(Friday Night History) The Long and Surprising Afterlife of Edo Period Robots

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So there’s this word automata, or in singular, automaton: “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating,” says Merriam-Webster. Not the computerized robots of today, but can the word “robot” be applied? Yes. The equivalent term in Japanese is karakuri ningyō. Karakuri is an old term that refers to a mechanism, especially involving pneumatics or clockwork, while ningyō is the word for puppet. Robots are ubiquitous in industry today, including in Japan, but these karakuri ningyō were some of the earliest of Japanese robots.

Tanaka Hisashige, born in Kurume on the island of Kyushu in 1799, was one of the foremost builders of karakuri ningyō in the late Edo period. Kurume was a castle town, the capital of the eponymous Kurume domain, ruled by the house of Arima. Bear in mind that Hisashige wasn’t the inventor of this type of automata, but merely one of its greatest engineers before the modern era. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s more relevant than you might think it is, to something you might take for granted as (for lack of a better term) “brand name background noise,” part of life in the modern world. Edo period robots have a long and surprising afterlife.

Hisashige in old age

Hisashige’s family were artisans, whose hereditary trade was in tortoiseshell craftsmanship, but he himself was more interested in the karakuri ningyō he saw in places like shrine festivals, and by his 20s, was making his own. Moving to the Kyoto-Osaka area in the 1830s (first to Osaka and then to Kyoto) he studied Dutch studies, as well as astronomy under the courtly Tsuchimikado family, who ran the court’s Ministry of Divination. Throughout this time, he constantly sought to improve his technical skill and broaden his scientific knowledge, and put these to work in technological innovation. Far from just working in automata, Hisashige was also the builder of clocks, compact lanterns, and even Japan’s first steam-engine train in 1853. But in the wake of the Perry mission of 1853-1854, there was a rising tide of violent xenophobia, and so Sano Tsunetami, vassal to Nabeshima Naomasa of Saga domain, invited Hisashige relocate to Saga for safety, and to come work for his lord, who was a proponent of western military and other technologies. Interestingly, considering this, Nabeshima Naomasa was later also one of the first feudal lords to pursue and accept western-style medical intervention, being treated by the US Navy doctor Samuel Pellman Boyer, who was also therefore the first American to enter Kyoto, visiting Naomasa in the latter’s official estate in Kyoto. But that visit and treatment wasn’t for several further years, so let’s stay on task with Hisashige and the invitation to come apply his broad technical and scientific learning in service to the forward-thinking house of Nabeshima. 

A depiction of Ryofu-maru underway.

While in Saga service, Hisashige attended the Shogunate Naval Academy at Dejima, in nearby Nagasaki. The academy was shuttered and relocated following a realignment of Shogunate priorities in 1859, but the learning acquired at the academy from mostly Dutch and some American instructors (including the famed John M. Brooke, later famous for his role in the construction of CSS Virginia) would stand Saga domain in general and Tanaka Hisashige in particular, in good stead. As the major domain in the area, some of the academy’s assets were sold or otherwise handed over to Saga control when the shogunate moved its naval education to Tsukiji, in Edo.

After the academy’s closure, Hisashige worked at the Saga domain’s shipyard at Naval Station Mietsu (in modern-day Saga City). One of the station’s most notable ships was Ryōfu-maru, whose keel was laid in 1863 and which was completed in 1865. It wasn’t the first western-style warship in Japanese service, nor was it the first steamship in Japanese service, but it was one of the first Japanese-built steam warships. The rivets used in its construction were a small but important advancement in Japanese technological capability, and some are still unearthed on the site of the old shipyard.

Hisashige also had a hand in casting cutting-edge cannons for Saga domain. Saga put this technological edge in naval power and artillery to practical use several years later, when its troops were part of the imperial forces during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Saga artillery batteries rather notably saw action against the forces of the Northern Alliance, including at the siege of Aizu late that autumn.

Period photo of a Saga domain artillery piece used during the Boshin War.

Moving to Tokyo– now the imperial capital– in 1871, Hisashige founded a company in 1875 to continue work on technological innovation, especially in producing and refining telegraph instruments. He  died in 1881 in Tokyo, and his adopted son Tanaka Daikichi– who changed his name to Tanaka Hisashige II– took over the family business. The younger Hisashige would move the company’s facility to Shibaura to a 10,000 square meter site in 1882. Shibaura is part of present-day Minato, Tokyo.

But like I said at the beginning of our story this week, independent of steam warships or automata, there’s a part of this story that may surprise you, something that’s a part of the background of life in the 21st century.

Hisashige’s company, after a later merger with Tokyo Electric, still exists.

With the “To” from one and the “Shiba” from the other combined, it’s called Toshiba.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now, questions?


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