The art of the unuseless

Years ago, when I was a student of Japanese literature, I loved the blog-like Tsurezuregusa, by the 14th-century monk Kenkí´, which Donald Keene translated as Essays in Idleness. “What a strange, demented feeling it gives me,” Kenkí´ began, “when I realize that I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.”

A similar spirit of nonsense animates the inventions of Chindogu founder Kawakami Kenji. Kawakami has invented such indispensable devices as duster slippers for cats (get your house clean while your kitty pads about), the hydrophobe’s bath body suit (for people who want to bathe without getting wet), and beginner high heels, complete with training wheels.

A new article in Japan Focus points out the serious side of Kawakami’s farce. “If people laugh, that’s fine,” Kawakami tells the author. “We need more of it. I believe in rejecting society by laughing at it.” Though pictures of his wacky inventions have been a staple of widely circulated, jokey emails for years, the subtler points of his consumerist critique have been lost on those who arguably stand to benefit the most from it – Japanese and Americans.

“I despise materialism and how everything is turned into a commodity,” says the 57-year-old inventor, while chugging on the first of an endless supply of cigarettes. “Things that should belong to everyone are patented and turned into private property. I’ve never registered a patent and I never will because the world of patents is dirty, full of greed and competition.” …

Murakami’s anti-materialism appears genuine: He has the casual everyman look of an off-duty corporate worker and has not changed the oversized glasses he has worn for years. He is not married and has no children to send to private school. The only apparent concession to bourgeois luxury is the old 7-series BMW that sits outside his office, but a thick layer of dust makes it clear that the car has not moved in years. “I’m not much of a driver,” says its owner.

Definitely a man after my own heart! Though Kawakami’s inventions may strike many as the apotheosis of all that is Western about modern Japan, his critique is firmly rooted in the native thinking of eccentric aesthetes like Kenkí´, who, seven centuries before, was already convinced that the world was growing steadily more tawdry. “A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the grasses and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing,” Kenkí´ wrote. In Chapter 72 of the Tsurezuregusa, he enumerated “Things which seem in poor taste: too many personal effects cluttering up the place where one is sitting; too many brushes in an inkbox; too many Buddhas in a family temple; too many stones and plants in a garden…”

It’s strangely comforting to think that the mania for accumulation was just as mindless then as it is now.

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