Chindogu is the Japanese tongue-in-cheek art of creating gadgets that, whilst solving everyday problems, are almost completely useless. This humorous topic can lead to some memorable moments in the classroom and can be an excellent way to generate language in the EFL/ESL classroom. Let’s explore it further!
Let’s See Some Examples!
Take a look at the video below, and enjoy some very funny ideas for inventions, such as a full-body umbrella, cat ‘duster’ shoes and a toilet roll hat for hay fever sufferers.
These were invented by Kenji Kawakami, who coined the term chindogu (which literally means ‘strange tool’) and introduced his creations to the world in the 1995 book 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu.
So, how could we use them in class?
Paraphrasing and Describing Purpose
Getting students to describe these bizarre objects is a useful and fun way to develop their ability to paraphrase in English. Since a word for these objects doesn’t exist, it challenges students’ powers of description.
The topic lends itself to practising a number of grammatical structures. At lower levels, this could be:
- It’s for ___-ing
- You use it to…
At higher levels, this could include verb patterns such as:
- It enables you to…
- It helps you (to)…
- It prevents you from ___-ing
- It saves you ___-ing
It’s also useful for practising defining relative clauses.
- It’s something that you can use to…
- It’s a gadget that enables you to…
You might want to start by showing students a few photos and asking them to describe what they see (and what they think of it!). This chindogu article at Tofugu.com has a great selection to choose from. I like to select a few that don’t appear in the above video, which I then show later.
Once students are familiar with these structures, I like to use a video, such as the one above, as a memory game. There are over 20 inventions in this video, and it goes quite fast (but that’s the appeal!), so you could get students in pairs or small groups to list 10 that they remember.
Invent Your Own!
You will by now have awakened your class to the idea that there are many everyday problems that could be ‘solved’ by a funny device. Let’s take this idea further, practising the language of daily routines, problems, solutions and persuasion as we go!
Try brainstorming these little everyday problems with your class and draw up a list of new problems to solve. You could go through typical weekday and weekend routines to generate discussion. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- getting up in the morning is difficult
- brushing your teeth takes a long time
- you need to wait for coffee to cool down before drinking it
- it’s hard to be good at sport if you can’t run fast
- it’s difficult to hold a mobile phone while carrying shopping bags
- it’s easy to lose your friends in a crowd
Now let your students’ creativity come to the fore as they create their own chindogu to solve one of these problems in pairs or small groups.
You could get students to practise their powers of persuasion by advertising their product in the form of a poster, a radio or video ad, or even a sales pitch in the style of the hit TV show Dragon’s Den. (This is not strictly in the spirit of chindogu, however, as it’s not intended as a profit-making activity, according to the Ten Tenets of Chindogu. Please forgive us, Mr Kawakami!).
You could help students to organise their sales pitch or advert with the formula below.
- name (make it catchy!)
- instructions (you could practise imperatives and sequencing language)
- slogan (this could simply be the selling point; you could teach some nice ‘sales’ expressions here such as ‘it’s guaranteed to…’ / ‘to do something like a pro’ / ‘to do something to your heart’s content’ / ‘never… again’ )
Here’s an example
Name: Bucket clock
Problem: Getting up in the morning is difficult. It’s too easy to switch off your alarm and oversleep.
Solution: Our unique alarm clock makes you spring out of bed by dropping water on you!
- Hang it on the wall above your bed
- Fill it up with water
- Set the time of your alarm
- Sleep peacefully, knowing that you will definitely wake up on time
Slogan: Never oversleep again! Guaranteed to wake you up!
Is there a point to making ‘useless’ inventions? And is anyone still doing it?
Well, although the heyday of chindogu was in the 1990s, its spirit lives on in new inventors such as YouTuber Simone Giertz. She describes herself as the ‘Queen of Silly Robots’ and gives an entertaining and thought-provoking TED talk entitled ‘Why You Should Create Useless Things’.
If your class is suitably aged (she makes one or two slightly adult references), this could form the basis of a listening activity and subsequent discussion on topics such as psychology and work. It’s certainly a good example of an unusual career path, and she talks openly about how a problematic personality trait started her on this journey.
Fancy seeing a few of Simone’s inventions? Check out the toothbrush machine, the breakfast machine, the lipstick robot, the popcorn machine and an alternative to our very own ‘bucket clock’ – the wake-up machine.
A Final Twist
It wouldn’t be right to conclude our article on chindogu without mentioning the fact that one invention – believe it or not – eventually became popular all around the world! The selfie stick (called at the time the ‘self-portait camera stick’) actually appeared in Kenji Kawakami’s 1995 book (see this image and this one). It goes to show that an invention can truly have a life of its own!
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You may have noticed…
The chindogu video has a spelling error (it should be ‘useful’, not ‘usefull’). A point for the first student who spots it, maybe! You could also make your own video by using a tool such as Animoto.
The title of Kenji Kawakami’s book, 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu, is notable for the fact that ‘unuseless’ isn’t actually a word. It does, however, perfectly describe his inventions, which are neither totally useless (because they do solve problems) nor useful (because they’re too impractical or embarrassing to use in public).