REVIEW: An Eighteenth Century Japanese Manual on clocks and automata


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Oct 26, 2009
Bilbao, Basque Country
'Japanese Automata. Karakuri Zui: An Eighteenth Century Japanese Manual of Automatic Mechanical Devices' Translated and annotated by Murakami Kazuo.
Format: Limited edition of 500 copies, soft cover, 257pp, 104 facsimile diagrams plus B/W photographs. Language: English. Publisher: Author. Pub. Date: September 2012. ISBN: 978-4-9906228-0-0. Price: 12,000 yen plus shipping charge. It can be ordered directly from the author via his website

Yorinao 'Hanzo' Hosokawa was an 18th Japanese astronomer and mechanical engineer. The same year of his death, 1796, he published (or it was rather posthumously published) a technical treatise called 'Karakuri Zui' (Karakuri Diagram Collection). It is common to translate the word 'karakuri' as 'automata', but it would rather be more correct to do it as 'mechanism'.

Karakuri Zui
is a mainly graphical work, full of technical diagrams, with attached instructions and measurements. The treatise is divided in three volumes.
The first volume is strangely called 'extended preface' and is devoted to clocks. Though a fourth one appears quoted at the index (a 'bracket' clock) only three are actually described, all weight-powered: A hanging lantern clock, a 'pyramid' clock, both of them striking on a bell and a 'foot-ruler' timepiece. The three clocks are, of course, intended to display and strike the Japanese temporary hours. Their mechanics rely heavily on European (Dutch) models, with vertical crown-wheel escapement controlled by a foliot. The striking trains use a count-wheel.
It is an interesting fact to notice that the clocks described in Karakuri Zui picture a 'primitive' phase of Japanese horology, prior to 19th century developments and refinements. For instance, the two clocks are still of the iccho tenpu (single foliot) type, instead of the more elaborated nicho tenpu (double foliot) ones, often boasting calendar windows. The 'foot-ruler' (shaku dokei) timepiece is also of an archaic kind, with a hidden movement and the weight hanging by the outside of the time ruler.
The diagrams and instructions are so painstakingly detailed that any competent clockmaker would be able to construct exact replicas out of them.
The second and third volumes (labeled 'Volume one' and Volume Two') are entirely devoted to the construction of automata, powered by sand, mercury or whalebone mainsprings. The second volume contains the diagrams and instructions for constructing the 'Tea serving doll', the 'Tumbling doll' and the 'Connected tumbling dolls', while the third one contains those for the 'Longmen falls', the 'Whistling little drummer', the 'Swaying cup', the 'Cocks fighting', the 'Fishing doll' and the 'Magic doll'. All of them are true mechanical masterpieces, full of technical ingenuity.

The translator, Mr. Kazuo Murakami is a freelance Japanese journalist and writer who specializes in the history of technology in Japan and the author of many works, published in Japanese publications as well as US and British hobby magazines.
The book is structured in pairs of confronted pages: facsimiles of the original pages to the left and translations to the right. Each block of Japanese text on the left-hand page is marked and identified by a Latin character in red, which corresponds to those of the translated paragraphs on the right-hand page.
Instead of indulging his English-speaking readers 'adapting' the text to make it 'easier' to read (for example, by using the corresponding Western technical names for the components, like crown-wheel, verge, pinion, dial...) Mr. Murakami keeps himself as close to the original text as possible, giving the readers the opportunity of feeling almost like if they were reading directly the text in Japanese. To help the understanding of the text, a potent battery of footnotes and a useful glossary are also provided.
Were the aforesaid not enough, Mr. Murakami has added to his translation a long and interesting 29-page Introduction to put the Edo period, the karakuri world and the author's life into perspective. At the end of the book, there is an appendix with practical notes for those attempting the reconstruction of three automata: 'Tea serving doll', the 'Tumbling doll' and the 'Magic doll'.

There are just a few Japanese books about their traditional clocks and Karakuri Zui is the only one contemporary to the actual clocks. Therefore, it is a 'must-have' for anybody interested on the subject, especially now that the nearly insurmountable language barrier has been leveled, thanks to Mr. Murakami's efforts.
'Japanese Automata' is not a cheap book, but, having a limited edition of 500 copies, it will be really hard to find after coming out of print. I have already seen copies offered at Internet sites for the double of its actual price. Certainly, that is really premature, because the book is still readily available from the author, but it is an accurate premonition of which will happen in a near future.


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