain of humans, but unfortunately you’re wrong.

    Not only did these butai karakuri (theater karakuri) appear in plays during the Edo period, but they even influenced how human actors performed. Japanese people back in the day were not only so impressed with karakuri, but also bunraku puppets that many traditional actors started to imitate the movements of these miniature thespians.

    Mommy, Where Do Robots Come From?

    So while these little karakuri might not seem like more than simple playthings, it’s cool to see how Japan’s heritage and history have influenced the country as it is today. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the reason why Japan’s so into robots today, but hey, it’s pretty interesting! You never know, right? Or maybe you do – if you do, you should tell us, because you’re smart people (don’t ask IBM’s Watson… we think he’s a higher up in the secret robot army).

    Anyways, all this information will be a great head start on your Robot History 101 course, which will be mandatory after we welcome our new robot overlords. I, for one, don’t want to be sent to a mining asteroid. These supple, sensitive, fingers were made for blogging and Starcraft.