The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Japanese Gadgets


A friend sent me this article. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original. The link also exists at the bottom.


Go quietly among the gadgets Graeme Philipson
September 30, 2008

Not only do the Japanese make the best unuseless objects, they know how to use them.
My travels draw me back to Japan. I've been coming here for more than 20 years, mostly for reasons related to the computer business, but this time I'm having a holiday.


The place never ceases to amaze. The Japanese like to think of themselves as unique. In many ways they are. Behind their polite exterior they have strong sense of racial superiority. Perhaps they are right. They do some things extremely well, and others not so.


Japanese politics is dysfunctional, the economy has had the problems for 10 years that the rest of us are having only now, and teenage suicide rates are abnormally high. The place is, on many levels, seriously weird.


But they have the world's best train system and they make the world's most reliable cars. They have definitely the healthiest and probably the tastiest cuisine, and they certainly make the sharpest knives.

But the thing they do best of all is gadgets.

I have in my possession back in Australia an amusing little book called 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami. (I also have its sequel 99 Unuseless Japanese Inventions).
This is one of the funniest books I have ever seen. It is devoted to "chindogu", which roughly translates as "the art of the unuseless idea".

The products it describes are hilarious. A T-shirt with a grid pattern printed on the back so you can easily tell someone exactly where to scratch your back. Slippers for cats so they can polish your floor as they walk around. Umbrellas for your feet. Spectacles with wide-angle lenses so your apartment looks bigger.

You get the idea. Just because the are "unuseless" doesn't make them "useful".

Recently, I took a stroll around Akihabara, the "electric town" suburb a few subways stops north-east of downtown Tokyo. "Gadget town" would be more appropriate - if you or your teenage children can't find something totally bizarre and "unuseless" in this place, you're simply not trying.

The miniaturisation of electronics, and their vastly reduced price, has been a boon to the Japanese gadget industry. Now virtually anything is possible - limited only by the imagination, as they say.

Let's start with the range of things you can plug into your computer USB port. Most them aren't particularly electronic - they just use the USB as a power source - but it is the sheer diversity that astounds.

My favourite is the USB Humping Dog, a small plastic canine that tries to have its way with the side of your computer. Those with more sensitive tastes might prefer the USB Stretching Dog, which merely does sit-ups.

Or you might fancy a USB shirt cooler. Or USB barbecue. Or the USB Hamster Wheel, which is "an utter delight. Plug it into your USB port, load the software from the CD provided and get typing. As you type, the hamster gets running, spinning the hamster wheel around in the process - the faster you type, the faster he runs."

What fun!

What is it with Japanese and their gadgets? When I first visited in the early 1980s, a western friend who lived there told me that our Nipponese cousins like their gadgets because most of them live such cramped lives, in cramped apartments in vast cities.

At the same time, she said, they had large disposable incomes. They had to spend their money on something, and those things had to be small, because of their constricted living conditions, hence the gadget craze.

I'm sure that's partly true, but I think there's more to it.

This is a country where toilets can resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, where cab doors spring open to meet you, and where the cities resemble something out of Blade Runner. It's not just personal space - Japanese are simply technophiles.

Mobile phones are, as you might expect, ubiquitous.

But you never see people using them on trains, except to play games or send or receive text messages. They are only rarely used while walking on the street, and never in restaurants. Receive a call in an eating establishment, and you run outside in great embarrassment. Rude, you know.

The Japanese combine a mania for technology with a respect for the primacy of other people's space. We could learn a lot from this in the digital millennium.

I once asked a fellow westerner why he chose to live in Japan. "I like it because it's quiet," he told me. "Quiet?" I said, motioning my hands at the cacophony that is Tokyo.

"I don't mean physically quiet," he told me. "I mean spiritually quiet. You can live your own life in Japan and nobody gets in your way."

I often think of his comments when I am in this wonderful country. I thought of them as I walked the chaotic streets of Akihabara.

Japanese embrace technology for its own sake, even if it is "unuseless". But they do not let it rule their lives, nor do they let it get in the way of their innate respect for their fellow man.

Technology and good manners can co-exist. I wish a few mobile phone users in the western world would get the message.



2 comments:

Zen said...

"I wish a few mobile phone users in the western world would get the message."

HOW TRUE, I SECOND THAT!

Rick said...

I have a friend who is a cop who has pulled over people who are on their cell phones, and keep talking while he's writing them up.

His policy is if they want to keep talking that's fine, but he's going to write them up for everything that's coming to them and cut no slack.

That seems fair enough to me.