Karakuri Masters

plan from Karakuri Zuii

The three most famous Karakuri mechanical puppet makers were HOSOKAWA Hanzo Yorinao, who wrote the 'Karakuri - An Illustrated Anthology' and was also involved in the Kansei Astronomy Reforms; TANAKA Hisashige from Kurume, who after making the 'archer puppet' and the '10,000 year perpetual clock', became the founder of the Toshiba Corporation; and OHNO Benikichi from Kaga, whose activities encompassed not only mechanical puppets but also mathematics and medicine.

These men, despite the closed nature of the country during the Edo period, eagerly absorbed and adapted the western technology that entered through the Port of Nagasaki. They were versatile scientists well educated in such areas as mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine. (SUEMATSU 2001a)

"Karakuri were surrounded by a passionate secrecy and none were permitted to look inside or see how they were assembled. Trade secrets were vital, and the Karakuri master was a guarded and solitary worker. The logic of the parts had to remain a mystery if the real point of the device - the discrepancy between inside and outside, input and motion - were to be enjoyed." (Screech 1996, p 67)

HOSOKAWA Hanzo Yorinao (1741-1796)

HOSOKAWA Hanzo Yorinao (1741-1796) was born in the feudal domain of Tosa in Nankoku-shi, Kochi.

'Karakuri Zuii' ('Karakuri - An Illustrated Anthology') was published after his death in 1796. It consisted of 3 volumes detailing four types of Japanese clocks and nine types of Karakuri mechanical puppets. The book reveals the Karakuris' mechanical structure, which is a brilliant utilisation of gravity, magnetic force and elasticity, with descriptions and specifics on the actual manufacturing of the devices. The Karakuri Zuii is a very rare and respected manuscript, detailing classic mechanical engineering from Edo period Japan.

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)

He promoted observation of the natural world. In the introduction of the Karakuri Zuii, he writes "The rudder, for example, was made by observing the action of a fish tail; oars were created by observing the sideways motion of its fins... TAKEDA Omi observed children playing with sand and used the idea to power his mechanisms". (SCHODT 1988 p 67)

HOSOKAWA mastered physics, mathematics, and astronomy, and was a calendar scholar to the Shogunate in the Kansei era. (SUEMATSU 2001c)

TANAKA Hisashige (1799-1880)

TANAKA is considered the Master of Edo mechanism arts. His achievements directly contributed to the modern industrialisation of Japan.

TANAKA was born in Kurume, on 18th September, 1799, as a child of a tortoise-shell craftsman. He produced the masterpiece perpetual clock (Mannendokei, or "ten-thousand year clock") in 1851, which features Western and Japan time dials, and also weekly, monthly and zodiac settings. The Mannendokei can be seen at The National Science Museum, Tokyo.

In 1852 he established a shop called the 'Hall of Automata' in Kyoto. This was at the end of the TOKUGAWA era, when the government was forced out of isolation. TANAKA was summoned by the SAGA Domain to advise on technological modernisation, and was set to work unravelling the secrets of western technology. Wthin a year he had built Japan's first working model of a steam locomotive. (MORRIS-SUZUKI 1994, p 53) He did this by using a Dutch reference book, before ever seeing a real one. (SCHODT 1988, p 70)

The firm he founded, Tanaka Engineering Works, was the forerunner of today's Toshiba group. The firm manufactured electric bulbs, cables, various measurement apparatus, prototype telephones, industrial machinery (notably steam engine boats and trains), and iron bridges.

His successor, TANAKA Hisashige II, established Tanaka Seisakujo and produced measuring devices, home appliances, machine tools, cables and iron bridges. Tanaka Seisakujo became Shibaura Seisakujo and then Tokyo Shibaura Seisakujo, which led to the current name Toshiba. (SUEMATSU 2001d)

OHNO Benikichi(1801- 1870)

OHNO Benikichi (1801- 1870) was born as a feather craftsman's son in Kyoto. He remained poor and hid himself in a shack in the mountain village Ohno, Ishikawa prefecture, where he stayed all his life. He lived and worked frugally in seclusion.

Head researcher of The National Science Museum, Tokyo, SUZUKI Kazuyoshi, considers OHNO to be Japan's Leonardo Da Vinci.

OHNO authored books about astronomy and calendar mathematics: Hassen Sansuu Hyo "8 Line Arithmetic Table", Sokuryo Sankakuho "Survey Trigonometry", Ohshu Kanreki "A review on Kanreki Calendar". 'Itto Shikyuroku' was a science encyclopaedia, reviewing the latest science technology in the medicine, physics, chemistry and mechanical engineering fields. He constructed globes showing the Copernican system and produced complex survey equipment for bank construction.

He produced an 'Erekiteru', the equivalent of a modern electric massaging machine. It created electricity by Volta battery. The patient held 2 rods with both hands and was inflicted with an electric shock as someone else rotated the disc. (SUEMATSU 2001e) "(It is said to) thought the Erekiteru a miracle of mechanics, able to make the human body appear like a Buddhist divinity, aflame and haloed in fire." (SCREECH 1996, p 44-46)

In Kanazawa, there is the "OHNO Benikichi Karakuri Museum".


MORRIS-SUZUKI, T., 1994. The Technological Transformation of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

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

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]

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

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

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001e. Benikichi Ono [online]. Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University. Available from: http://www.suelab.nuem.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~suematsu/benkichi/benkichi.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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