Chindogu, the Art of Subverting Useful Objects


WordsClémence Leleu

A stick to butter your bread in the blink of an eye, mini umbrellas that protect the ends of your shoes, funnels for eyedrops, or a babygrow made from mops allowing your child to clean up after themself while crawling around on all fours… These are just a few of the inventions, each madder than the last, thought up by Kenji Kawakami. The trained aerospace engineer is the creator of chindogu, gadgets that have potential use, but are in fact entirely unusable.

In an interview a few years ago with Japan Times he compared Chindogu to the industrial revolution in Britain. ‘The one big difference’, he notes ‘is that while most inventions are aimed at making life more convenient, chindogu have greater disadvantages than precursor products, so people can’t sell them. They’re invention dropouts’.

Useless gadgets

Wonderful but unusable, seemed to be all that was necessary for the concept to become a major success even beyond Japan. In 2015 a major exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris was held to showcase these chindogu. An association was also created to support the art form, the International Chindogu Society, which counts around 10,000 members around the globe, including Jean-Christophe Lecocq, the president of the French branch, having come across this strange creative form around 15 years ago. ‘I found a book in a charity shop years ago, called “101 bizarre Japanese inventions” and I was instantly interested’, says the inventor. ‘It was thanks to this that I came across Kenji Kawakami’.

Calling on publishing houses and the Chamber of Commerce, Lecoq was finally able to track down the inventor of chindogu. Lecoq, who today has created more than 200 of the objects like a pair of flint shoes that can start a fire just by rubbing your feet together, flew to Japan to meet the master in person. ‘My role is to now spread the word about Chindogu in France and in Europe’, says Lecoq.

The Ten Commandments of Chindogu

Despite their success chindogu haven’t earnt Kawakami a single yen. For these objects to be considered a chindogu, they must correspond to 10 commandments developed by the creator of the crazy concept. The
10 tenets can be found on the Society’s website. However the fundamental principle is that in terms of practical usage, the inventions must be completely obsolete. If you were to invent something that was so practical that you were to use it constantly, you have failed to create a chindogu. The product must also be ‘innocent’, that is to say, it cannot be created as a means of making perverse or ironic statements about the deplorable state of humanity, nor can it be used to make money. ‘If you accept money for one, you surrender your purity. They must not even be sold. Even as a joke’.

There are therefore no patents under the name of the Kawakami who, between 1985 to 2001, created more than 600 chindogus, as an antidote to the commodification of marketable objects. Now the inventor, age 72, splits his time between creating chindogus and running a small publishing house which has published five books on the subject.