Former editor and contributor to the Japanese monthly magazine Mail Order Life, Kenji had a few extra pages to fill in one issue and decided to put together a treat for his readership.
Mail Order Life subscribers consisted chiefly of countryside-dwelling housewives who liked to shop but found it too inconvenient to get to the cities where the stores were. Kenji used his spare pages to feature a somewhat indulgent photo spread. It showcased a number of bizarre prototypes for products that his readers couldn’t buy (and likely wouldn’t have wanted to anyway) but might (Kenji hoped) be able to get a chuckle over.
Included was a picture of his own Eye Drop Funnel Glasses™ (which actually helped Kenji hydrate his eyes without having the medicine roll down his cheek, but seemed in the early 1990s a rather unmarketable product because it looked too, well, silly). There was also the Solar-powered Flashlight™ (an object that had been great fun for a craftman-hobbyist like Kenji to build but that had then proven itself remarkably useless because, obviously, if you have enough light to work the solar panels, you already have enough light).
The name Kenji gave to these useless little gadgets was “Chindogu”, Japanese for weird (the chin bit) and tool (the dogu bit). Chindogu were far from practical, but they were funny. The photo spread was a hit. Readers demanded more. Soon Kenji was crafting new useless gadgets that were intended to be impractical from the get-go. The chindogu pages were almost certainly the first section the average Mail Order Life reader would turn to as soon as her (or his) copy arrived in the mail.
The useless gadgets could not be mass-produced and sold overseas like all the other bits and bobs that had made the Japanese economy what it was. But the chindogu prototypes were works of art that almost always brought a smile. They contained within them a good dose of rebellion; they were three-dimensional critiques of consumerism, the material world, and what was then often termed “Japan Inc.”
Kenji’s artifacts found fans outside the readership of Mail Order Life. Kenji soon won the opportunity to display his work at art exhibitions…and to popular acclaim. Kenji Kawakami had become the world’s first chindogist.
In the 1990s, Dan Papia also worked at a magazine. It was called the Tokyo Journal, and at that time it was the go-to English-language source for all that was trending in Japan. Dan decided to feature chindogu within the pages of his magazine. And this had the effect of exposing the concept to the outside world.
The outside world, it proved, was ready to embrace this ancient Japanese art. (Ancient in the sense that chindogu had been conceived a full eighteen months before Dan began to promote it.) The initial response from Tokyo Journal followers echoed that of the Mail Order Life reader reception, but on a somewhat larger scale. The culture of mass-produced consumerism, of course, was a global phenomenon, and chindogu seemed to strike out at the constant inflow of new must-have plastic nicknacks in an innocent and effective way. The chindogu section became a fixture in the front pages of Tokyo Journal as well.
But Dan felt compelled to push the concept one step further. One day, while looking over a stack of chindogu fan mail and a particularly uncomplicated artifact that he was about to photograph, Dan rubbed his chin. And then he rubbed his dogu. And then he asked himself, “Why should chindogu remain solely a spectator sport?” People from around the world were sending in their own chindogu ideas on an almost daily basis. Couldn’t they be trusted to take that next step? Shouldn’t they be encouraged to build their own chindogu…take their own pictures…organize contests, conferences, and chindog-a-thons…participate in the fun?
Chindogu wanted to be more than just a collection of art pieces, Dan decided. It should be an art form. He set about compiling a list of rules that new chindoguists could follow to ensure that their creations would retain the right balance of anarchy and innocence. No crude humor of the “fake dog poop” variety. No language dependent gags. Nothing that might prove commercial or be mass-produced for sell at the joke shop. A chindogu should come from the same place that a truly useful invention does. It should seem at first glance like it’s actually going to fill a need, but only on closer observation reveal itself to be not quite right.
It’s that twist that brings the smile. And it’s that smile that makes the art worth practicing. Chindogu are not useful, but neither are they useless, Dan argued. They are “unuseless.”
Dan started the International Chindogu Society in 1995. Within ten years, the word “chindogu” had begun to appear in a number of English-lanaguge dictionaries, there were chindogu parties and gatherings happening around the world, and chindogu was all over the internet. By the 15th year, Dan took a look at the Society’s bank account, remembered his strong assertion that (for the sake of purity) chindogu should never make money, and again began to scratch his chin…
Anssi goes through a lot of pantyhose. Not the way you think. You see, Anssi is a guy. No, really, it’s not what you think.
