Ingenious Things That Only Exist In Japan
Here's proof that Japanese people care about details which have clever functions!Design
Known for giving the world sushi, origami, and the world of Pokémon, to name but a few things, it’s safe to say that Japan is home to some of the most creative, innovative minds on our planet.
But this ingenuity even extends to certain aspects of everyday life that can take visitors by surprise. From square watermelons to magic restrooms, let's explore how Japan serves up amazing design details with seriously clever functions.
All the men know that using the little boys’ room isn’t always the most fun experience, but Japan has a fix for that. To understand, you must watch the clip below:
While that little guy on the screen was definitely peeing, he isn’t the only one, the cameraman is too! This is actually a video game stationed at a urinal in Japan, which serves a surprisingly practical function.
The cartoon soda cans fill in sync with the user’s own golden stream passing down the drain, but if the users’ urinal aim is too bad, there’s an infra-red device that stops gameplay. And what better way to encourage good urinal etiquette than video games?
Leaving the fun and games behind, this next Japanese toilet invention is seriously impressive. These toilets may look like a quirky art installation, but they are fully functioning, transparent public bathrooms in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
The technology at work here is what’s called a polymer dispersed liquid crystal device, a type of smart glass glazing that can change its transparency with the flick of an electrical current switch. In the case of these transforming toilets, the switch is actually the lock on the stall door.
When the door’s unlocked, an electrical current aligns the crystals in the glass’s glazing, allowing light to pass through, resulting in a transparent appearance. When the door’s locked, the electrical current is turned off which effectively relaxes those crystals into a more chaotic arrangement, allowing them to scatter light so less passes through, resulting in a frosted, cloudy appearance.
While there’s no denying that the technology behind it is incredible, you might be wondering what the point of all this is for a public bathroom stall. Well, seeing as public bathrooms can often harbor some pretty unpleasant surprises, those needing to use these transparent toilets are able to check out the cleanliness and safety of the stall without having to walk inside or touch anything.
Plus, anyone leaving the restroom in a mess is instantly caught red-handed by the person next in line! And as far as altering behavior goes, shame is a very powerful thing indeed, as I’m sure many of us learned in high school.
Blue Traffic Lights
We all know that when it comes to traffic signals, green means go; but Japan begs to differ. If you’ve ever visited Japan, you might have noticed that there’s something funky going on with their traffic lights.
While the rest of the world’s traffic light systems work with red, amber and green, Japan works with red, amber and blue, and the reason behind this decision is much stranger than you might expect.
Hundreds of years ago, the Japanese language had words for four basic colors: black, white, red and blue. Eventually, green became a more distinct color in the Japanese language and so the word Midori, originally meaning ‘sprout’, came into usage to cover it.
But for a long time, green was still very much treated as a shade of blue, and many referred to both colors under the term ‘ao’. While there are now separate terms for many different colors in modern Japanese, the overlap between the way colors are referred to has persisted through time in certain contexts.
When Japan first installed traffic lights in 1930, the “go” light was green, but it became commonplace for Japanese people to refer to the light as aoiro hikari, meaning blue light. Rather than changing the official descriptions, the Japanese government decided to alter the color of the lights themselves, to blue.
But here’s the kicker: according to the Japanese government, the lights aren’t actually blue. Official government documentation states that they’re actually just a very blue shade of green; the bluest possible. Despite these claims, the blueness of the lights is hard for international institutions to ignore.
So, as the lights aren’t internationally recognized as being green, this technicality prevented Japan from signing the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international agreement between more than 100 countries to standardize this traffic signs, including a green light to indicate ‘go’.
Thanks to a combo of great waste-management services and national pride, Japan’s streets are well-known for being super clean. What they are littered with, however, are clever design details that help people on the daily.
Take the famous Shibuya Crossing at Hachikō Square in Tokyo, for example. The Shibuya Crossing halts 10 lanes of traffic to accommodate around 500,000 pedestrians over 5 crosswalks throughout a single day.
