Free Book Friday: Japanese Karakuri and the Medicine Trout

I get to tell a funny joke on myself at Christmas. The common word for Christmas in Japanese is Kurisumasu (クリスマス in katakana), which reflects our pronunciation “Krismas”. In the late 80s, when I’d been living in Japan for a couple of years, a good friend took me aside and let me know that all December I had been mixing up the second and third syllables; I was not saying ku-RI-SU-ma-su, but rather ku-SU-RI-ma-su. This was causing some Christmas cheer and chuckles among my Japanese friends, because by wishing them a happy Kusuri-Masu (薬鱒) , I had turned the holiday into “the Medicine Trout”. That still cracks me up.


No batteries required: Andrew Dewar’s Karakuri Kit.

With just another 11 days till Christmas, we still have time to squeeze some stocking stuffers into Free Book Friday, and I’m doing a Japanese two-fer. First is Andrew Dewar’s Krazy Karakuri. Karakuri are traditional Japanese toys that move. The etymology of “karakuri”, according to the monumental Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (日本国語大辞典) is “糸を引っ張って動かす”, “to move by pulling with a string”. And karakuri, like the similar word shikake, generally means “mechanism”. Andrew made a great video that shows exactly what the walking, spinning, and tumbling projects in this great little kit do. Click on this video link to watch his creations in action.

Dewar is one of our favorite papercraft creators, and in this kit, you’ll get everything you need to make 24 traditional toys that move, crawl, float, or shimmy all on their own on Christmas morning.

As an aside, those of you who spy “origami” in the title, please don’t hate us. Origami (折り紙 ), you probably all know, comes from the renyōkei stem of the verb oru (折る, “fold”) and kami (紙, “paper”). In Japan, origami and karakuri are two quite different hobbies. As the word “origami” has traveled beyond Japan, however, as often happens with loan words, its meaning has become elastic. The word is now applied to all sorts of papercrafts in the US.


A kid-friendly intro to Japanese for kids and adults.

For the second part of my Japanese two-fer, check out I’m Learning Japanese. Like My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy, I’m Learning Japanese was a book we discovered in France (where the original title was J’apprends le japonais). We loved the simple introduction to Japanese, in which a talking, hakama-wearing red fox named Kitsune teaches three rambunctious teenagers the basics of Japanese.

The teaching is all done in full-color, manga-style illustrations. Like many books written for kids, it has found a big audience with adults who like the fun, low-pressure, colorful approach to the language.

You can still get these books in time for Christmas. Click here to email me and put “Karakuri” in the subject line.



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