Ancient Japanese Art Forms & Modern Technology

Oct 30th, 2008 | By | Category: Featured Articles, History & Culture

From the Karakuri doll to an eco-friendly robot that improves the efficiency of today’s assembly lines and factories and from the Makyoh or "Magic Mirror" that protected Christians from persecution to a machine that ensures the quality of today’s silicon chips.  These are just two examples of modern technology based on ancient art forms perfected by the Japanese.

Karakuri Dolls to Robots

karakuri tea serving dollBack in the days of Edo the Japanese were fascinated by the ‘magical’ movements of Karakuri Dolls.  In fact  the term karakuri is actually much newer than the technology.  The term was used in mechanical engineering in the Edo Period (1603-1868) to describe strange movements.  It is said to be a variation of the word kairai which refers to a marionette, and denotes a person who acts as ordered by others.

The exposure to Karakuri technology was at first limited to the nobility of Japan and most everyday Japanese were not exposed to Karakuri until the arrival of wind up clocks via Protugese trading ships.  Konoe Takeda, a clockmaker during the Edo Period,  was fascinated by this clock that ran automatically and took it upon himself to figure out how it worked.  Once Takeda decoded the internal workings of the clock he adapted the technology for use as entertainment in the form of animated puppets used in a drama called ningyo-johruri.   The next step was the creation of the karakuri doll, the first of which was designed to serve tea.

"Setting the tea cup on the tray makes the doll move, and it stops when the tea cup is removed. If the cup is replaced, the doll swivels around and returns to its original position."

Karakuri dolls were the first automata in Japan and are the ancestors of today’s robots.

Since it was first published in 1798, the Karakuri-zui (Illistrated Compilation of Mechanism-art) by Hosokawa Hanzo Yorinao, has laid the groundwork for such items at the Chahakobi Ningyo (humanoid robot) created by Professor Shoji Tatsukawa of Waseda Univertisty,  and Sony’s Aibo, a robotic dog that is said to be a substitute for the real thing.

By far the most practical use of Karakuri mechanical technology is the creation of robots that utilize the combination of springs and gears first seen in Karakuri dolls.  Today’s Karakuri robots were said to have been pioneered for use on the Toyota assembly line by its founder, Sakichi Toyoda, a Karakuri master.  These mechanical karakuri robots  are environmentally friendly, they don’t use fossil fuels or electricity,  and create efficiencies that speed up many modern day assembly lines.  They can be linked directly back to the work of Konoe Takeda and his predecessors who combined technologies of east and west to create Karakuri, a unique Japanese innovation.

makyoh magic mirrorThe "Magic Mirror" to Silicon Chip Quality Control

The Makyoh (Japanese for "magic mirror") is an ancient art that can be traced back to the Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BC — 24 AD).  The craftsmanship used to make these "magic mirrors" was honed in Kyoto, Japan to help Christians worship at a time when doing so was a crime punishable by death.

A Makyoh is created be etching an image on a metal surface and then sanding it down and covering it with a mercury amalgam that is then highly polished until no surface imperfections can be seen by the naked eye.  It take many years of training and a high degree of skill to successfully create a makyoh.  If you gaze into the front of the mirror you will see a reflection of yourself but when held up to a light the etched image can be projected onto a surface.  It is said that many of theses mirrors were created with the image of Jesus Christ so that Christians of the time could worship without fear of punishment or death.

silicon chips The skills required to make a makyoh utilized an understanding of photo optics that is employed today to verify the quality of Silicon chips used in most modern day electronics.  Silicon chips must be perfectly smooth in order to perform correctly and a modern day "magic mirror" is used to test the smoothness and identify and imperfections.

"The mirror-like surface under test is illuminated by a parallel light beam, and the reflected beam is intersected by a screen. If the surface is perfectly flat, a uniform light spot appears on the screen. If the surface possesses deviations from the flatness, these deviations disturb the homogeneity of the reflected beam, and an image that is related somehow to the surface morphology appears on the screen (see figure on the left). The main advantages of the method, as compared to other optical methods, are its simplicity, inexpensiveness, real-time operation and high sensitivity"

Today, the car you drive was manufactured more efficiently with the help of karakuri technology and the silicon chips in your computer, your cell phone and many other items that we generally take for granted on a daily basis, were deemed operational utilizing makyoh technology.  It is interesting how these ancient crafts helped to lay the foundation for the creation of some of the ‘great innovations’ or out time.  Where will they take us next?

This article was originally published at 7:10 to Tokyo.

Karakuri Sources: and  Makyoh Sources: Makyoh topography and Grand Illusions – Magic Mirrors
Image Credit:  Flickr, Tea Serving RobotVAMirrorJapan2 & A slice of Paradise

WP Greet Box icon
Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates.

Join JapanSoc Today!
The #1 social bookmarking site for Japan-related blogs, news and people.

Japanese Street Art

Tags: , , , , ,

One comment
Leave a comment »

  1. […] The Iwatsuki Japanese doll museums offer exhibits of imperial court dolls, hina (Girls’ Festival) dolls, hagoita (battledore) dolls, samurai (Boys’ Festival) dolls, and mechanical karakuri dolls. […]

Leave Comment