The origin of crossings like this, known as pedestrian scrambles, where signals stop traffic completely to allow crossings in all directions, dates back to late 1940s Canada and the USA. While Japan can’t exactly take credit for the invention of pedestrian scrambles, the country does feature more than 300 of the crossings.
Not only can pedestrians cross around the outside of intersections, they can even cut directly through the middle, like the crossing in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, meaning that all sidewalks in the intersection are accessible with just one road-crossing.
While Japan is known for ingenious, tech-savvy innovation, they’re also known for some of the whackiest inventions the world has ever seen. Chindogu is the art of inventing weird and whacky gadgets to solve minor everyday problems, under the general approach of being "not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless".
Chindogu was the brainchild of Japan’s resident mad scientist inventor Kenji Kawakami. One of his first chindogu inventions was a pair of eyedrop funnel glasses, an invention inspired by his own trouble with aiming the drops correctly.
Handy and hilarious, what’s not to love? But we’re just getting started on our chindogu journey, as countless inventions have sprung up since Kawakami started the movement. Take the chopstick set with a built-in fan that cools down hot noodles as you scoop them into your food-hole.
Pretty nifty, if you discount the fact that your noodles are sure to be lukewarm at best after just a few minutes, as well as the wrist-ache you’ll be left with after having to lift a fan along with your chopsticks for every bite.
Perhaps the early, disposable predecessor to the 360 degree camera in the image below could be a little more useful? Perhaps.
Though, given how you’d look wearing it, you’d have to ask yourself: at what cost?
But what about a butter stick? While it would eliminate the task of washing up a butter knife, the concept runs into problems when you consider the multiple crumbs and other food that would probably end up getting stuck in the stick.
On the topic of sticks, you probably never realized that there’s actually a very popular, widely used product that came out of chindogu. While initially touted as a ‘useless’ invention, the selfie-stick was included in Kawakami’s 101 Un-Useless Japanese Inventions book in 1995 but, as we all know, this rod of reckoning has become a staple of our selfie-obsessed society.
Chindogu literally means "curious tool" or "strange device" and perhaps the best way to contemplate the art of Chindogu is to see them in action:
From sophisticated sushi to humble cup noodles, Japan’s world-famous cuisine certainly provides some food for thought when it comes to culinary skill. But this next food item showcases more of a thought for food on the part of Japanese farmers.
No, Minecraft hasn’t transitioned into the real world just yet, those are very real, very square watermelons, but how are they grown, and more importantly why? While the watermelon is still small on the vine, a square box is placed around it. As it continues to grow, the fruit will eventually fill out the box, molding to its cubic shape.
The seed for this idea was planted in the mind of Japanese graphic designer Tomoyuki Ono in 1977 and he even acquired a patent in the USA for his cube-shaped fruit molding device. While regular spherical watermelons are a few dollars apiece, these cool cuboid creations fetch up to $200 per melon in Japan, and as much as $860 abroad.
Despite their inflated price tags, most square watermelons are actually almost inedible because of their cubic shape. Although Ono’s patent claims that the taste of the molded watermelons is no less than that of a naturally shaped melon, today’s square watermelons are more of a feast for the eyes than the stomach.
While their appearance is what sets them apart, the square shape can only be retained if harvested before reaching ripeness. Unlike many other fruits, watermelons don’t continue to ripen after they’re harvested, so the flesh inside square watermelons is far from the luscious bright red we’re accustomed to, being more yellow, and often tastes pretty bitter.
While you might think it’s not very smart to grow watermelons that aren’t sweet and tasty, these farmers are clearly doing something right, as expensive square watermelons are a very popular gift in Japan.
While novelties are often pretty useless, a big benefit of cubic watermelons is that they are a lot easier to pack, ship and refrigerate thanks to their stackable shape. Forget food for thought, or even food for taste, Japan has got you covered with some serious food for function.
