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Chindōgu: The Japanese Art of Unuseless Inventions

You have definitely seen a chindōgu. They are those ridiculous Japanese inventions designed to solve a particular problem but are, in fact, so clumsy and inelegant that they are an inconvenience to use, and generate a whole lot of new problems. A few examples of chindōgu are: chopsticks with a miniature electric fan to cool noodles on the way to the mouth; glasses with attached funnels that allow the wearer to apply eye drops with accuracy; tiny umbrellas attached to cameras to take picture in the rain; a toilet plunger with a ring at one end that attaches to train-car ceilings and functions as a handrail in crowded carriages, and so on.

“Basically, chindogu is the same as the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” says Kenji Kawakami, who coined the term chindōgu, which means “weird tool” in Japanese. “The one big difference is that while most inventions are aimed at making life more convenient, chindogu have greater disadvantages than precursor products, so people can’t sell them. They’re invention dropouts.”

chindogu-360-camera-hat

A 360-degree camera hat for taking panoramic pictures.

Chindōgus are not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless either, says Kawakami. He has another word for these silly little contraptions—”unuseless.”

Kawakami started inventing some 30 years ago when he was working as an editor for a popular home shopping magazine called Tsuhan Seikatsu, aimed towards countryside-dwelling housewives who liked to shop but found it too inconvenient to get to the cities where the stores were. In one of the issues, Kenji had a few extra pages at the end of the magazine and he decided to fill them with some of his bizarre prototypes that the readers couldn’t buy. The Eye Drop Funnel Glasses was one of the first product to feature in the magazine. Kawakami claims that he actually uses this tool to hydrate his eyes without the medicine rolling down his cheek. Another early chindōgu was the Solar-powered Flashlight with a huge solar panel that Kawakami built himself. Unlike those available in stores today, Kawakami’s flashlight didn’t come with rechargeable batteries that could be charged during the day and used at night. Instead, it needed full sunshine to function, which renders the flashlight useless.

His chindōgu were an instant hit, and as readers demanded more, Kawakami was forced to come up with new ideas for the entertainment of his readers. Over the years, he developed a set of rules—the 10 tenets—for proper chindōgu creation.

These ten commandments of chindōgu are as follows:

  1. A Chindōgu cannot be for real use — They must be, from a practical point of view, (almost) completely useless. “If you invent something which turns out to be so handy that you use it all the time, then you have failed to make a Chindogu,” it says.
  2. A Chindōgu must exist — A Chindōgu must be something that you can actually hold, even if you aren’t going to use it.
  3. There must be the spirit of anarchy — A chindogu must be an object that have broken free from the chains of usefulness. They represent freedom of thought and action.
  4. Chindōgu are tools for everyday life — Chindōgu must be useful (or useless) to everyone around the world for everyday life.
  5. Chindōgu are not for sale — Chindōgu cannot be sold. “If you accept money for one, you surrender your purity,” it says.
  6. Humor must be the sole reason for creating a chindōgu — The creation of Chindogu is fundamentally a problem-solving activity. Humor is simply the by-product of finding an elaborate or unconventional solution to a problem.
  7. Chindōgu is not propaganda — Chindōgu should be innocent. They should not be created as a perverse or ironic comment on the sorry state of mankind. 
  8. Chindōgu are never taboo — Chindōgu must adhere to society’s basic standards.
  9. Chindōgu cannot be patented — Chindōgu cannot be copyrighted, patented, collected and owned.
  10. Chindōgu are without prejudice — Everyone should have an equal chance to enjoy every Chindōgu.

chindogu-baby-mop

A baby romper that also functions as a mop.

According to a 2001 article on Japan Times, Kawakami has made over 600 chindogu since he began inventing. Yet he doesn’t own any patents and has never made a single yen by selling his creations (see tenet no#5 and #9).

“I despise materialism and how everything is turned into a commodity,” the 70-year-old inventor once said. “Things that should belong to everyone are patented and turned into private property. I’ve never registered a patent and I never will because the world of patents is dirty, full of greed and competition.”

However, this has not stopped others from stealing his ideas. One of his invention, a two-sided slippers can be bought at a well-known Japanese chain store. “Some people have no principles,” he says in disgust. “They’ll do anything for money.”

What started as a joke is now a form of art practiced by over 10,000 chindōgu practitioners all around the world.

Despite the seemingly universal appeal for his inventions and their purpose to amuse, Kawakami laments that sometimes he is not taken seriously.

“In Europe they treat me as an artist. In Australia and Canada, I’m called a scientist. In China and Hong they wonder why I don’t try to make money from my inventions. But in Japan and the US, they consider me a maker of party goods,” Kawakami bemoans.

chindogu-noodle-cooler

Noodles cooler

chindogu-back-scratcher-shirt

This back-scratch guide t-shirt makes scratching your friend’s back easier.

chindogu-butter-stick

Butter-stick

chindogu-chindogu-sweep-shoes

Shoe broom and dustpan

chindogu-eyedrop-funnel-glasses-1

Eye drop funnel glasses

chindogu-finger-toothbrush

Finger toothbrush

chindogu-hay-fever-headset

Flu headset

chindogu-lipstick-guide

Lipstick guide.

chindogu-selfie-stick-1

This one is interesting. This is a selfie stick published in one of Kawakami’s books prompting the apparently useless device as a chindōgu. The book was published in the mid-90s, years before selfie stick became popular.

chindogu-subway-sleeper

Subway sleeper

chindogu-umbrella-camera

Umbrella for camera

chindogu-umbrella-shoes

Umbrella for shoes

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