In recent decades, Japan has made a name for itself as the creator of weird and wonderful robots. Now, it appears that the country’s love affair with mechanized gadgets may be centuries old. Enter ‘Karakuri Ningyo’, mechanized dolls that date as far back as the 17th century.
These mechanical dolls or puppets were essentially a wooden framework with movable limbs and a head.
With the use of cams and levers, they were automated so as to perform certain gestures like nodding and walking. In some puppets, the focus was on the arms which would imitate painting or shooting a bow and arrow.
Typically, the faces would be painted to resemble pretty dolls and the ugly wooden body was covered up in elaborate, colorful attire.
There were three main types of karakuri ningyo dolls used in its heyday i.e. from the 18th century to the 19th century.
First there was butai karakuri, a stage puppet that took part in plays.
According to karakuri experts like Kirsty Boyle, during the reign of its popularity, a number of such puppets were given roles in theater.
These parts apparently accommodated the slow movements and speechless nature of the puppets.
The second type was called dashi karakuri which was used for religious festivals. Such festivals usually features tiered floats that would represent certain aspects of the occasion in question.
The puppets would be placed on one of the higher tiers where they would act out ancient myths and legends.
Zashiki karakuri, the last type, was the smaller of the three and it was mainly used inside the house.
These ones were made for their entertainment value and might sometimes be used for little chores around the house.
The most famous one of this kind is the tea-serving ‘Chahakobi Ningyo’. This is a tiny mechanized puppet that rolled up to a guest with a small tea cup in its outstretched hands.
Researchers like Boyle believe that the birth of modern day robots of Japan dates back to this fascination for karakuri ningyo.
“The history of the Karakuri Ningyo highlights anthropomorphic approaches to sociable robot development, and how they differ between the East and West. It is the starting point from which Japan’s love of robots and technology has developed,” says Boyle on her website dedicated to the mechanized puppets.