Sampuru: The Japanese Art Of Fake Food
Tourists in Japan are always looking to chow down on some delicious, authentic Japanese cuisine. If you peer through restaurant windows in Japan, you’re sure to see some truly delicious looking plates of food: stacks of freshly made sushi, crispy tempura and golden gyozas.
But if you look a little closer, or take a bite of any of this food, you’ll notice that everything isn’t as it seems. These deceptively delicious-looking window displays are actually completely fake and totally inedible.
While fake, inedible food might seem completely useless, this practice, known as sampuru, has a very clever function that serves to help potential restaurant patrons to satisfy their rumbling stomachs.
Sampuru began in the later 1800s with displays of real food to give potential customers an idea of what was on offer, as written menus weren’t popular in Japan at the time. Eventually, models made of candle wax began being used instead to prevent wasting real food.
This gained even more popularity after World War 2 came to an end, as Japan was heavily occupied by the USA with as many as 430,000 American soldiers living there at some point between 1945 and 1952.
Most of these soldiers did not understand Japanese, and when dinner time came around, reading and ordering from the Japanese restaurant menus was an impossible task. So, sampuru models allowed these American immigrants to simply point to the item they wanted.
Today, the fake food industry in Japan is worth a mouth-watering $90 million. Clients send actual versions of the dishes they want a sampuru version of, along with photos, to a special workshop.
The real food is typically treated to harden it, then dipped into silicone to create a mold. This mold is then filled with liquid plastic to create a fake replica. The entire process is achieved by hand, and the most important step is painting and airbrushing the food sculptures to achieve the most realistic-looking fake food known to man.
Even in our world of online menus and delivery apps, these plastic food samples are ever present in Japanese culture and sampuru has served as a valuable tool for tourists across all language barriers. Even if you can’t speak a word of Japanese, simply point at what you want to eat and voila, or as Japanese folks would say, "jan jan!"
Walk into any convenience store around the world, and you’re sure to see a whole array of plastic bottles. In Japan, however, some of them have some very convenient features hidden in plain sight. Tourists are sure to find many unique foods and drinks in Japanese convenience stores but one of the most popular among locals is Calpis Soda.
This pale white soda is a concoction of powdered milk and lactic acid and is mainly consumed for its high levels of calcium. But aside from its health benefits and yogurt-like flavor, there is one very clever function hidden within the bottles themselves. Check out the clip below:
Views of the bottles’ beautiful illustrations are a clever incentive for consumers to finish every last drop to reveal the full, 3D artwork. And there are plenty of different illustrations on different Calpis bottles, making them collectable items that consumers are less likely to toss away to a future at the landfill.
And Calpis bottles aren’t the only works of art that can be found in Japanese convenience stores. If you cast your eye elsewhere in the refrigerated section, you’ll find some intricately designed tea bottles.
Exposure to light is one of the key factors that determines what a particular tea looks and tastes like, and you may have noticed that many tea brands’ packaging recommend keeping their products in a dark place. Excess light can alter the flavor-producing molecules inside a consumable product.
So to preserve the quality of the tea inside, the ridges in the plastic around the neck of these tea bottles help to scatter light, deflecting much of it away from the tea, preventing direct exposure as much as possible to maximize freshness and flavor.
There are even more conveniences at the convenience store now and these next ones are ultra-refreshing. Opening the pull-tabs on the top of cans can be a fiddly experience, but a lot of Japanese manufacturers include a raised lip on the tab for better grip, making the process as smooth as the soda inside.
But that’s just the beginning of Japan’s aluminum can creativity. There’s not much better than cracking open a cold one at the end of a long day, and a Japanese design trend that’s beginning to catch on around the world makes the whole beer-drinking process better than ever. Watch the clip below:
These special ring-pull beer cans convert aluminum cans into beer cups that allow you a more straight-from-the-draft tasting experience. Instead of sipping through the tiny keyhole opening seen on regular beer cans, these peel off lids allow for a more direct appreciation, through scent and taste, of all the beer’s malty flavors.
