Chindogu: The Art of Un-useless Inventions


(Clockwise from top) A pair of umbrella shoes seem smart, but they're really, um, ridiculous; the butter stick is one of the most well-known chindogu; the noodle cooler probably still wouldn't help for those times when your ramen is just too hot. HowStuffWorks

Pretty much everything we do now has a purpose. We curate an Instagram account to become an influencer; we play video games on Twitch to build an audience; we sew and forge and paint and then sell our works on Etsy. It's all pretty exhausting, and it's making the fun stuff less fun.

Meet chindogu, the art and craft of inventing things that are (almost) useless but a whole lot of fun. How useless? Take invention No. 189 from the exhibit halls of the International Chindogu Society: the AC Free Charger. It recharges a rechargeable battery ... using power from 12 other batteries. Or invention No. 341, The Sock Closet. It's just what it sounds like. A tiny closet for your socks. There are loads more chindogu pieces that take inventing to a whole new level. Hovercraft dog bed anyone?

Do You Chindogu?

Chindogu was created by Japanese artist Kenji Kawakami in the 1990s, who describes these inventions as "un-useless." He coined the term chindogu using a combination of the Japanese words chin, meaning "strange" or "odd," and dougu, which means "device" or "tool." But chindogu is more than a mashup of words (a portmanteau, if you will); it's a philosophy. There are 10 tenets of chindogu, according to the chindogu society:

  • A chindogu cannot be for real use. If you end up using your invention on the regular, you have failed.
  • A chindogu must exist. No thought experiments allowed.
  • There must be the spirit of anarchy. Build your invention free from the constraints of utility or cultural expectations.
  • Chindogu are tools for everyday life. Everyone everywhere must be able to understand how it works without any special technical or professional background info.
  • Chindogu are not tradeable commodities. Finally, something in your life that you just can't turn into a side hustle.
  • Humor must be the sole reason for creating chindogu. Creating an elaborate way to solve a tiny problem is just funny. Roll with it.
  • Chindogu is not propaganda. This is not the place for your clever commentary on the dumpster fire that is the current state of the world. As the tenet makes clear: "Make them instead with the best intentions."
  • Chindogu are never taboo. If you demand sexual innuendo, cruel jokes and sick humor, the International Chindogu Society would ask that you find it literally anywhere else on the internet. That's not chindogu's jam.
  • Chindogu cannot be patented. Consider chindogu the openest of open source. They're meant to be shared and delighted in, not owned and collected.
  • Chindogu are without prejudice. Race, religion, gender, age, ability — none of these matter to chindogu. These inventions should be equally (almost) useless to everyone who sees them.

If You Build It, They Will (Sort of) Come

Kawakami started with a few simple inventions to fill out the back pages of a magazine he edited. He hoped his Eye Drop Funnel Glasses and Solar-powered Flashlight would amuse readers. But if there's a chindogu evangelist, it would be Dan Papia, who worked at another magazine, the Tokyo Journal. He brought chindogu to the magazine's English-speaking audience and encouraged readers to create their own inventions. In 1995, Papia started the International Chindogu Society.

Others have taken up the banner in the decades since. Maker mecca Instructables ran a chindogu contest that yielded a toothbrush light, a food magnifier that perches on a pair of chopsticks, and scuba mask wiper blades, all classics of the form.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Chindogu

The real key to (almost) useless inventions is that, at first glance, they have to seem a bit reasonable. Then, after a moment's thought, you realize they're just no better than the usual way of doing things.

Take the butter stick, which is like a giant tube of lip balm, but with butter inside. Just swipe it on that corn on the cob at the next barbecue. But wait, what if it's hot on the way to the party and the butter melts in your bag? Or what if you don't use it all quickly enough and it molds? Or what if you mistake it for your lip balm and smear it on your face? Hey, that last example might be a feature, not a bug.

The entire philosophy of chindogu is probably best summed up by Tenet VI:

  • Try your best, you nearly succeed.
  • Then you realize, sardonically, that your problem may not have been all that pressing to begin with.

Words to live by.