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Saturday, April 14, 2001
Gadget guy puts ideology over profit
By TIM HORNYAK
On a cluttered desk in a dimly lit office in central Tokyo lies a golden, cylindrical object you can't find in any store. It's a combination lock that would take 3.2 trillion years to crack, about 160 times the age of the universe.
"The thief, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would all be dead by then!" laughs its maker, gadget inventor Kenji Kawakami. The lock is no advanced digital security gizmo, just a simple mechanical contrivance consisting of a shackle and 20 numbered dials with a very high number of possible combinations.
It's also nearly completely useless. Instead of simplifying the safekeeping of valuables, the lock and its 20-digit combination make life exponentially more difficult for both owner and thief.
As such, it's a classic example of the gadgets the 54-year-old calls "chindogu," literally "strange tools," and will feature in a fifth Japanese book on the subject that he is working on.
"Basically, chindogu is the same as the Industrial Revolution in Britain," said Kawakami, a native of Nara Prefecture who runs a small publishing firm and writes on topical issues when he is not dreaming up new devices.
"The one big difference 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."
Consider the Hay Fever Hat, a strap-on roll of toilet paper that provides allergy sufferers with a continuous supply of tissue that's always close at hand. Or the Portable Subway Strap, a toilet plunger with a ring at one end that attaches to train-car ceilings to keep users steady in crowded carriages. There's also the Solar-powered Flashlight, the Rotating Spaghetti Fork and Self-lighting Cigarettes.
Kawakami has made over 600 chindogu in the past 16 years since he began inventing while editing the popular home shopping magazine Tsuhan Seikatsu. Yet he doesn't own any patents and has never made a single yen by selling his creations.
But that's not the point. Kawakami, who studied aeronautical engineering at Tokai University before he took to lobbing Molotov cocktails at police in the early 1970s as a leftist radical, said the art of chindogu is a rejection of the straitjacket of capitalistic utility, an anarchic antithesis to 21st-century consumer culture that can enrich people's lives and bring them closer together.
"In the modern, digital world, everything is so quick," he said, picking up paper and electronic dictionaries to illustrate. "With the electronic one, it only takes two seconds to find a word, but it gives us no mental or spiritual satisfaction. Yet if you use your own hands to find it, you can enjoy the process. It's a spiritual act."
That thinking struck a chord among Kawakami's cult following of thousands, grown on the back of his chindogu books, of which nearly 200,000 copies have been sold in Japan. They were first published in 1990 in Japanese and later translated into English, Chinese, German, French and Spanish.
There are roughly 8,000 chindogu practitioners in Japan and 1,000 overseas, their ages ranging from 10 to 70, Kawakami said.
One elderly Kobe resident who lost his house in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake devises chindogu as a form of postquake therapy. Despite owning several patents, an Osaka man in his 60s was a failure as an inventor, but his life changed after discovering chindogu, because it allows him to simply enjoy creating without having to worry about making money.
Work on the latest gadget digest follows a successful chindogu exhibit at a museum in Vancouver, British Columbia, and coincides with plans for the first commercialization of a Kawakami contraption, something he is allowing only because proceeds will go toward the removal of the estimated 4 million to 7 million land mines in Cambodia.
"It's our duty as rich industrialized nations to help poor ones," said Kawakami, who conceives new chindogu while eating yakitori and drinking. "I'm very concerned about the gap between rich and poor countries. If you think about the magnitude of the problem, the political and economic mess in Japan becomes a minor issue."
People overseas have had mixed reactions to chindogu. In North America, they're viewed as amusing Japanese party gags, in Europe as a new art form and in Hong Kong and Taiwan as potential money makers. But because of their universal appeal, Kawakami doesn't see chindogu as "Japanese" at all.
"Japanese are good at copying, but not creating," he remarked, adding that his compatriots' tendency to follow one another and behave according to group patterns often leads to a lack of fresh perspective. "Being free is the most important thing in life."
Kawakami said that as mechanical anachronisms in the information technology age, chindogu can bring a sense of wonder, freedom and spiritual revitalization to those who use and create them.
"Chindogu is analog. There's always some process in analog products, and these processes themselves can be their purpose," he said.
"If you look at digital products, they all isolate people and leave them in their own small world, depriving them of the joy of communicating with others. . . . I can't deny that they make life more exciting and convenient, but they also make human relationships more shallow and superficial."