Back in the 1990s I'd often run across volumes of the Unuseless Japanese Inventions series at bookstores. Each one features about a hundred ostensibly real Japanese devices, photographed and described with a disarming straightforwardness, that mash up other consumer products in outwardly bizarre ways: chopsticks whose attached miniature electric fan cools ramen noodles en route to the mouth; a plastic zebra crossing to unroll and lay across a street at the walker's convenience; an inverted umbrella attached to a portable tank for rainwater collection on the go. Such things, at once plausible and implausible, turn out to have their own word in the Japanese language: chindōgu (珍道具), or "curious tool."
"There's an essence to chindōgu that can't be ignored," writes Michael Richey at Tofugu, where you can view an extensive gallery of examples. "They need to be useful, but only just so. Something people could use, but probably won't because of shame," a famously powerful force in Japanese society.
They also adhere to a set of principles laid down by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of the country housewife-targeted magazine Mail Order Life, who first revealed chindōgu to Japan by showing off his prototypes in the back pages. These ten commandments of chindōgu are as follows:
- A Chindōgu Cannot be for Real Use — They must be, from a practical point of view, useless.
- A Chindōgu Must Exist — A Chindōgu must be something that you can actually hold, even if you aren’t going to use it.
- There must be the Spirit of Anarchy in Every Chindōgu — Chindōgu inventions represent the freedom to be (almost) useless and challenge the historical need for usefulness.
- Chindōgu Tools are for Everyday Life — Chindōgu must be useful (or useless) to everyone around the world for everyday life.
- Chindōgu are Not for Sale — Chindōgu cannot be sold, as this would go against the spirit of the art form.
- Humor is Not the Sole Reason for Creating a Chindōgu — Even if Chindōgu are inherently quirky and hilarious, the main reason they are created is for problem solving.
- Chindōgu are Not Propaganda — Chindōgu are, however, innocent and made with good intentions. They should only be created to be used (or not used).
- Chindōgu are Never Taboo — Chindōgu must adhere to society’s basic standards.
- Chindōgu Cannot be Patented — Chindōgu cannot be copyrighted or patented, and are made to be shared with the rest of the world.
- Chindōgu Are Without Prejudice — Everyone should have an equal chance to enjoy every Chindōgu.
These principles resulted in the kind of inventions that drew great fascination and amusement in their home country — you can watch a short Japanese television broadcast showing Kawakami demonstrate a few chindōgu above — but not only there. The Unuseless Japanese Inventions books came out in the West at just the right time, a historical moment that saw Japan's image shift from that of a fearsome innovator and economic powerhouse to that of an inward-looking but often charming nation of obsessives and eccentrics. Of course such people, so Western thinking went, would come up with fashionable earrings that double as earplugs, a cup holder that slots into a jacket pocket, and shoes with toe-mounted brooms and dustpans.
Kawakami has continued to invent and exhibit chindōgu in recent years, and even now his work remains as analog as ever. "There’s always some process in analog products, and these processes themselves can be their purpose,” he told the Japan Times in a 2001 interview. "If you look at digital products, they all isolate people and leave them in their own small world, depriving them of the joy of communicating with others... I can’t deny that they make life more exciting and convenient, but they also make human relationships more shallow and superficial." Those wise words look wiser all the time — but then, you'd expect that degree of insight into 21st-century life from the man who may well have invented the selfie stick.
via Messy Nessy
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.