A Japanese doll with a tray in its hands walks silently step by step toward the guests of a tea room. After a guest removes a tea bowl from the tray, the doll waits until it is returned to the tray, and then turns around and walks back to where it came from.
This is the chahakobi ningyo, the most representative of the karakuri ningyo, dolls that move by mechanical means. Believed to have been created sometime during the Edo Period (1600-1868), the karakuri ningyo is said to have charmed daimyo (feudal lords) and wealthy merchants as well as earned the praises of haiku poet and writer Ihara Saikaku. He wrote that it looked “as if it were alive” — “sanagara ikiru ga gotoshi.”
No original karakuri ningyo from the Edo Period remain. However, over the past few decades, dollmaker Harumitsu Han’ya has been recreating the dolls based on the 1796 book “Karakuri Zui,” which contains detailed instruction on how to make the different karakuri dolls.
Han’ya says that when he found the book, he was impressed by the technology that already existed in the Edo Period. The chahakobi ningyo, for example, moves by means of a complicated zenmai (clockwork) mechanism that includes a whalebone and a geared wheel.
Struck by the mechanism’s ingenuity, Han’ya decided to try create all nine dolls, which include the shinadama ningyo (a doll that does magic), the dangaeri ningyo (which does somersaults) and the koteki jido ningyo (which plays the flute).
The dolls are constructed from almost 60 parts. Han’ya says that wood — kiri (paulownia) for the body and Japanese cypress for the arms and legs — is used to make the doll because it is lightweight.
The most spectacular doll is the dangaeri ningyo, which can roll down steps. Mercury is inserted in the doll’s body, which has been hollowed out diagonally. As the doll rolls over, the mercury moves, shifting the center of gravity from one part of the body to the other and creating a chain of movement.
“The biggest characteristic of a karakuri ningyo is that it has motive power and a system that controls it,” says Han’ya.
According to Han’ya, this is a result of the merging of Western and Eastern technology in the 1500s. Until then, dolls were moved manually using a rope. However, European missionaries brought both Christianity and advanced clockmaking technology with them. This became the basis for making karakuri ningyo.
Han’ya says that he was probably drawn to the mechanism of karakuri ningyo because as a child he was often entranced by water mills in the countryside. “I would watch them over and over again and never get bored,” he says.
His desire to make some kind of toy grew over the years. After working at the Agency of Industrial Science and Technology under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry for over 10 years, he decided to quit and concentrate on making the dolls. In 1983, he founded Studio Giemon where he makes karakuri ningyo and also teaches how to make them.
“It is important to look at Edo Period technology again and learn from it. We shouldn’t look at it as something old. We have to think about how it can be applied to technology in the future, in areas such as the environment and social welfare,” he says enthusiastically.
However, technology alone is not enough, says Han’ya. “The technicians of the 21st century should have a theory behind the technique as well as a playful heart [to develop something new].”
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