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Photos by Masatsugu Yokoyama

Large and small knives, chisels, and other tools handed down in the Tamaya family fill the drawers in an atelier in Showa-ku, Nagoya. The doll maker shaves thin chips off a piece of wood almost as easily as if he were slicing cheese. Right before one's eyes the piece of wood assumes the shape of a head. The artisan is Shobei Tamaya (real name Shoji Takashina), 46, the ninth in a family whose history reaches back almost 270 years to 1733, when the first Shobei Tamaya took his name. He is the only master mechanical doll artisan in Japan.

The ninth Tamaya, in his atelier in Showa-ku, Nagoya, is holding the head and neck of Urashima, a float puppet. Cultural-treasure-class dolls and puppets from all over Japan are brought here for restoration or reproduction.
Around when Japanese artisans began making karakuri ningyo (mechanical dolls) in the eighteenth century in Japan, European artisans turned their hands to quite intricate automatons, self-operating devices of a similar sort. The chahakobi ningyo (tea-serving doll) was a well-known example of the mechanical dolls then in vogue. This cleverly crafted doll contains some 70 parts, including springs made from the teeth of right whales and cogwheels and cams made from wood, to produce automatic movements.

"The chahakobi ningyo had come to be considered a phantom when my father [the seventh Shobei Tamaya] came across an old set of illustrations and reproduced one some thirty years ago," relates today's Shobei Tamaya, the ninth in the line. "Now I'm making dolls with the same traditional parts, but I add a touch of my own to the faces."

The first time people encounter these mechanical dolls, they are astonished by the intricacy of the mechanisms and the precision of the robot-like movements. The dolls testify to the excellence of Japan's mechanical technology in the Edo period (1603~1867), when the seclusion policy had cut the country off from the world, and they mark the starting point of the nation's journey down the road of manufacturing. When he began reconstructing dolls, the seventh Tamaya found the work exceedingly difficult. "Each time I got a single cogwheel done, I felt as if my hair had gone gray," he recalls. In 1998, twenty-eight years later, the ninth Tamaya splendidly completed the reconstruction of the yet more complex yumihiki doji (boy archer) dating from the 1850s.

Broadly classified, karakuri ningyo are of two types. Zashiki (parlor) dolls are displayed indoors for the entertainment of guests, and dashi (float) puppets are used in festivals to entertain spectators. Aichi has a reputation as a treasure house of float puppets, and even today these large-scale figures can be seen during the Inuyama and Handa Festivals, with puppeteers pulling strings under the carriages of the floats.

"Most of our work is reconstruction and restoration," says the ninth Tamaya. "It takes about half a year to produce a faithful copy of a doll or puppet created a hundred or two hundred years ago, and that part of the work is the hardest. The originals are much beloved in their home communities, so you have to reproduce the look of the face exactly. The face is what gives a doll life. The fun part in making karakuri ningyo comes when you add some movement to the face and give it expressions."

(Tomohiro Takahashi)