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Edo-Period Technology Continues to Amaze (August 13, 2003)

yumi hiki doji
This doll can shoot arrows. (Held by Kurume City Board of Education)
Since the Edo period (1603-1868), a time when the country was largely closed to foreign trade, Japan has been a nation that takes pride in technology and artisanship. Attracting a great deal of attention at the moment is a special exhibition titled "Expo Edo: Science and Technology of the Edo Era," which is being held at the National Science Museum in Tokyo's Ueno Park. Ordinary people in the Edo period had a very strong sense of curiosity, and the artisans of the time created some remarkable technology. At this special exhibition, roughly 500 pieces of work from the Edo period can be seen in one location, making it one of the largest such events since World War II. Among the most intriguing items on display are those that were made using wind-up springs, including mechanical dolls, the performances of which are winning particular acclaim. In modern times Japan has led the world in the development of robots, including pet and humanoid ones. The roots of this technology can be traced back to the artisanship of the Edo period.

Robot Ancestors?
The exhibition lasts from June 24 to August 31, and the most popular attraction is the mechanical dolls. One of these remarkable machines is a brass doll that moves by means of coiled springs and gears. This doll, which looks like a young archer, can pull four arrows out of its quiver in succession and shoot them at a target several meters away. When it hits the target, the many people who have gathered to watch the demonstration erupt in applause.

netuke cha hakobi ningyo
This doll serves tea. (Held in a private collection)

Another favorite of visitors is a doll that can serve tea. When a cup holding tea is placed on the doll's tray, it will walk over to a guest and bow. When the guest has finished drinking the tea and places the empty cup back on the doll's tray, the doll will do an about-face and walk back to its master. This machine is a marvel of technological innovation. The coiled springs, which were fashioned out of the whiskers of a bow whale, transfer their energy through wooden gears attached in a radial pattern to a piece of white oak.

In addition to the mechanical dolls, the exhibition contains numerous other examples of Edo-period artisanship. There are telescopes, cameras, telegraphs, a wooden skeleton, a model of a steam train, survey equipment, and Japanese clocks. Documents and drawings relating to these works are also on display. Interestingly, about 60% of these items were the property not of daimyo or wealthy merchants but of commoners. While in Western societies access to cutting-edge technology was generally limited to nobles and wealthy people, homegrown technology was a part of everyday life for ordinary people in Edo-period Japan. The shogunate at the time harshly proscribed the possession of weapons or large ships, as these were seen as dangerous technologies that threatened the survival of the regime. Technology used in amusements, however, was largely unrestricted, so it spread among the populace into such areas as education and culture, and it made numerous important contributions.

Mechanical dolls were one of the best-loved technologies of the Edo period among ordinary citizens. While they were also collected and enjoyed by daimyo and wealthy merchants, most of the dolls were held by shrines and temples, and anyone could come to watch them in action. The makers of these dolls were both innovative inventors and popular entertainers.

Spirit of Fun Drives Technology
The spirit of fun and the nimble artisanship behind these mechanical dolls have served as a major source of ideas and inspiration for the engineers who develop the cutting-edge robots of today. One example is Sony Corp.'s robot dog AIBO, which is capable of expressing a range of emotional states and is intended to be something along the lines of a pet or a partner. One of the developers at Sony explains, "Mechanical dolls were made to do various tasks, such as bow. I feel that they have something in common with AIBO from the standpoint of entertainment value. . . . AIBO resembles these mechanical dolls as well in that rather than seeking to represent reality, there is something close to a Japanese-like minimalist abstract quality."

Honda Motor Co.'s humanoid robot ASIMO is known for being able to walk on two legs, and work is proceeding on robots capable of performing hospitality-related tasks. Honda Motor studied mechanical dolls in the process of developing ASIMO, and a spokesperson says, "Edo-period technology was really at quite a high level." A researcher at the National Museum of Science, which is sponsoring the current exhibition, offers similar comments, saying, "Even when comparing the Edo period with today, the role of technology in Japan has not changed very much. . . . When Japanese technology is fused with the spirit of entertainment for the masses, it makes astounding progress. This is the result of seeking to maximize entertainment value within limited parameters."

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Related Web Sites
Expo Edo: Science and Technology of the Edo Era
National Science Museum
Sony Corp.
Honda Motor Co.

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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