They're actually called "karakuri ningyou" (からくり人形) or, literally, "trick doll." And get ready to be amazed.
Throughout history, people all over the world have made robots. The 19th century, in particular, was a great period for automata. In Japan, one master karakuri ningyou craftsman was Hisashige Tanaka, who's also been called "The Thomas Edison of Japan." Here, you can see a writing doll he created.
If you've ever studied Japanese or Chinese calligraphy, you'll know that this type of brush work isn't easy for humans to do, let alone 200 year-old dolls.
His most famous karakuri creation, however, was the archer doll he made. You might have seen it before. Recently, karakuri ningyou, which are quite famous in Japan, popped up on 2ch, the country's largest bulletin board.
The doll moves thanks to a network of pullies, strings, and a turning cam. This doll is controlled by ten pieces of string—six of which control the head. The string gives the dolls smooth, almost elegant body movements.
Here's a closer look:
Japan's love of robots is said to have started with these mechanical dolls.
This isn't the most impressive thing Tanaka ever did. He also designed and built Japan's first steam locomotive. He helped design and produce modern weapons, ground-breaking chronometers, and a revolutionary clock. He also co-founded the company that's today known as Toshiba.
All that being said, these karakuri dolls are pretty effing incredible.
To contact the author of this post, write to bashcraftATkotaku.com or find him on Twitter @Brian_Ashcraft.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.