The Art of Useless Japanese Inventions

Posted by Codi Hauka & filed under Pop Culture.

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Photo courtesy of thefactoryfactory.com

There is a curious art running rampant throughout Japan that strikes a fine balance between comic relief and usability. Many people have probably seen, laughed and asked “why?” at such things before, not knowing the distinct category that these inventions fit into: chindogu.

Translated into English, the word means “unusual tool,” and is a title coined by Kenji Kawakami, who created chindogu in the 1980s to “stimulate anarchic minds.” Nowadays, these inventions are created to solve an intensely niche problem, usually one that you haven’t even recognized as such, and if such a tool didn’t exist you never would have given any thought to needing it in the first place.

You know how kitchen appliance stores will have the same endless gadgets, designed in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, just to peel a vegetable? Or how your life was better before you started seeing all those Shamwow commercials? That’s in a sense a branch of chindogu, but the Japanese have refined this art to a point where the product ends up deviating from usefulness, eventually looping back to the point of causing more problems.

So what exactly qualifies as a pure piece of chindogu, you ask? Chindogu enthusiast websites list ten criteria that must be met to meet such standards of absurdity. Here are three of the most important:

First, the item must physically and tangibly exist. No matter how ridiculous the invention is, if it is not available as a consumer good, it cannot be chindogu.

Second, it cannot be patented or copyrighted, and must exist within the public domain. Sorry, no patents for your baby jumper fashioned out of mop material.

Photo courtesy of chindogu.com

Lastly, and perhaps most ironic, it cannot be created for the sole purpose of making people laugh. The inventor must have envisioned this product with the candid belief it would help people, which is sort of like telling your tone deaf kid they can sing and then sending them to be nationally berated by Simon Cowell.

Another key element of chindogu relates to the first piece of criteria, wherein it must exist, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it should be bought and put to practical use. Chindogu is something that exists to be enjoyed solely for its existence, because if you do find it useful and fit for consumption then the whole idea of chindogu is thrown out the window. It is created to serve a purpose, but the very problem it seeks to relieve is so arbitrary that its use would only create more problems. So why do people keep making chindogu?

This question is a more difficult one, since chindogu technically shouldn’t be purchased—and generally isn’t. So how do people make a profit off the inventions? What’s the impetus to keep creating the absurd? Like any form of art, there’s always the risk of failure, and in the cases of sheer obscurity, that fall can transcend failure to find purpose once again. People take pleasure in how far off the mark most of these inventions are, and may not buy the item per se but buy into the idea. Kawakami, for example, has successfully published four books about chindogu, and has created a chindōgu society that has thousands of members. Chindogu is a prime example that sometimes things are made not to give the people what they need, but give them what they want.

For some examples of wonderfully entertaining chindogu, such as the “Honest Husband Hat,” visit the chindogu society website atchindogu.com.

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