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Karakuri Origins

South Pointing Chariot

Clockwork mechanisms from China helped begin the Japanese Karakuri tradition. The South Pointing Chariot dates back to 2600 BC. The chariot consisted of an iconic figure that always pointed south, regardless of the direction it was heading. It was considered to be a pioneering navigation device used by the Chinese to explore and travel through the Gobi desert. The addition of drums, which would sound with each revolution of the wheels, meant they could also measure distances.

The South Pointing Chariot was a combination of wooden gear trains. The use of gear trains is different between Western and Chinese researchers. The former utilised differential gears, the latter switching gear trains. (SUEMATSU 2002)

Some of these chariots still exist; there is a South Pointing Chariot on display at the National Science & Technology Museum, located in Beijing, China.

Water clocks date back to Babylonian times, which were passed on to the Chinese, along with the earliest forms of astronomical equipment.

According to the ancient text the 'Nihongi', ("Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to ad 697"), Emperor Tenchi produced a water clock in 671 (ASTON 1972, p 265, 296). "A clepsydra was placed in the new pavilion, and for the first time the hours were struck, and bells and drums sounded. For the first time the clepsydra was used. This clepsydra was the one first constructed by the Emperor himself when he was Prince Imperial."(Aston 1972, p 296)

Compiled in approximately 1120, the "Konjaku Monogatuari-shu" was a collection of over 1,000 stories from medieval Japan. One of the stories "How Prince Kaya Made a Doll and Set it Up in the Ricefields" describes a karakuri doll used in Kyoto. The story is as follows:

"At a time now past, there was a man named Prince KAYA (794-871) who was a son of Emperor KANMU (781-806). He was an extraordinarily skilled craftsman. There was a temple call Kyogokuji, which the Prince had established. It derived its income from the rice fields before it. These lay along the banks of the Kamo River.

One year there was a drought throughout the kingdom, and everywhere there were loud complaints of rice fields seared and dead. The temple's fields were in especial danger, for it was water from the Kamo River that irrigated them, and that river had dried up entirely. Soon the rice fields would become as barren ground, and the seedlings would redden and die.

Prince KAYA, however, contrived as follows. He made a doll in the shape of a boy about four feet tall, holding a jug upraised in both hands. It was devised so that when it was filled with water the water would instantly pour down over the boy's face. Those who saw it brought ladles full of water so that they could fill the jug and watch the boy's face get wet. It was a great curiosity; the news spread, and soon all the capital was there, pouring water and loudly enjoying the fun. And all the while, naturally, the water was collecting in the fields. When the fields were fully inundated, the Prince took the doll and hid it. And when the water dried up, he took the doll out and set it up again. Just as before, people gathered to pour water, and the fields were inundated. In this manner the fields were kept safe from harm.

This was a splendid device, and the Prince was praised to the skies for his ingenuity and skill. So the tale's been told, and so it's been handed down." (URY 1979, p 142-143)

'Susisya' (water wheel) Karakuri can be seen at the Takeda Shrine in Kaseda. This type of Karakuri can also be seen during 'Rokugatsudou' (summer festival of Kagoshima).

Chinese invention and technology greatly influenced Japan, dating back to mechanisms such as the South Pointing Chariot. These mechanisms, amongst other forms of technology which came from China via the Korean peninsula, helped begin the Japanese Karakuri tradition.

 

ASTON, W. G., (Trans. Ed.), 1972. Ninhongi - Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to ad 697. Charles E Tuttle Company.

SUEMATSU, Y., (2002). Ancient China South Pointing Chariot, Department of Electronic-Mechanical Engineering, Nagoya University

URY, M., 1979. Tales of Times Now Past. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Last modified 14 January 2008
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