By now, you know that Aichi prefecture produced some of the finest samurai, and that about 70% of the early Edo period daimyo hailed from around Aichi. Aichi Prefecture also produces about 25% of Japans robots, and is a leader in the robotics field. In fact, some of the world’s first robots were perfected in Aichi during the 1600s!
These early robots were known as Karakuri Ningyo, wooden mechanical dolls, used as entertainments, and to adorn the tall, gorgeously carved and decorated festival floats called Dashi. The dolls of various size would move or perform tricks much to the amazement of all who watched the festival. Some were powered by special springs or weights and pulleys, others were operated by people hiding within the Dashi floats, pulling on various levers and ropes to bring the dolls to life. Because Aichi was the center of Karakuri creation, there are more Dashi floats, and more Karakuri Ningyo in Aichi than any other prefecture. The biggest Dashi Festival is staged in Handa, and can be seen in Inuyama, Nagoya, Arimatsu and other areas.
Richly decorated festival floats called Dashi carried the wooden mechanical dolls as entertainments.
Master Tamaya Shobe 9th and his apprentices work on a complicated set of Dashi Karakuri dolls
The various levers and pulleys that operate this set of fascinating dolls
The “Cha-hakobi Ningyo” or Tea Serving Doll was created in the early Edo Period and became a very popular entertainment for the wealthy classes. These dolls were powered by springs made of whale baleen. When a tea bowl is placed on top of the tray held by the doll, the doll moves forward on its own to where the guest is sitting, then when the guest takes the cup off the tray, it stops and waits with its head bowed. When the guest has finished their tea and places the tea bowl back on the tray, the doll then about faces and returns the cup to the server.
A naked Cha-hakobi doll.
A close up of the wooden cogs, cams, pulleys, drive and steering
Other more complicated dolls can carry a brush, which they dip in ink, before writing an auspicious character, then turn to present their work. Another fascinating archer doll will reach for a tiny 7cm long arrow, take it from the rack, notch it in the bowstring, and accurately fire at a target a meter away, before repeating the process to fire off 4 arrows. The actions of this Edo period creation are amazing! This is 200 to 300 year old technology!
Master Tamaya Shobe IX demonstrates an archer doll.
The weight and pulley powered archer doll reaches for another arrow and prepares to shoot.
The current ninth generation Karakuri Master craftsman, Tamaya Shobee, continues to make the various dolls in the traditional manner. If you aren’t in Aichi at the time of a festival, a special museum dedicated to the Karakuri dolls can be found in Inuyama city, not far from the entrance to the castle.
You’ll be astounded at the ancient technology of the Karakuri dolls, the early wooden robots of Aichi.
Chris Glenn is a bilingual radio DJ, TV presenter, producer, narrator, MC, copywriter, author and columnist, and Japanese historian, specializing in samurai castles, battles, armor and weapons. He is an inbound tourism advisor, and is often called upon as a lecturer and speaker on Japanese history and topics. He was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1968, and has spent over half his life in Japan, most of that time in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. Chris is dedicated to promoting and preserving Japans’ long history, deep culture, traditions, arts and crafts.