Kenji Kawakami

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.