Chindogu: Strange Japanese Invention Culture


Ashley Zhao, Staff Writer

Best described as “un-useless” by their creator Kenji Kawakami, Chindogu, originating from the Japanese characters chin meaning ‘curious’ or ‘strange’ and dogu translating to ‘tool’ or ‘device’, are bizarre inventions that seem to defy any sort of logical reasoning and have garnered an immense amount of Internet fame. However, “strange device” doesn’t truly capture the essence of chindogu, as they have to be something people can utilize, but probably won’t use out of embarrassment.

But what separates real chindogu from its imitations? As set up by Kawakami and the International Chindogu Society (ICS), a device must adhere to the ten tenets of chindogu. First of all, they must be (almost) completely useless, which means they cannot be of real help and frequently used. Chindogu also must actually exist, and can’t just be designed on paper. Furthermore, they must represent freedom of thought and action, and have their uselessness be understood by everyone and not those with specific knowledge sets. Humor must also not be the sole reason for creating chindogu, as the invention must earnestly attempt to solve a problem. Additionally, chindogu are not for sale, cannot be patented, and are not a statement for any cause or philosophy. Chindogu can never be made to represent cheap sexual innuendo, vulgar humor, or sick jokes that disrespect living things. Lastly, chindogu view all human beings as equal, hence they can’t favor a race, religion, age group, gender, or class. 

Now that you know how to distinguish real chindogu from fake ones using the ten tenets, here are some examples of well-known chindogu. Take, for instance, the most well known of chindogu, the butter stick. When you don’t have time to take out a stick of butter or don’t have a knife, just put some butter in a chapstick container for easy application! Another quirky invention is the noodle cooler, which employs a mini electric fan on a pair of chopsticks to prevent your noodles from completely scalding your mouth. Umbrella shoes are just one of several other fascinating chindogu! Instead of letting a flood of rainwater completely soak your shoes and socks, this chindogu fastens a small umbrella over your shoes to prevent just that.

The tale of chindogu begins with Kawakami, who studied aeronautical engineering at Tokai University in 1967 before dropping out after getting involved with student movements in the 1970’s. Young Japanese college graduates from the 60’s to the ruling Japanese and American powers in the 1970’s, and Kawakami himself even pelted Molotov cocktails at the police. These days of radical thinking would be what influenced the eventual philosophy behind chindogu. But as time went on, most Japanese activists began to enter lives in the system they once opposed. Kawakami took on several jobs but eventually ended up as the editor of a popular home shopping catalog, Tsuhan Seikatsu.

 He once commented on how he despised “materialism and how everything is turned into a commodity,” which may have driven him to create chindogu. One month, Kawakami had extra pages in a mail-order catalog and he began to fill in the empty pages with products that weren’t for sale. The first two items were his eye drop funnel glasses and solar-powered flashlight, and when sent out, the products were an instant hit.

 Dan Papia, a writer for the English language magazine The Tokyo Journal, decided to write an article about Kawakami’s gadgets and his readers began sending him ideas for new chindogu. That’s when Kawakami decided to team up with Papia and they founded the ICS in 1995 where they began to write books about chindogu. He even became a regular fixture on interviews and TV shows like BBC’s It’ll Never Work? and Tomorrow’s World

Albeit his fame, Kawakami had never made a single yen off his inventions and has said chindogu are made to stimulate imagination, not profits. Though the fascination around chindogu has died down, Kawakami still continues to create chindogu out of his love for the art.

 “It makes no difference whether the resulting invention is absurd, like chindogu,” said Tim Moore from Idea Champions, ”The point is to keep exercising the mental muscle that crosses wires, tries absurd combinations, and associates the previously unassociated.”

Photo courtesy of TOFUGU.COM