Anssi is the creator of something called Niksi Pirkka, which is the ancient Finnish art (founded way back in the 1980s) of “tricking” cheap household implements to perform tasks that they were never designed to do. For example, did you know that a plastic soda bottle can be transformed into a very effective sweeping broom? Or that a carrot makes a great stylus for your smartphone when your finger gets tired? Well, it turns out that pantyhose are so easily tricked into doing other jobs that they account for a disproportionately large part of Niksi Pirkka‘s hidden wisdom. Pantyhose can be used effectively as hair ties, to store bread, as keyboard protectors, to keep skis and poles together in a single totable package, as makeshift potato planters, and in a great many other ways.
There was already an overlap between the worlds of chindogu and Niksi Pirkka. Put simply: chindogu is about things that look like they’re going to help, but don’t; while Niksi Pirkka is about things that look that they aren’t going to help, yet do. In the year 2000, however, Anssi bridged the two when he joined the International Chindogu Society and became an important force in the chindogu movement.
Anssi helped to put chindogu in context. Human beings naturally like to build things. Yes, there seems to be a much smaller proportion of humans hawking things on 4:00 am infomercials when compared to those humans at home on their sofas watching…so it’s easy to get the wrong idea. But producing gadgets is a universal instinct. It’s the hoes and the plows and the fences that our ancestors created that allowed our species to stop chasing their food and start growing it. It’s the wheelbarrows and the hammers and the mortar that let us our populations. And it’s the pencils and the telegraphs and the other tools of communication that enabled people who’d built too many things to try to unload them on us at four in the morning.
The desire to make things that promise to improve our lot is one of the hallmarks of our species. When something is painstakingly put together doesn’t improve our lot, it’s sad and disappointing. But sometimes it’s also funny. Especially if it was painstakingly put together by someone else. Chindogu celebrates the humor that comes from that unfulfilled promise. After all, failure is often but a step on the path to success (a path that becomes a lot easier to walk when there are chuckles to be had).
If your idea is a wearable knife and fork, you don’t need to be a master craftsman to attempt a prototype. You could throw something together with rubber gloves, wristbands, duct tape, or whatever you have lying around the house. As Anssi has written and demonstrated, chindogu isn’t that difficult if you can just get past the mindset that only a certain chosen few (who look good at 4:00 am) are allowed to invent and create. Even if your invention seems useless, thanks to chindogu it just might be also unuseless.
Or you can ignore the critical voice of society and march proudly toward the slopes with your skis fastened together by the cardboard insides of toilet paper rolls and the whole affair wrapped up in a single pantyhose leg and held by the other strapped over your shoulder. That’s what Anssi does.
Let’s face facts. Even though the term “chindogu” was coined in Japan…even though the concept was refined and the Society founded by an American…even though there are German, Dutch, French, and Finnish evangelists who have tirelessly championed the art form…more fan letters come from the UK than any place else. Yes, there are more people familiar with chindogu in the British aisles than there are anywhere else in the world.
This could be because the British have good taste and are remarkably forward thinking.
Or it could just be because of Hugh.
Hugh attached himself to the International Chindogu Society early on. He became something of an ambassador helping to unify the odd world that is chindogu with the odd world that is the United Kingdom. And he punched up the recipe with a few sprinkles of cheesiness and a dash of wit.
Chindogu is not a dish one serves wearing a clown suit. The enjoyment of the art lies in the universal comic tragedy of well meaning doodads that really want to be useful, but just don’t quite make it. We like chindogu in rather the same way we like the little tramp character that Charlie Chaplin played so well–the tramp does his best, he tries, but we just have to smile when he takes a fall because that’s part of life. Chaplin’s tramp isn’t clowning about for laughs, yet he does give us a smile every now and then to remind us that it’s okay.
This is Hugh’s take. You don’t cry when your soufflé collapses. You smile instead.
Perhaps there’s something very British in that. They once had an empire that covered a fourth of the globe. It collapsed. But they kept smiling and they’re the better for it.