In 1995, he introduced these subversive delights to the rest ofthe world in the book 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions. The57-year-old inventor, who lives in Tokyo, has now produced fourcompilations, the most recent being the Bumper Book of UnuselessJapanese Inventions.
Let no one deny that the Straight Dope exerts a mighty influence on society — even Japanese society. Years ago, to illustrate a column on male lactation, the incandescently gifted Slug Signorino drew a shirtless, macho man mountain wearing a kind of harness/brassiere with baby bottles in place of the bra cups. In accordance with Calvin Trillin's observation that nowadays it's difficult to invent a comic premise so outlandish that it won't sooner or later be overtaken by reality — Trillin called this "being blindsided by the truth" — I submit to you the enclosed book, 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions, by Kenji Kawakami. Turn to page 137 and you'll find a photograph of a dignified Japanese gentleman in a business suit, slaking the thirst of the infant in his arms by means of a "Daddy Nurser," a device consisting of a pair of breast-shaped milk containers complete with nipples on a pink-ribbon harness. It enables "father to experience the joy of nourishing his baby from his own body — almost." An appropriate caption might be "reality suckles," but I defer to you for trenchant exegesis and astringent commentary.
Kawakami’s books, which have sold about 200,000 copies in Japan, have been translated into English (101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu and 99 More Unuseless Japanese Inventions, both published by WW Norton & Co.), French, Chinese, German and Spanish, and he makes regular appearances on the BBC and other European TV stations. Barely a month goes by without a media invitation coming through the fax machine, along with diagrams for banana-openers, spaghetti-cutters and portable toilet seats from Chindogu enthusiasts around the world.
If the use of tools is what first set mankind on the road to civilization, what does the new "art and philosophy" of Chindogu -- Japanese for "odd or distorted tool" -- reveal about our prospects at the dawn of the 21st century? We "have the luxury to build that which we can't really use," explains Kenji Kawakami, a former cartoon scriptwriter, bicycle museum designer and home shopping magazine editor who now devotes himself to subverting the Japanese obsession with gadgets and technology. His latest book, 101 UNUSELESS JAPANESE INVENTIONS: The Art of Chindogu (Norton, paper, $10.95), may also subvert the American notion that he and his countrymen are conformist robots, lacking the genes for whimsy and anarchy. A Chindogu, as Mr. Kawakami puts it (with the help of his translator, Dan Papia), is an almost useless invention, something that looks as if it's going to make your life easier -- and only succeeds in making it more ridiculous. Like the hay fever hat, a roll of paper tissues that sits snugly on the sufferer's head, fresh sheet dangling handily just above eye level. Or the golfer's practice umbrella, equipped with a club head at the tip, perfect for chip shots on a subway platform. Admittedly, some Chindogu may speak to distinctly Japanese social needs: consider, for example, the sweetheart's training arm, an extra appendage that attaches to a coat or jacket, recommended for "the early stages of courting" to avoid "the worry of sweaty palms, inappropriate pressure or when to disengage." Then again, what married woman of any nationality hasn't yearned for the back scratcher's T-shirt stamped with a handy "itch-locater grid," the perfect garment for a demanding mate? Or, better still, the dust and shake, a combination duster and martini shaker that rewards vigorous cleaning, providing a truly fine incentive for tackling room after room after room. Mr. Kawakami may have strayed from his absurdist mandate on that one. It seems to me the height of civilized invention. ALIDA BECKER