TANAKA Hisashige

The story of Hisashige Tanaka, founder of the company that became Toshiba, is a story of both phenominal engineering design, and one of inventiveness and perseverance. 

I have the deepest respect for both the man and his work – someone I would have been honoured to meet. The next best thing to meeting him, has been an attempt to pull his life story together in my own language – something I have failed to identify elsewhere.  What follows is an extract from a separate strand of research I have followed.

Early life based in Kurume, Kyushu

Hisashige Tanaka was born at No. 10, Tooricho of Kurume Shiroshitain, Chikugo, 16 October 1799 (Kansei 11) the son of a tortoise-shell craftsman.  Watching his father constantly working on these intricate tortoiseshell ornaments instilled a great sense of creativity in young Tanaka-san.

He was a talented rangaku scholar – “rangaku” literally meaning of “Dutch Learning”.  The first character “ran” is an abbreviation of the ateji for “Holland”, the second character “gaku” means “study” and “learning”.  This was a body of knowledge developed by Japan through its contacts with the Dutch enclave of Dejima, Nagasaki.  It allowed Japan to keep abreast of Western technology and medicine in the period when Japan was closed to foreigners because of the Tokugawa shogonate’s policy of national isolation.

From childhood, Tanaka-san excelled in mechanical inventions.  Apprenticed at an early age, he was a gifted artisan.  He would be so engrossed in his work that he would forget to come home – much to the wrath of his father, yet his father understood.  At the age of eight, he invented an inkstone case with a secret lock, which required a cord to be twisted in a certain manner to open it.  He took it to Terakoya school but neither his fellow students nor his masters could open it.  Many tried but none succeeded.  This was when Karakuri Kyonemon was born.

At the age of 14, he assisted inventor Den Inoue, a neighbour, to devise and construct a machine to weave a special type of cloth – kurume gasuri.  He succeeded in weaving beautiful designs into fabric with his creation.  Before this, the looms were too simple to create such intricate and beautiful designs.  People were starting to recognise Tanaka-san’s potential

At the age of 15, the age that boys entered adulthood, he made the bold decision not to enter his father’s business and passed the opportunity to his younger brother, Yaichi.

From age 20 Tanaka-san began to make karakuri dolls; automatons powered by springs, pneumatics and hydraulics, capable of relatively complex movements, which were much in demand by the aristocrats of Kyoto, daimyo in feudal domains, and by the Shogun’s court in Edo.   Tanaka-san’s eagerness to invent and create was first fuelled by reading ‘Karakuri–zui’, an illustrated anthology of mechanical techniques for Japanese clocks and Karakuri dolls and toys published by Hanzo Hosokawa in 1796.tanaka

He married Seisakujo Tanaka and had at least one adopted son, Daikichi, who ultimately took over Hisashige’s business in Tokyo.  Photograph (right) of Hisoshige and Seisakujo in later life.

At age 26, he was a renowned performer around the country at festivals with clockwork dolls he constructed himself.  He invented the yumi-iri doji (archery doll) which is considered to be Tanaka-san’s mechanical masterpiece.  It is a figure of an archer who draws four arrows from a holder and fires them at a target.  Three of the arrows hit perfectly but one misses.  The figure displays disappointment when the arrow misses.  The yumi-iri doji is particularly interesting because it is designed to display human characteristics.  This early robot was designed to be sympathetic and appealing to humans.  Tanaka-san also invented the Tea Serving Doll and the Writing Doll.

Breaking new ground in Osaka

By Tanaka-san’s mid-thirties, kara-kuri doll shows had started to fall out of fashion, so in 1834, he relocated to settle with his family in Osaka.  Here he focused on developing mechanical products for everyday life.  He experimented in pneumatics, hydraulics and forms of lighting based on canola (rapeseed oil), including a pocket candlestick and an oil lamp with an air-pressurised fuel pump which proved to be very popular.  Most of these technologies entered Japan through Nagasaki Western traders.

The Tokugawa government forbade the military and industrial use of machinery.  As a result, specialists in mechanical techniques were not recognised as members of a real profession, such as as medical practitioners.  They were treated like magicians and regarded with suspicion.  They were considered to belong to the world of entertainment, indeed, mechanical specialist artisans of karakuri were confined to the world of play, fuelling spectacles, theatre, and mechanical toys; all activities and objects set free from the world of utility.  Because of this exclusion of machinery specialists, there was almost no industrial culture in Tokugawa Japan, in spite of the fact that architecture, weaving, engineering, and artisanship maintained high standards.

