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Consumers are suckers for labor-saving devices, from the handy-dandy Pocket Fisherman to the all-in-one Soloflex machine. The International Chindogu Society, based in Tokyo, understands this yearning for gadgetry. Created in the mid-’80s with the goal of developing practical but unlikely gizmos, the ICS specializes in products that could give beer hats and Flo-Bees a run for their money—but in all probability, won’t. Kenji Kawakami, ICS founder and president, inventories some of these items in 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu.
A Chindogu, according to Inventions‘ introduction, is “literally an odd or distorted tool.” Kawakami has broadened that definition to include the art of Chindogu and its 10 tenets, among them “Humour must not be the sole reason for creating a Chindogu” and “Chindogu must never favour one race or religion over another.” (In case the spellings of “humour” and “favour” aren’t a tipoff, the ICS has been co-opted by the British. Former Punch and Sunday Telegraph writer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall edited this volume, the fourth by Kawakami but the first for the U.S. market.)
Some of these inventions are eccentric, some are just plain silly, and still others have real potential. Consider, for instance, “Dust Slippers for Cats,” four yarn pompon-mops that fit a cat’s paws. “Lazy cats are of course much less productive than excitable ones,” Kawakami writes, “but this problem may be overcome if you introduce a dog into the house.” Provided a cat will wear them, the slippers give new meaning to the term felis domesticus. Another innovation, the “Back Scratcher’s T-Shirt,” is silkscreened with a grid that enables the wearer to pinpoint the specific coordinates of an itch. And the “Portable Subway Strap” rescues commuters who are tired of not being able to get a handhold, let alone a seat, on those crowded morning Bullet—er, Metro—trains. Its handle attaches to a large suction cup/toilet plunger, which is stuck to the ceiling: Be the envy of all the other sardines on board.
As proof that these Chindogu exist, Inventions includes an amateurish color photo of each one being demonstrated by a human (or feline) model. The models perform their tasks with deadpan seriousness, whether blowing their noses from a roll of toilet paper (“Hay Fever Hat”) or having ramen noodles for lunch (the “Noodle Eater’s Hair Guard,” the “Automated Noodle Cooler”). Absent are the technical drawings common to patent-office applications: Tenet 9 states that “Chindogu cannot be patented,” calling into question the “Soap Recycler” and “Finger-Mounted Toothbrush,” which may be disqualified due to commercial viability. Still, the 5-by-8-inch paperback has the appearance of a mail-order catalog, minus shipping and handling information since “Chindogu are not tradable commodities. If you accept money for one you surrender your purity.”
Removed from its Tokyo turf, this volume could be construed as a lampoon of modern Japanese society. Kawakami’s quirky discoveries could be seen,in a racist light, as objects of ridicule rather than examples of creativity. But Kawakami and his countrymen are not the first to arrive at the Chindogu concept. Rube Goldberg’s complicated contraptions abide faithfully by the proscribed tenets of the “unuseless,” and Wile E. Coyote is no slouch in the unuseless department (though his Acme endorsement breaks a few Chindogu tenets). Unuseless Inventions is not only a showcase for the imagination, but a barometer of the problems facing the common citizen.