Karakuri Robots

Japan is the world's leading robot producing country. The Japanese vision of the 21st century is one of "co-existence with robots". To the Japanese, robots are not just industrial tools, household appliances or toys. They are a part of their culture, treasured as forms of entertainment and art. (KUSAHARA 1998)

Professor SUEMATSU, founder of the SUEMATSU Robotics Laboratory at Nagoya University notes that Karakuri directly contributed to the industrial modernisation of Japan. (SUEMATSU 2001a) The philosophy inspires creative and artistic experimentation with technology. It views science as an art, rather than activity focused on the pursuit of knowledge.

The most industrious region of Japan is the Aichi prefecture, producing 1.2% of the world's GNP. (Okabe 2003) The Karakuri tradition is associated with the Aichi prefecture, which today is a major centre of the automobile industry, most particularly the Toyota Motor Corporation and associated group of companies. Also located in the prefecture are operations of Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd., making Aichi Prefecture one of Japan's leaders in the aerospace industry. (Anon 2003)

TOYODA Sakichi (1867-1930, the founder of the Toyota chain of companies, was a Karakuri Master, and it was through these means that he developed ingenious methods of reducing downtime that in due course became the foundation of the Toyota production line. (VON TUNZELMANN 1996)

Karakuri has influenced many current day inventions and technologies. With its creative blending of tradition, spiritual philosophies and technology, Karakuri continues to inflect Japanese culture in significant ways.

Humanoid Robots

Walking Karakuri

Walking Karakuri inspired humanoid or biped robots, which were pioneered in Japan. In the 1960's, professor TATSUKAWA Shoji of Waseda University followed the instructions of the "Karakuri Zuii" and successfully reproduced a Chahakobi Ningyo. (SCHODT 1988, p 60)

This work inspired Japan's most famous roboticist, the late Professor KATO Ichiro at Waseda University. It has become one of the leading research sites for anthropomorphic robots, since Professor KATO Ichiro and his colleagues started the WABOT (WAseda roBOT) project in 1970. "In these researches, a lot of fundamental technologies capable of coexisting with human beings have been created." (MIZUKAWA 2001)

Entertainment Robots

Chahakobi and Aibo

The Chahakobi Ningyo, pictured right, is recognised in Japan as its first entertainment robot. (SUEMATSU 2001b) It has been used as a symbol of Japan's industrialisation in popular media.

There has been much debate over animal robots, and many negative responses to their commercial introduction. TAKEDA Yuka, in charge of design and concept for Aibo, Sony ERC commented on Aibo:

"Although there is merit in having a pet like toy that looks like an animal, there is also much to be said for a robotic toy that is truly robot like. For example, a robot does not become sick, it doesn't die, it doesn't need food or have to go to the toilet. There are many people who buy it for precisely these reasons. If you want something more like a real animal, then we recommend that you buy a real animal. We are targeting those people who understand that an Aibo is more than just another animal. Some of our products have a kind of suede effect, a bit like fur, but this is not to resemble real animals, it is simply so that they feel soft to the touch." (Anon 2002/3, p 20)

Humans feel more comfortable interating with robots that are slightly 'robot like'. This is definitely the approach that Sony was making with Aibo, designing its first entertainment robot to appear like a dog, to make the interaction seem familiar and comfortable.

There are many Karakuri inspired sociable robots in Japan. Dr FUKUDA of the FUKUDA Laboratory at Nagoya University has built a monkey robot inspired by Hanare Karakuri , which are acrobatic puppets that swing on trapezes, all without the aid of strings. (SUEMATSU 2001b) They are operated with spring mechanisms similar to the Chahakobi Ningyo. (SCHODT 1988, p64) This type of Karakuri can be seen during the Takayama Festival in the Gifu Prefecture.

Hanare Karakuri  Hanare Karakuri  Monkey Robot

Hanare Karakuri, and Dr FUKUDA's monkey robot at Nagoya University.

