Chahakobi Ningyo and Aibo

Chahakobi Ningyo (Tea Serving Doll) by TAMAYA Shobei IX with Aibo by Sony (SUEMATSU 2001a)

Much has been written about eighteenth-century automata, and of the history, culture and language of interaction between man and machine in the West.

Japan’s love of robots lies in the history of the ‘Karakuri Ningyo’. Until now there has been little interest from outside Japan regarding the Karakuri Ningyo craft, and its influence on technology and the arts.

The word 'Karakuri' means a mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise. It implies hidden magic, or an element of mystery. In Japanese ‘Ningyo’ is written as two separate characters, meaning person and shape. It loosely translates as puppet, but can also be seen in the context of doll or even effigy. (LAW 1997, p 18)

The Japanese Karakuri puppets utilise subtle, abstract movements to invoke feeing and emotion. There are three main categories of Karakuri. ‘Butai Karakuri’ are puppets used in the theatre, ‘Zashiki Karakuri’ are small and can be played with in rooms and ‘Dashi Karakuri’ puppets perform on wooden floats used in religious festivals. Traditionally Karakuri appeared in religious festivals, performed re enactments of traditional myths and legends and entertained the public with their sophisticated, symbolic and graceful gestures.

The Karakuri tradition of invisibly concealing technology extends beyond puppetry and robotics, and continues to manifest itself in popular culture. Karakuri influenced the Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theatre arts and directly contributed to the industrial modernisation of Japan. During the Edo period Japan was completely isolated from the rest of the world, during which time a unique cultural heritage developed away from outside influences. Despite isolation, Western technology was uniquely adapted to produce Karakuri Ningyo puppets. (SUEMATSU 2001b) Essentially, Karakuri is the realisation of the symbiotic relationship between Eastern tradition and Western technology. (KUROKAWA 2001) 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.


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

SUEMATSU, Y., 2001b. The Japanese Love of Robots lecture 3, Edo Karakuri Masters were Universal Scientists, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University.

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].

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



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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