I love Steampunk, but mostly it seems to be a European kind of thing, although the US had a major hand to play in it between Edison and Tesla. But did you know Japan had its own real-life Steampunk roots, just like the western cultures? I am not referring to the modern Steampunk instances, like the many Animes (Fullmetal Alchemist, Last Exile, and Steamboy being my personal favorite examples). But the roots of Steampunk, the technology that Could Have Been, had things gone a bit different (and yes, that is Paratime again). The best examples of true Japanese Steampunk I have found so far are in the realm of Karakuri; 16th through 18th century Japanese robots.

For a basic introduction to the topic I can think of no better example than I, Karakuri, a wonderful short explanation of both the concept (dolls that would surprise/trick observers by preforming human actions, such as serving tea, while hiding the mechanical bits that allowed them to do so; the humans would suspect an animating spirit, rather than a device, back in those days) and the history of the technology (watches imported by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, reverse engineered and by the early 1600’s the Edo period craftspeople had developed them into mechanical wonders to rival any cuckoo clock Switzerland ever dreamed up). These were developed completely independently of the similar proto-robots in Europe, and had a different style and sensibility even if the mechanical functionality was the same.

The Japan Foundation and MIT Singapore have both done live presentations on Karakuri in the last few years. KaraKuri Info is another great source of information on the background and history of this unique robot lineage, which is enjoying a renewed interest by modern robot inventors in Japan.

If you want to build your own, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can pick up a kit for the Karakuri Gakken tea serving doll from Maker Shed or other similar outlets, and the detailed instructions at Make Zine can guide you through the steps needed to create one of your own. There are kits for a few of the others, of which the most amazing (and expensive) may be the Bow Shooting Boy doll, but they may no longer be available.

While these are dolls, in the sense of being something made out of wood or plastic that looks like a person, they are also actual robots. Hard to believe because there are no computer chips in the device? True, but the logic is built in at the mechanical level, allowing them If/Then/Else choices even without the silicon chips. That means they can be programmed just like any other robots to follow out a sequence of instructions, with any given action only taken when the preset conditions are met (such as turning around and heading back to the tea pot when the weight of an empty tea cup is placed on its tray). The main difference comes when you want to reprogram it; instead of typing or uploading a new sequence of instructions, the gears, shafts, and spindles have to be changed for a set that processes the new logic and decision tree. Brutal but true: reprogramming means rebuilding!

If you have a hard time imagining how that works, the simplest example to explain the process comes from Europe of the same era; the music box. In 1600 Geneva or Paris, if you wanted your portable music player to play a different song, you put a different metal cylinder into it and wound the spring. As the spring unwound the bumps sticking out of the cylinder pushed and released against the differently tuned metal tongues, playing a pre-programed sequence of tones. While the music box did not have mechanical logic circuits built in (at least not until you got up to the ones installed in church towers), it did go through a prerecorded sequence of instructions to create a desired result without needing human supervision. Thus Automation was born.

There are also some inexpensive paper variations available, if you are trying to interest your young child in moving mechanicals, like the Karakuri Teeter Totter Robot or the Smoking Robot. These are not actual robots, and have no logic built in, but they are entertaining psudo-automatons that move when you crank the handle and demonstrate some basic principles of mechanical animation.

Just for comparison, some European Robots from the same time frame

2 Replies to “Steampunk Japan”

  1. avatar

    Thank you kindly for including one of my entries on Karakuri on your site, and for the pingback that allowed me to find it. I look forward to exploring it in detail, and I can certainly see how you ended up getting this years Steampunk Chronicle’s Readers Choice Award. Keep up the good work!