The Inexplicably Fascinating Japanese Art of Being Useless


“Not always useful, but not altogether useless” is the mantra behind Chindōgu, a Japanese art form that calls for stilettos with built-in umbrellas, noodle bibs for the face, and glue sticks filled with butter (that one we get). They’re nonsensical inventions on a mission, missing the mark of utility by a hair, and on purpose. “I despise materialism and how everything is turned into a commodity,” explained its founder, 71-year-old Kenji Kawakami, whose lifelong passion for Sticking it to the Man led him to create Chindōgu in the 1990s.

Kawakami was studying aeronautical engineering at Tokai University, but left in 1967 to support the student protests. Years later, he found himself working for a mail order catalogue targeted at Japanese housewives. When the content looked thin, he’d throw in a tongue-in-cheek product of his own as a kind subversive, faux-Capitalist prank.

“Basically, Chindōgu is the same as the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” he told Japan Inc. in 2002, “The one big difference is that while most inventions are aimed at making life more convenient, Chindōgu have greater disadvantages than precursor products, so people can’t sell them. They’re invention dropouts.”Japan couldn’t get enough of Chindōgu, and the rest of the world followed. But Kawakimi’s creations weren’t for sale, and he had to establish a set of “10 Chindōgu Commandments”:

I. Not Really – “A Chindogu cannot be for real use”

II. Exist-essential – A Chindogu must exist”

III. Anarchic – “There must be a spirit of anarchy”

IV. Universally Unuseless – “Chindogu are tools for Everyday Life”

V. Not for Sale – “Chindogu are Not for Sale”

VI. Stop Trying to be Funny – “Humor must not be the Sole Reason for creating Chindogu”

VII. Propaganda… Not – “Chindogu is not propaganda”

VIII. Keep it Clean – “Chindogu are never taboo”

IX. Don’t get Greedy – “Chindogu cannot be patented”

X. Chindōgu for All – “Chindogu are without prejudice”

On occasion, Kawakami will break one of his own rules, and allow for the commercialisation of Chindōgu if, he explained, a portion of the proceeds go towards the removal of land mines in Cambodia. “It’s our duty as rich industrialised nations to help poor ones,” he said, “I’m very concerned about the gap between rich and poor countries. If you think about the magnitude of the problem, the political and economic mess in Japan becomes a minor issue.” Call them weird, fun, or even disturbing, but you really can’t call Chindōgu useless.

Enter the Internet, because if ever there was a place for unfurl-able sidewalks and toilet paper hats to shine, the web was it, despite Kawakami’s die-hard commitment to tangible (or as he calls them, analogue) relationships. “Chindōgu is analog,” he concluded, “There’s always some process in analog products, and these processes themselves can be their purpose. We think analog. Humans are originally analog beings. Digital is a way to get human ideas, but your fingers, your food are analog. The entrances and exits (to the human body) are always analog.”

We get it. But thank the heavens for the web, right? It’s exactly what led us down the Chindōgu worm hole in the first place…