Chindōgu: The Art of Unuseless


by Chasse Guerrera 

Unuseless: “Not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless.” That’s the idea behind the art of Chindōgu. The term, originally coined by Kenji Kawakami, means “unusual tool,” and is a form of Japanese art. Japanese inventions are well known for their off-the-wall ingenuity (Dr. NakaMats’ Underwater Pencil and Notepad is perfect for those sudden bursts of inspiration in the shower), but Chindōgu takes the idea of bizarre inventions to a whole new level.

Created in the 1980s, Chindōgu are inventions that are designed to solve everyday problems, but are far too odd and eccentric to use regularly. Many of these creations could be useful, but their inconvenience and awkwardness cause even more disadvantages, outweighing the potential benefits.  This reason is exactly why they are labeled as “unuseless.”  Chindōgu inventions aren’t things that anyone would actually use (or want to use), because their designs are horribly inconvenient. However, since they do solve a problem, although in a strange manner, they are in one way or another useful.

Kenji Kawakami, former editor and writer of Mail Order Life, created this unusual art movement. The magazine was for housewives living in the country who couldn’t easily get to the city to shop. At the end of each magazine, Kawakami would include one of his prototypes for his strange inventions that couldn’t be bought; these included the Solar Powered Flashlight (quite the oxymoron) and his well-known Eye Drop Funnel Glasses (actually used by Kenji himself). These unattainable items were displayed in the magazine for readers to have a laugh at, but they eventually became so popular that Kenji found himself having to come up with more and more. Hence, Kawakami became the first chindōgist

What makes Chindōgu a form of art is that they cannot be patented or sold. In fact, there are 10 Tenets that must be followed for an invention to be considered a worthy Chindōgu:

1. A Chindōgu Cannot be for Real Use— They must be, from a practical point of view, useless.2. A Chindōgu Must Exist— A Chindōgu must be something that you can actually hold, even if you aren’t going to use it.3. 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.4. Chindōgu Tools are for Everyday Life— Chindōgu must be useful (or useless) to everyone around the world for everyday life.5. Chindōgu are Not for Sale— Chindōgu cannot be sold, as this would go against the spirit of the art form.6. 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.7. Chindōgu are Not Propaganda— Chindōgu are, however, innocent and made with good intentions. They should only be created to be used (or not used).8. Chindōgu are Never Taboo— Chindōgu must adhere to society’s basic standards.9. Chindōgu Cannot be Patented— Chindōgu cannot be copyrighted or patented, and are made to be shared with the rest of the world.10. Chindōgu Are Without Prejudice— Everyone should have an equal chance to enjoy every Chindōgu.

Although uncanny, Chindōgu is serious business. The best way to understand this peculiar form of art is to look at the inventions themselves. For example, take the Duster Slippers for Cats: mops attached to cat-sized slippers for feline assistance with that tedious housework. Or even the Hay Fever Hat: a roll of toilet paper attached to a baseball cap, so that you never run out of tissues when cold season comes around. The keyword here is “almost”; if the invention is potentially useful, but so embarrassing you couldn’t see yourself using it, it’s probably a Chindōgu.

Why exactly do people make Chindōgu? There’s no real reason behind it. Many people may invent them as a form of art, or as a way to challenge themselves to come up with an odd, logic-defying gadget. While they are amusing, there’s more to these “inventive dropouts” than just humor. They represent the creative and intellectual mind at its finest, or weirdest, depending how you look at it.

So, next time you’re in need of a quick fix of butter (The Butter Stick: A travel-sized glue stick container of butter), are suddenly caught in a rainstorm after work (The Umbrella Tie: A fashionable tie that also doubles as an umbrella), or just have a pesky everyday life problem to solve, consider thinking up a Chindōgu to get around it. (But don’t try to sell it.)