Pocket Candle Stand – Okitanni Shokudai or Kaichu Shokudai  A very unusual type of candle stand is the okitami or kaichu shokudai (folding candle stand) was developed by Tanaka-san.  It folds by means of tight hinges into a pocket sized wallet and extends upward, to the same proportion as a traditional candle stand, with a unique tripod base.  It was small, easily carried and made of rust-resistant brass.  This candle holder was the pocket torch of its day.  It was perfect for visiting or travelling after dark.  Examples are quite rare.  Dated to 1834 – 1837.

Below – a Tanaka pocket candle stand in the author’s collection.


Other products made by Tanaka-san in Osaka were Canola Oil lamps (mujin-to) or ‘inextinguishable lamp’, plus air-guns; his familiarity with pumping technology would be important for his later involvement in understanding and constructing steam engines.

Expanding his Business in Kyoto

In 1837, Tanaka-san moved his residence from Osaka to Fushimi, Kyoto, where he further studied rangaku and astronomy.  He established a shop called the ‘Hall of Automata’.  The same year he started to learn the theory and practise of calendar making from the Tsuchimikado family, who were officially in charge of making calendars in Edo Japan.

Sales advertisements for Tanaka-san’s inventions were published whilst he was in Kyoto.  These included:

  • 1850 – Buddhist cosmological clock – shumisengiA Japanese-style clock that over-turned the concept of the timepiece upon its completion in 1850.  Shumisengi was a masterpiece that perfectly expressed the Buddhist cosmology based on geocentric astronomy.  Figurines of the sun and moon revolved around Mt. Shumisen on the faces of the clock.  He built the Shumisengi to educate the public about Buddhist cosmology and bolster his religion against the inflow of Copernican theory from the West.  The model represented a flat earth with a large central mountain and two astronomical bodies circling above the mountain.  The mountain was supposed to be located at the centre of the earth, and our world was located at the eastern quarter of this mountainous geographic square representing the earth.  Outside the earth are seas with small islands, and beyond the seas is a golden ring representing “konrinzai
  • Myriad Year Clock – mannen-jimie-sho – see separate web page.
  • 1851 Lathe – senban – Tanaka-san advertised that for his mannen-dokei:”The body of the clock is made by lathe (senban), a device that I invented.”  Hisashige was reputed at that time to have been the inventor of the lathe and also to have invented a lathe to turn an elipse.  However, the idea probably came from the West.

Hisashige Tanaka’s Advertising Material

  • In Tanaka-san’s own words from his advertising literature he was also able to supply Ryumon-dokei – “The clock strikes and a carp ascends, pointing to the time; after one carp completes an ascent another follows. The duration of time is controlled automatically.  Latitudes north and south of the equator are shown and the sun revolves to the right along the ecliptic.  The twelve ‘toki’, Japanese temporal hours, are indicated on the globe.  The time is shown at the celestial and terrestrial intersection.  The durations of days and nights are also shown, and a bell rings the hours as indicated.  A sun and moon revolve day and night throughout the months and year.”
  • Celestial Clock – konten-tokei – Accordingly, the 28 mansions of the moon as well as sunrise and sunset can be seen in spring, summer, autumn and winter.  It strikes the hours on a bell but otherwise is a new and unique kind of clock.”
  • Exhaustless Lamp – large, medium, small sizes – mujin-to “Kerosene circulates as smoothly as human blood or breath and the light is twice as bright as candlelight.  Trimming the wick is required not more than once in two hours.
  • Tortoise stand for wine cup – kame no sakazuki-dokei – “The tortoise departs and returns; when a cup is placed upon it, it departs, when the cup is removed, it returns.  The four legs move in a lifelike manner.”
  • Water Fountain – kumo-hai sen  – “Clean water is blown two ‘jo’ into the air. The stream is not obstructed so may be used for washing cups. In hot weather it produces a very pleasant cool feeling.”
  • A hand pump – unryu-sui – “Water spouts several ‘jo’ in a narrow stream with great force, so the pump can be a good fire extinguisher. In the season of ‘Great Heat’ water sprays from a small hole and showers over the body like a cloud of mist, making an exceedingly pleasant feeling.

“We wish to make the lathe and other items above to your specification, and we are looking forward to your orders. The factory is located at Fourth Street, East Karasuma, Kyoto.   Hisashige Giemon Tanaka”

Tanaka 004

Wood-cuts showing – mujin-to, unryu-sui, kame no sakazuki-dai and kumo no haisen

In addition to the above, Hisashige made many clocks, such as the taiko dokei” (drum clock), and makura dokei (pillow clock), as well as shukusho-gi (scale-reduction machines).

