by Steve Wilson

Kenji Kawakami assumes a serious expression as he brandishes an over-sized fork with an onboard motor. Carefully lulling over his words, he decides that English won't cut it and speaks in his native tongue.

Kito, my friend and interpreter, translates. "Japanese like to make everything in their lives as easy as possible..."

"Anything, everything," Kawakami excitedly interjects in halted Americanese. "So, for example," he twists the fork manually, spinning an imaginary plate of unresponsive noodles with a look of mock pain behind his Ambervision sunglasses, "this is a fault of ordinary fork. And so I got new idea." He presses the button on the handle, and the implement starts twirling and clacking like a weed-whacker.

"The first fault I got rid of, but I got another new, more bigger problem." He holds the vile silverware up to his face and pantomimes getting splashed with sauce.

"Everything, every Chindogu like this," he chortles.

That is to say, Chindogu solves one problem of life but creates a larger one in the process—a tool that exists on the edge of reason. Translated literally, it means "unusual implement" or "unusual tool." Dan Papia, who heads the Los Angeles-based American chapter of the 10,000-strong International Chindogu Society, chose a much more sly and accurate term when titling his translation of Kawakami's work "101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions." (W.W. Norton, $11.95)

Now in its third printing, the success of the book has proven that America is ready to accept the teachings of Chindogu. At a time when variety dwindles further and further as corporate feedbags consolidate, the lesson could not have come too soon.

It's not just the subtly scathing satire behind the Noodle Eater's Hair Guard, the Telephone Dumbbell, the Full-Body Umbrella and 500 other such products that make them such powerful statements; it's simply the fact that they exist. Each is real—more than just a simple prop held by a glum model in one of the four books Kawakami has published in Japan. The Automated Noodle Fans, Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, and Portable Crosswalks he makes are concrete reminders of how off-kilter humanity can become.

"I hate the Japanese way of product... so this is my irony and protest," says Kawakami, seated on an old couch in his cramped Tokyo office, which is tucked away in the Big Egg City district. He has spoken his mind about Japan all his life, from his student days protesting Vietnam to his more recent crusade against karaoke ("Karaoke has invaded the world, and it's not an export item.").

The room is a heap of tools, parts, pieces of disemboweled products, and unearthly objects (e.g., a four-foot coil of incense) that seems as if it should exist only in the nether regions of Ronco inventor Ron Popeil's mind. It's all too real, however, this place where each year 80 or so Chindogu are chosen by Kawakami to receive life at a workbench in the corner. Behind it sits the secretary who has doubled as a model on numerous occasions (most memorably for the photos of the 360-degree Panorama Camera and the Hydrophobe's Bath Body Suit).

While editing a popular Japanese home-shopping magazine ten years ago, Kawakami unleashed the first batch of Chindogu onto its pages as a lark, without anticipating that these inventions would resonate so deeply. People sense on some innate level that Chindogu is more than just a joke. Perhaps Duster Slippers for Cats and Automobile Parasols appeal to the darker side of our consumer consciousness.

Japanese people related to Chindogu so strongly that a cult-like following developed. In Europe, it was heralded as art ("a recontextualization of consumer fetish," the critic might say). Since Papia's translation came out in the States, an American who runs a novelty products company has written Chindogu headquarters asking if he can sell them in his catalog. Though Kawakami is reluctant to label Chindogu anything, he will say—with slight annoyance—"Chindogu not party food."

Long ago, to protect his work from falling into the hands of such hucksters, Kawakami laid down ten tenets by which all Chindogu must abide:

  1. A Chindogu cannot be for real use.

  2. A Chindogu must exist.

  3. Inherent in every Chindogu is the spirit of anarchy.

  4. Chindogu are tools for everyday life.

  5. Chindogu are not for sale.

  6. Humor must not be the sole reason for creating Chindogu.

  7. Chindogu are not propaganda.

  8. Chindogu are never taboo.

  9. Chindogu cannot be patented.

  10. Chindogu are without prejudice.

As Kawakami says, "This is just not only for make laugh." It's a code of ethics that's so pure, yet so cleverly subversive, it should be taught in business schools. In fact, despite the life his creation has taken for itself, giving him little choice but to continue with it, Kawakami thinks up Chindogu as a mental practice to hone his creativity for sales promotion and marketing consultation.

Pondering this Chindogu/corporate symbiosis raises a discomforting notion. What real products out there are by definition unuseless products? Kawakami has given this matter some thought.

"Chindogu depends on country, depends on each person," he notes. He illustrates how the American dependence on slicing and dicing devices seems silly to the Japanese, for whom cutting food with a knife is something of a sacred art form. I try to defend the U.S. by mentioning the popularity of the Ginsu knife a few years back, but Kawakami is out of his seat already, digging up (with a raucous cascade of metal) a plastic blob that, after some handling and the insertion of a plastic rod, turns out to be an inflatable umbrella he purchased in Tokyo.

A finer point about the sad state of consumerism could not have been dreamed up by the Chindogu factory. And something about that bothers me. I ask Kawakali, through Kito, how the intent of Chindogu can be satirical if the explanation behind tenet seven states: "...[Chindogu] should not be created as a perverse or ironic comment on the sorry state of mankind."

We wrangle with the wording for a good five minutes, and though Kawakami tries to understand what I'm asking, we finally have to give up and leave that one unanswered. Something must have been lost in the translation.   </end>

STEVE WILSON is a Brooklyn-based writer who desperately wants to be accepted into the International Chindogu Society. He has written for Travel Holiday, Entertainment Weekly, Paper and Operations & Fulfillment, a trade covering the catalog industry.

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