SOCIETY Future Imperfect

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003

by Tim Hornyak

I'M SITTING ACROSS FROM gadget god Kenji Kawakami in a Shimbashi cafequaffing latte when he whips out a plastic container holding what he says has captivated his attention for an entire year: mud.

More precisely, pond sludge, which he proceeds to dollop into a liter of water. Stirring, the man who blasted reason out of inventing with his anarchic, mind-bender Chindogu gizmos chuckles and apologizes for having created his first ''real invention'' -- something that can actually be put to practical use and sold.

This is heresy in the Church of Chindogu. Kawakami's cult following was built on his art of "unuseless" analog devices like Self-Lighting Cigarettes, whose sole value lies in their very lack of value in making life easier. But so far all I'm seeing is a dirty whirlpool.

"Environment," the swami of the absurd says cryptically. He then produces a packet of metallic grey powder and sprinkles it into the mire. In a minute, the water is clear, the black slime condensed at the bottom. It's also drinkable after a boil, says Kawakami, describing visions of cleaning Osaka's Dotombori River and Bangkok's Klong Toey canal with his moondust. Kawakami, who has dreamed up hundreds of mad doodads since he conceived Chindogu in 1985, hopes the powder lands him his first patent, as well as clients looking to purify industrial sewage. He defends his defection to usefulness by saying part of sales proceeds will go to help clear some of the world's 50 million land mines.

But fear not, Chindogu fans. Kawakami hasn't forsaken his fatuous craft. He wants to publish a new book of contraptions in 2003, among which will be his Corner Sleeping Hat, enabling harried 21st-century stiffs to stick themselves to a building corner and catnap. The future looks a lot darker than the water treated with his secret snow, unless you're living in China. Business in the Middle Kingdom will continue to boom, he says, while Japan will be content to sink deeper into its deflationary quicksand.

"In Japan and America, everyone just thinks about themselves," he sighs. "But China's different. They think of the group, the movement. Japan used to have that, but now people just think about going out, money, Luis Vuitton bags. Their own affairs.

"They have no awareness of the problem, and our society can't go on like that. The economy will get worse, but it serves us right." Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will carry on in his aimless leadership charade, and the United States will start to regret its "childish" foreign policies and its belief that justice only means justice for Americans, according to Kawakami.

He likens the necessity of seeing things in a new light to concocting Chindogu, or bothering to wonder why, for instance, one can always see fish being sliced up on cooking shows but never cows.

"Old-fashioned thinking is the easiest way," the radical inventor stresses. "Adopting a new point of view requires effort."

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