While in Kyoto, he also invented a fire pump called “cloud dragon water” which used air pressure to shoot an adjustable stream of water up to thirty feet high.  Like his lighting inventions, Tanaka-san went on to craft various iterations of this fire pump which were used for a wide variety of tasks.

By 1846, the development of the Sonn0-joi movement which was against foreign incursion, was changing the atmosphere in Kyoto.  It became increasingly perilous towards foreign influences and technology.  Tanaka-san therefore took up an invitation by Sano Tsunetami to go to Saga Domain, in Kyushu. where he was welcomed by Nabeshima Naomasa.

Technical Excellence back in Kyushu

Steam Ships – Nine years before Tanaka-san’s return to Kyoshu in 1853, the Dutch government had conveyed the invention of the steam ship to the Tokugawa government, explaining that the invention reduced the distance between countries, and recommended opening up the country.  The Japanese government did not follow the recommendation.  However, Nariakira Shimazu, the feudal lord of the Satsuma clan, and Naomasa Nabeshima feudal lord of the Saga clan, became interested in constructing a ship.  Tanaka-san’s move back to Saga resulted in him becoming a tonin (a chief) at the Seirengata industrial compound, clearly indicating Tanaka-san’s involvement in the final year of completing the ship.

Steam Locomotives – Following the opening up of Japan to the Americans, Commodore Perry brought gifts of various modern machines to the Tokugawa government.  A steam locomotive was one of them – it greatly impressed the Japanese people.  The Seirengata factory of the Saga clan was engaged in making a model of a steam locomotive. The first recorded attempts at manufacturing one date to the efforts of Tanaka-san in 1853 (right).

Guns – Tanaka-san was also involved in the construction of a reverbarator furnace in Saga for the production of Armstrong guns.

Bicycles – The Japanese began to make bicycles for themselves almost at the same time as the import of the first bicycles in 1860-1880.  Among the Japanese makers was Tanaka, reportedly together with some master craftsmen operating on a very small scale.

Buddhist Cosmology Model – After the Meiji Restoration, a Buddhist monk tasked Tanaka-san to construct a different version of a mechanical model that he intended to represent not only Buddhist cosmology, but also an epistemological theory to defend that cosmology.  It had a conspicuous helical spiral tapering down toward the main disk.  On the main disk’s plane are four spheres, each of which represents one of the four worlds corresponding to the four continents.  The top of the spiral was a ring to guide the daily motions of the sun and the moon, and the ring was supported by a 40 cm high pole erected at the centre of the disk.

The man who ordered this model was Kaisuke Sada, who wrote the booklet, ‘Description of the Model to Represent the Equivalency of the Visual and the Real’.  In it, he explained the model’s structure and the philosophical reasons behind this unusual structure.

We do not know how Tanaka-san considered this Buddhist cosmology and Sada’s epistemological reasoning.  However, he was a close friend of a Dutch-educated Japanese scholar, Genkyō Hirose, and knew Western science and technology well.  It is therefore safe to assume that he accepted Western cosmology.  Tanaka-san was a technologist, whose interest more and more focused on modern Western technology such as steam engines, weapons and telegraphy.

Back home to Kurume

In 1864, Tanaka-san returned to his native Karume, where he assisted in the development of modern weaponry.  Tanaka-san adopted the son of a goldsmith in Kurume, Chikugo – Daikichi Tanaka.  In later life, his son changed his name from Daikichi to Hisashige II and took over the Tanaka Factory in Ginza.

Applying his skills to Meiji Restoration

In 1873, six years after the Meiji Restoration, Tanaka-san, then age 74 and still energetic, was invited by the Ministry of Industry to come to Tokyo to make telegraphs at the ministry’s small factory.  He relocated to the Ginza district in 1875.  He rented the second floor of a temple in what is now Roppongi as a workshop that evolved into his first company — Tanaka Seisakusho (Tanaka Engineering Works), the first manufacturer of telegraph equipment in Japan.

The firm he founded, Tanaka Engineering Works, manufactured electric bulbs, cables, various measurement apparatus, prototype telephones, industrial machinery (notably steam engine boats and trains), and iron bridges.  The firm he founded, Tanaka Engineering Works, was the forerunner of today’s Toshiba Corporation.

Hisashige Tanaka died at the age of 83, in Tokyo, in 1881 (Meiji 14).  He is considered the Master of Edo mechanism arts. His achievements directly contributed to the modern industrialisation of Japan.