Robot Perspectives

The Karakuri tradition continues to influence the Japanese view of robots. The history of the Karakuri Ningyo highlights how anthropomorphic views of robots differ between the East and West. Central to the Karakuri philosophy is concealment of technology, to evoke feelings and emotions, and a sense of hidden inner magic.

This trend can be traced to contrasting Eastern and Western marionette traditions. In the West marionettes have traditionally been strung and operated from above with the operator preferably obscured from the audience during the performance. Eastern marionettes tend to be strung and operated from beneath. This is apparent in Japanese and also Thai puppetry traditions.

Anthropomorphic approaches differ between the East and West. For example, automata were produced to show that machines could mimic human beings. This sort of design intention is not apparent in Japanese Karakuri puppets.

While there are many western automata whose eyes and mouth move in order to show facial expressions, in the case of the Karakuri puppets, subtle head movements and the play of light and shadow convey the emotions of the puppet. The Karakuri makers finish the faces of the puppets so that they can express the fundamental emotions of joy, fear, anger and sadness by the inclination and shadows of the puppets face. (SUEMATSU 2001a)

The Karakuri facial features have a lifelike changeability, relating to the sculpting style, which was also traditionally used for carving masks for the theatre. The puppets can induce a variety of perceived expressions with changes in head orientation. This has recently been scientifically studied, with the findings revealing that the shape of the mask, or facial features exaggerates certain features, particularly the depth of the contours of the mouth. (LYONS et al 2000) This visual form of expression compliments the abstract movements associated with the way the Karakuri perform.

The Yumihiki Doji aims his bow, and shoots an arrow. (SUEMATSU 2001b)

Japan's most famous roboticist, KATO Ichiro notes that the technology for Karakuri in Japan was fused with art, rather than a quest for scientific knowledge. This is reflected in the Japanese love of the abstract, as opposed to the Western emphasis on realism. (SCHODT 1988, p65) It is often said that religion is the reason why Japan have different views of robots. (SCHODT 1988, p 195)

The roots of the Japanese worldview can be traced to several traditions. Confucianism and Daoism, from China along with Shinto and Buddhism have developed culture of art and temples, which have a considerable role in public life. (DOLAN, WORDEN 1994a)

In Shinto natural phenomena and objects are worshipped as 'kami' - which encompasses qualities such as growth, fertility and production; phenomena such as wind and thunder; objects such as the sun, rivers, trees and rocks and ancestral spirits. It includes all things organic and inorganic. Shinto rights and ceremonies commemorate life, and daily life is considered 'service to the kami' or matsuri. Karakuri featured in dashi matsuri (festivals) are considered to be kami, and are a very important part of Shinto culture.

The Japanese Ningyo represented and embodied what was believed to be divine forces. Japan has a long history of ritual and dramatic use of puppets and dolls. The puppets represented an awareness of the relationship between the material and the spiritual, becoming vessels for visiting spiritual forces. (LAW 1997, p 18-23) It is no surprise that the definition of human beings in Japanese is 'Ningen' ("among persons = interperson").

Until the late nineteenth century, puppets were not thrown away or recycled, but buried in a cemetery, indicating the respect accorded to them. "The practice of burying these images carved 'in the shape of the human' suggests an awareness that while matter and spirit may appear to be separate orders, once spirit has encountered a material form, the latter cannot return to mere matter set apart. A dilapidated puppet - a head, arms, perhaps a costume, rattles, flutes, masks - will never again be merely a sum of parts. Today, they are put in museums or glass cases, a practice that worries many older puppeteers. " (LAW 1997, p 201-2)

Traditional Buddhist views have also inspired new creative approaches to robotics and automation. The late Professor KATO Ichiro and Dr MORI Mashiro have been pioneers in the concept of biomechanisms, and the practice of modelling mechanisms after life forms. MORI is in fact critical of the humanoid approach, and advocates a theory he terms 'The Uncanny Valley', whereby we feel closer to robots which we identify as being 'life like', but as this approaches replication or perfect simulation of man we feel a sense of the uncanny. Humans will naturally feel closer to a robot slightly different from man, and slightly 'robot like'. (Schodt 1988 p 208-209) An English translation of his original paper 'Bukimi no tani' (The Uncanny Valley) first published in 1970 can be found here.

MORI founded the 'Jizai Kenkyujo' or Mukta Institute, to promote his views of religion and robots. The Institute operates as a think tank, made up of technology specialists providing consultation to corporations such as Honda and Omron on automation, robotisation and product development. They promote the fusing of Japanese spirit and technology and creative thinking. Members regularly meet to recite Buddhist scriptures, meditate and consider different problems in new ways. (SCHODT 1988, p 209-210)

The view that all things have a spirit is still alive and strong in Japan. They believe not only animals, but also nature and inanimate objects have spirit, and tend to project this sense into their robots and machines. Virtual creatures such as the Tamagotchi are a natural consequence of such Japanese tradition. (KUSAHARA 1999) "What the West calls "virtual reality", the Japanese call "intimate presence"". (SCHWARTZ 1998, p 370-371)

Robots are seen as friends with superhuman intelligence and real feelings. (HIROSHI 2002) This is clearly demonstrated by different representations in popular culture, specifically manga. There is an archive of Karakuri and puppets in such films at http://www.clockworkvoices.com/pspotting.htm.

The Science fiction author Isaac Asimov has coined the term "Frankenstein Complex" to describe Western views, whereby "man creates robot; robot kills man". Symbolically, at the climax of the 1984 film 'The Terminator', the evil humanoid terminator robot meets his end next to two industrial robots (of Japanese origin, by Fanuc and Yaskawa Electric). (SCHODT 1988, p 198-199)

In contrast, the Japanese view, as can be seen with Astroboy, is one of love and affection for robots. (SUEMATSU 2001c)


DOLAN. R, WORDEN, R. (Ed.), 1994a. Values and Beliefs Chapter 2, Japan - a Country Study [online]. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Available from:http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/jptoc.html [Accessed 18 August 2003]

HIROSHI A., 2002. The Japanese Affection for Robots. Available from: http://www.jinjapan.org/nipponia/nipponia13/sp02.html [Accessed 22 August 2002]

KUSAHARA, M., 1999. Japanese Visual Culture - The NON-Perspective as Symbolic Form [online]. Symposium of SYNWORLD playwork:hyperspace Vienna (A), Museumquartier. Available from: http://synworld.t0.or.at/level3/symposium_neu/machiko.htm [Accessed 10 January 2003]

LAW, J. M., 1997. Puppets of Nostalgia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

LYONS, M., CAMPBELL, R., PLANTE, A., COLEMAN, M., KAMACHI, M., AKAMATSU, S., 2000. The Noh Mask Effect: Vertical Viewpoint Dependence of Facial Expression Perception. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.

MATSUMOTO, D., 1996. Unmasking Japan - Myths and Realities About the Emotions of the Japanese. California: Stanford 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.

SCHWARTZ, H., 1998. The Culture of the Copy - Striking Llikenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. New York: Zone Books.

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001a. East and West Robot View [online]. Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University. Available from: http://www.suelab.nuem.nagoy-au.ac.jp/~suematsu/roboimage/roboimage.html (in Japanese) [Accessed 23 November 2002]

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

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001c. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 1, Japan, the Robot Kingdom, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.



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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