Robot Events

The popularity of robot contests such as Robocup and events such as Robodex is a social phenomenon, and another indication of Japan's affection for robots. It is a modern day manifestation of the religious festivals featuring Dashi Karakuri. At festivals with Dashi Karakuri, the performance is only held once a year as with robot contests teams spend at least a year building their robots for competition. (SUEMATSU 2001c)

Robocup Federation President ASADA Minoru, a Professor at Osaka University, notes that Karakuri Ningyo were early Japanese robot prototypes. (MIYAKAWA 2003)

Robodex is the largest robot expo in the world, in which the latest robot developments are showcased. It is held annually in Tokyo, with this year's figures being in excess of 65,000 attendees.

Maywa Denki

Maywa Denki is a Japanese company that creates musical mechanisms which are used for public performances, or what the company terms 'product launches'. The artwork is reminiscent of the music box inspired Zashiki Karakuri, with the exhibitionism and spectacle of Butai performance. The use of unique and novel mechanisms and technology are central to the company's art practice. Read more about the company on their website.


The late KUROKAWA Kisho is perhaps Japan's most famous contemporary architect. He wrote extensively on the Karakuri philosophy. His work combined the modern and traditional, east and west, in a narrative symbiosis. (TAJIMA 1996, p 48) Details about his work can be found on his website.

"Examples of Karakuri architecture include the suspended central pillar of several pagodas and the helix structures of "snailshell" towers, or sazaedo. The five storied pagoda at the Yanaka Kannoji, built in 1627, and the five storied pagoda at Nikko, built in 1818, both have suspended central pillars that hang from above without actually touching the ground. They support nothing. The purpose of these central pillars is not to directly support the pagoda but to lower the centre of gravity of the entire structure, thus stabilising it. These are examples of the way technology in Japan has been made infinitely attractive through humanisation, in contrast to the unadorned, exposed mechanisms of the West." (KUROKAWA 2001)


Anon, 2003. Trade and Industry - Aichi Prefecture [online]. JETRO. Available from: http://www.jetro.org.au/aichi/trade.html. [Accessed 23 August 2003]

Anon, 2002. All-New 'Mazda Antenza' Zooms into Dealer Showrooms Nationwide [online]. Available from: http://www.mazda.com/mnl/200206/atenza.html [Accessed 25 August 2003]

Anon, 2002/3. AIBO - Artificial Intelligence Robot. International Designers Network 2002/3:FOUR:Volume 9:Number 4, p20.

KUROKAWA, K., 2001. The Philosophy of the Karakuri chapter 11, The Philosophy of Symbiosis from the Ages of the Machine to the Age of Life [online]. Available from: http://www.kisho.co.jp/Books/book/chapter11.html [Accessed 10 August 2003].

KUSAHARA, M., 1998. It's Not Just a Game - Virtual Life and Traditional Culture in Japan [online]. Conscious Reframed 98. Available from: http://caiia-star.net/production/ConRef/Abstracts/KUS.htm [Accessed 10 January 2003]

MIYAKAWA, M., 2003. Coexistence of Humans and Robots: Robots may storm world-but first, soccer [online]. Daily Yomiuri Online. Available from: http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/dy/special/spe11.htm [Accessed 23 August 2003]

MIZUKAWA, M., 2001. The Activity of Robotics and Mechatronics Division in the JSME [online]. The Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers Vol. 12, No. 2 December, 2001. Available from: http://www.jsme.or.jp/English/news02.html [Accessed 23 August 2003]

OKABE, K., 2003. Entrepreneurial Origin of the Greater Nagoya Industrial Region. [online]. Toho Gakushi (Toho Academic Journal), Vol. 32, No.1, 2003, Toho Gakuen University. Available from: http://nonprofitjapan.home.igc.org/business/nagoya.html [Accessed 29 August 2003]

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

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001a. Japan Robot Kingdom [online]. Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University. Available from: http://www.suelab.nuem.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~suematsu/indrobo/inrobot.html (in Japanese) [Accessed 23 November 2002]

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001b. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 6, Where the Robot Path Should Lead, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001c. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 4, Robot Contests Attract Young People, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.

TAJIMA, N., 1996. Tokyo - A Guide to Recent Architecture. London: Ellipsis.

VON TUNZELMANN, N., 1996. Engineering and Innovation in the Industrial Revolutions. [online]. Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. Available from: www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/publications/ imprint/steepdps/30/steep30.doc [Accessed 25 August 2003]



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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