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The Bizarre Robots of Old Japan

The field of robotics has made great strides in modern times. Although we are far from the self aware androids of science fiction, robots have evolved to fulfill a myriad of roles and have permeated many areas of our civilization. One of the world leaders in the field of robotics is the island nation of Japan. Robots have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese and in addition to Japan making groundbreaking progress in the development of robotics, robots have permeated many aspects of Japanese culture. They are ubiquitous; appearing heavily in comics, TV, movies, animation, toys, and even in elaborate robot-themed dance shows complete with showgirls dressed up in futuristic neon costumes cavorting around on stage with actual giant robots.

Regardless of the uncertain future of this traditional art form and technology, the influence of the karakuri ningyo on modern Japanese robotics and robot culture is undeniable. These early attempts at robotics form a strong connection between the past and the future of robotics here. Many of the design philosophies of the karakuri ningyo remain present even today in Japanese robotics such as the importance of aesthetics and the desire to conceal the technology behind a pleasing, cool exterior. It seems that just as in the Edo period, modern Japanese robotics seeks to instill a sense of awe, wonder, and magic. Indeed, this underlying philosophy has spread out from robotics into the design and creation of a plethora of Japanese electronic devices. One can see in Japanese developed robots such as Honda’s ASIMO this desire to create wonder and enchantment, and to make people see them as more than just a collection of parts, but rather an endearing creature with a life of its own. In Japanese pop culture as well, robots are often designed to be warm and relatable, and to make people embrace them, in effect managing to capture the old spirit of the karakuri ningyo of a combination of life-like realism and soulfulness.

It is somewhat sad to think then that the tradition of the karakuri ningyo is on its way out. There is something beautiful in their austere simplicity, something charming about the countless hours of thought, handiwork, and craftsmanship that went into the creation of each and every one of them. There is a warm, visceral, and organic element about these dolls that is lacking in the cold, digital, mass produced steel robots of today. I do hope that no matter where the future of robotics in Japan takes us, there will always be those who look back fondly at the karakuri ningyo and appreciate their contribution to the field. More importantly, if robots ever do rise up against us I sincerely hope our new overlords will appreciate their humble beginnings.
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