Edo Mechanisms

Mechanisms from China helped begin the Japanese Karakuri tradition. The most famous Karakuri was not water driven but clockwork. The splendour of clockwork was that its source of power was internal and fully hidden. (SCREECH 1996, p 68) This wonder of hidden inner magic, and concealment of technology to evoke feelings and emotions is central to the Karakuri philosophy.

The world's first mechanical clock was built by the Chinese Tantric Buddhist monk and mathematician I-Hsing. This was actually an astronomical instrument which served as a clock. In the year 604 these mechanisms were adopted by the Japanese, along with an adapted version of the Chinese system of year identification and lunar time. The main difference between the Japanese and Chinese systems relate to date periods that signify the reign of different Emperors. The notation uses the Emperor's name and year of their reign. For example, Heisei 15, or the 15th year of Emperor AKIHITO's Heisei reign period, is the year 2003.

The Spanish missionary Francisco de Xavier is said to have brought the first Western mechanical clock to Japan in 1551. In 1633, the TOKUGAWA Shogunate forbade travelling abroad, and almost completely isolated Japan in 1639 by reducing the contacts to the outside world to very limited trade relations with China and the Netherlands in the port of Nagasaki. (SSCREECH 2001a)

The imposed seclusion severely limited the influence of European ideas, science and culture. Knowledge of the West during the Edo period was restricted to a tiny school of thought known as 'Rangaku' (Dutch learning).

During this time, the Japan notion of science in the Western sense was 'Kyuri', meaning the investigation of 'Ri' or principle. Kyuri sought to observe nature, and what lay behind it, and hence not necessarily what lay within it. It was the search for the forces behind nature, or 'Zoka' (creation) which is considered the manifestation of Ri. The Japanese approach was holisitic, in contrast to the West approach seeming deconstructive. Japanese science was not driven by practical endeavours such as improving trade, quantification methods or increasing commerce. (SCREECH 1996, p 42-43) During the same period invention and mechanisation were declared unlawful. This was with the exception of activities relating to religious or festive services. (SUEMATSU 2001a)

The arrival of the Dutch VOC ships, two of which would dock in Nagasaki Bay annually (SCREECH 1996, p61) were the sole means of gaining Western knowledge and technology. The Dutch had advanced instruments to aid them with trade, which made precise measurements and calculations. Items such as navigation and clockwork mechanisms were very different to their Japanese counterparts.


In the Edo period, many highly ornamental clocks were crafted, called 'Wadokei' (literally Japanese clocks). They were unique in the way they displayed the lunar time system, whereby time was not measured in equal units (such as hours) as it was in Western countries. A day was divided into the daytime and the night, in accordance with sunrise and sunset, and each was further divided into six segments. Time corresponded to the position of the sun, but the six daytime segments were not the same length as the six night segments (other than at the equinoxes when they are equal). (Anon 2002)

The system takes into account the actual length of the night and the day in different seasons, so at some parts of the year the night-time hours would be shorter, and at other seasons longer.

Western clocks displayed a different system of time. It was incompatible with the Japanese system, which did not change until 1887.

Traditional wadokei consisted of a series of complicated weights that needed to be readjusted each day. Western clocks were reengineered to produce mechanical wadokei. The mechanical wadokei did not directly imitate the western mechanical clock, but was adapted to suit the unique culture of the day. These western clock mechanisms were used to make Karakuri Ningyo. The most famous Karakuri was made during this time.

The Karakuri symbolise what some Edo intellectuals advocated and termed "Wakon Yosai", meaning Japanese spirit - Western learning. (SCHODT 1988, p 69) Such engineering achievements inspired future developments in industrial machinery, astronomy and land surveying equipment. Inventors and scientists turned their skill to the Karakuri Ningyo craft. This was the golden age of the Karakuri Ningyo.

Japan's carpentry tradition is an important part of the Karakuri Ningyo craft. Karakuri are made entirely of natural materials, with no metal nails or screws used. Different woods are used to make specific parts, with some native woods only appearing in Karakuri relative to that region. The cut of the grain of the wood is very important, for example the grain of the wooden driving gears is radially arranged to provide equal strength in all directions. Different parts of the mechanism are produced at specific times of year, as seasonal conditions such as humidity affect the properties of the wood. The mechanisms were also designed to be repaired and maintained, guaranteeing a long life span. The Chahakobi Ningyo that TAMAYA Shobei IX produces is guaranteed to operate for 200 years before needing any maintenance or adjustment.

Traditionally the hands, head and mechanisms were individually constructed by different specialists, or craftsman. Only later did a single Master complete the whole process. (SCHODT 1988, p 63)

The preservation of the Karakuri tradition was largely made possible by HOSOKAWA Hanzo Yorinao who wrote the three-volumes, 'Karakuri - An Illustrated Anthology' published in 1796. The anthology explains the making of four types of Japanese clocks and nine types of mechanical puppets with precise diagrams.

Since the technology used in the production of Japanese clocks was classified information at the time and only handed down to an apprentice, the book was revolutionary in the sense that it introduced the technology to the public. It influenced many subsequent generations of Karakuri masters. (SUEMATSU 2001b)

At the National Science Museum in Tokyo, a 10,000 year Perpetual Clock is on display made in 1851 by TANAKA Hisashige. It features Western and Japan time dials, and also weekly, monthly and zodiac settings.


Anon, 2002. History of the Japanese Horological Industry [online]. Japan Clock and Watch Association. Available from: http://www.jcwa.or.jp/eng/sangyou.html [Accessed 8 July 2003]

SCHODT, F. L., 1988. Inside the Robot Kingdom - Japan, Mechatronics, and Coming Robotopia. Tokyo, New York: Kodansha.

SCREECH, T., 1996. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001a. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 3, Edo Karakuri Masters were Universal Scientists, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001b. Illustrated Mechanism [online]. Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University. Available from: http://www.suelab.nuem.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~suematsu/karakurizui/karakurizui.html (in Japanese) [Accessed 23 November 2002]



Karakuri Origins

Dashi Karakuri

Butai Karakuri

Zashiki Karakuri

Edo Society

Edo Mechanisms

Karakuri Masters


Robot Perspectives

Karakuri Robots


kirsty @ karakuri . info

Last modified 14 January 2008
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