NIPPONIA No. 38 September 15, 2006


Special Featuresp_star.gifLiving with Robots

Higashino Susumu's current project is repairing another karakuri, a mechanical puppet that does calligraphy. It was also made by Tanaka Hisashige.

Robotic Karakuri Doll Brings the 19th Century Back to Life

Written by Sanada Kuniko

Photo credits: Archer photos, property of the Toyota Collection; Other photos, Ogawa Hiroyuki


The boy takes an arrow, aims, then shoots. He repeats this three more times, with body movements and expressions that almost pass for human. This yumi-hiki doji (young archer) is perhaps the best work ever produced by the master craftsman Tanaka Hisashige (1799-1881).

Mechanical karakuri dolls were first made around the end of the Edo period, in the early 1800s. They developed into three main types:

  • Matsuri karakuri for festivals, riding on floats that are pulled through the streets or doing their stuff on a stage, adding artistic flair to the religious mood of the festival.
  • Kogyo karakuri for pure entertainment, used in puppet shows.
  • Zashiki karakuri for room decorations.

In palm: Netsuke ornament and the world's smallest mechanical yakata-bune boat like those used for evening parties. Left: Karakuri bringing tea to guests.

Some of them need a human hand to help them move, or the weight of mercury, sand or water. Others, like the archer on this page, move on their own—once their spring is wound up, their strings get into action, turning the gearwheels inside.

"When I found him he was in pretty good shape, but all of his strings were gone so he couldn't shoot," says Higashino Susumu, Japan's top expert at repairing and researching karakuri, and a member of the Japan Karakuri-Automaton Society. "When I took him apart I thought, wow, Tanaka did a great job using the simplest mechanism possible to reproduce human movements and body expression. So when I repaired the little guy I did what I could to remain faithful to the original."

The archer does more than just shoot arrows. He was designed to move his head and make natural gestures, so Higashino kept fine tuning the mechanism, looking at himself in a mirror and going through the motions of a seated archer, using every bit of talent until he got the mechanism just right.

"Japan's robot technology is now top class. Actually, its roots go all the way back to inventors and craftsmen in the Edo period. I hope people all over the world will be interested in learning lots more about this ancient technology."

This yumi-hiki doji (young archer), made by Tanaka Hisashige (1799-1881), is still admired for its advanced mechanism and performance.

1 He takes an arrow in his right hand.


2 He places the arrow in the bow, and turns his face toward the target.


3 He aims at the target and pulls back the bowstring.


4 He shoots and looks where the arrow went.


5 He returns to his original position, ready to pick up the second arrow.