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Karakuri - Mechanical Figures

Hisashige remained true to his boyhood ambition to achieve fame as an inventor throughout the realm.

Kurume was the birthplace of the king of nineteenth-century Japanese inventors.

Yumihiki Doji; arrow-shooting boy [collection of the Kurume City Board of Education]

Hisashige Tanaka was born on September 18, 1799, in what is now the city of Kurume in Fukuoka Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. His father, Yaemon, was a skilled maker of tortoiseshell ornaments, and the constant sight of him working implanted seeds of creativity in the young Hisashige.

At the tender age of eight, Hisashige devised what he called an "ink-stone case with a secret lock," featuring a cord that needed to be twisted in just the right way to pull out the drawer. When he took it to school and challenged several classmates to open the drawer, they eagerly tried but all failed. Then, to their wide-eyed astonishment, Hisashige swiftly opened it with ease. At the age of fourteen, he was commissioned to build a machine that could weave pictorial patterns on Kurume-gasuri, a type of kimono fabric for which the area was renowned. He perfected the device using his own innovative technology, and succeeded in weaving beautiful designs into the fabric, which had previously featured only simple spangled patterns. The young Hisashige's talents were already starting to bloom.

The genius of mechanical wonders was entertaining as well.

The Gokoku Shrine in Hisashige's hometown of Kurume celebrated a major festival twice a year, in the spring and fall. The biggest draw was the mechanical doll show, which is where the young Hisashige first encountered clockwork gadgetry. Fascinated by what he saw, Hisashige began creating gadgets himself and exhibited them at Gokoku Shrine. This is when people started calling him "the genius of mechanical wonders."

Although the eldest son, he asked his father to let his younger brother take over the family business, for he was determined to pursue success as an inventor. And so he continued to devote himself to the construction of mechanical dolls. For almost two years, they say, he never went outdoors, and he would go for seven or eight days on end without sleep. Then, eager for some new gems of knowledge to incorporate into his inventions, he traveled all the way to distant Edo; Tokyo, where he built a replica of an airgun from Holland. Through this endeavor he mastered the technology of the air-pressure pump. In 1824, having become a true master of the art of constructing automated dolls, he began traveling Japan as an entertainer, until the whole country had heard of "the genius of mechanical wonders." Those were the colorful days when ukiyo-e prints with their scenes of daily life were all the rage and suave fashions dominated the streets. Hisashige's mechanical doll shows were major entertainment spectacles that perfectly complemented the spirit of the age.

A map from Hisashige's  day showing the precincts of  the Gokoku Shrine
Advertisement for a mechanical doll show

(left)A map from Hisashige's day showing the precincts of the Gokoku Shrine [collection of the Kurume City Board of Education; photo courtesy of the Board]
(right)Advertisement for a mechanical doll show[National Science Museum]

Yumihiki Doji;arrow-shooting boy, the ultimate mechanized doll.

Yumihiki Doji ;arrow-shooting boy [collection of the Kurume City Board of Education]

Of all the numerous mechanical figures that Hisashige produced, the supreme masterpiece is undoubtedly Yumihiki Doji - a doll that takes four arrows from a stand and shoots them in succession at a target. This tour de force is achieved by means of a metal clockwork mechanism, seven cams, thirteen threads with levers, and twelve moving parts.

Among the notable features of the piece is the use of brass for the clockwork mechanism, which guarantees sufficient strength and durability so that each motion glides smoothly into the next. A second feature is the way that one of the four arrows is "programmed" to miss the target. This brilliant piece of showmanship caters to the audience's expectations by having the figure shoot his arrow on cue — only to miss in an unanticipated twist that adds to the fun. What's more, the doll greets a successful shot with a self-satisfied smirk, but looks crestfallen when the arrow strays. Hisashige, not content with merely getting the thing to operate properly, gave it a truly human quality by making it susceptible to occasional failure and endowing it with emotions. There could be no greater testament to his knack for entertaining people.

Hisashige Tanaka's mechanical creations

Toro Ningyo ; puppet, from Yame Fukushima

The Toro Ningyo puppet shows in the Fukushima area of Yame City have a 250-year history. Performed every September at the Fukushima Hachiman Shrine, they have been designated an important intangible cultural asset by the Japanese government. The puppets are manipulated from backstage by means of rods — a technique devised by Hisashige, who presented his own mechanical doll shows on the same type of stage.

 Toro Ningyo ; puppet, from Yame Fukushima

Toro Ningyo; puppet, from Yame Fukushima
[collection of the Yame City Board of Education; photo courtesy of the Board]

Other mechanical dolls by Hisashige

Kame no Hai-dai; sake-cup stand in the shape of a tortoise
Place a full cup on the tortoise's back and it advances straight ahead. Place an empty cup on its back and the tortoise does a U-turn to where it came from.
Mechanical Hototogisu; cuckoo
The bird, powered by a clockwork mechanism built into the base of the cage, chirps away while moving its head, beak, and wings.
Doji Hai-dai; sake-cup stand in the shape of a little boy
Fill the cup and the little boy obligingly takes it to your guest. Once the guest drains the cup and places it back on the stand, the little boy turns around and returns to his original starting point. The figure, which measures about 20 cm tall, seems to hover in the air but in fact moves on tiny wheels attached to the base.
Kobodaishi Himitsu-no Fude; Kobodaishi's secret ink brush
A doll representing Kobodaishi; a great handwriting master, picks up an ink brush and draws a character in the air. Stroke by stroke, the same character appears simultaneously on a fusuma;Japanese sliding door.

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