Transformable cup-can-combos aside, if you’ve ever seen a Japanese beer can in a slightly more traditional style, you might have noticed some seemingly random looking dots on the top. But these aren’t random at all, nor are they coded info used by manufacturers for quality-checks, factory machine calibration and the like.
In actuality, Japanese booze companies have cleverly integrated braille into their cans to prevent those with visual impairments from accidentally picking up a beer when they really want a soda. In the case of Japanese alcohol cans, some simply read: “alcohol” or “sake”, while others have the product brand name printed in braille.
And Japan’s mission for accessibility doesn’t stop there. It continues right into the dairy aisle. A small indented arc found on cartons of milk has also been put in place for the visually impaired and helps to distinguish pure milk from other drinks that come in similarly shaped cartons.
While the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ may work for some, in Japan, everything out of sight is most certainly in mind, and the result is a masterclass of efficiency, even for the blind.
You’ll need something to soak up all that ultra-convenient beer, and when in Japan, there’s nothing quite like a good portion of noodles to set you straight. On average there are around 5.72 billion servings of instant noodles eaten every year in Japan, and their convenience stores hold what seems to be an infinite number of different flavors on offer.
While your standard cup noodles require hot water to brew up a broth bath for the ramen to swim in, Japanese convenience store specialties offer some super convenient ways to drain the cooking water. One of the most popular instant noodle products in Japan, Nissin’s UFO noodles have a very special preparation method. Take a look.
This all-in-one package features a nifty lid you peel halfway, leaving the part with a strainer sealed and ready to drain with ultimate efficiency. Making the packaging itself an all-in-one cooking pot, strainer, and bowl is a true stroke of genius, resulting in mess-free noodles with oodles of innovation.
If you’ve ever had nightmares about robots taking over the world, then Japan might not be the place for you. Robots are everywhere in Japan, even in places you’d least expect, in restaurants.
Dubbed the Pepper Parlor, a robotic restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya district includes robot clerks, all called Pepper, to take food orders, as well as waiters to bring food out. The owners claim the humanoid bots at Pepper Parlor can even scan your facial expression and make menu recommendations based on your mood, though they haven’t revealed exactly how that works, if indeed it does.
After you’ve let a Pepper robot look deep into your soul and completed your waffle order, another robot will follow you along to your table and keep you company while you wait for your food to arrive.
So, not only do these robots help take food orders, they will also interact with customers, pose for photos and play games with groups or solo diners. While there’s no doubt their food is delicious, the restaurant’s real specialty is serving us a taste of the future.
Small Apartment Solutions
We’ve already seen that Japan is a country of big brains, however, thanks to the country’s dense population, Japanese apartments are notoriously small. In fact, the average studio apartment covers just 215 square feet compared with the 495 square foot average size found in the US, that’s less than half the size!
Apartments this small can be very troublesome for furniture and appliance shopping, and one of the biggest headaches for new tenants is the kitchen. A refrigerator is an essential part of any modern kitchen, but in Japanese kitchens it can be very tricky to find the right spot where the fridge door has enough room to open in a direction that’s not going to get in your way.
So, the ever-pragmatic Japan came up with a solution: dual-swing refrigerators. They are quite commonplace in Japan and are built with innovative hinges that allow users to open its door either from the left or from the right.
Each hinge features an ingenious locking mechanism that is able to change its function depending on which side the door is being opened from. Not only is the option to open these refrigerators from both sides beneficial for a more flexible kitchen area, but it’s also a blessing for all those lefties out there.
For more ingenious space-saving secrets, check out the micro-apartment toilet solution in the video below.
This double duty toilet-sink combination showcases the true ingenuity of Japanese interior design, using water from the toilet tank to not only flush down doo-doo, but also let users wash their hands.
The compact efficiency of this makes you wonder why more countries don’t take up the idea. I suspect it may have something to do with it seeming a little gross, though it’s not like the used toilet water is being funneled up into the faucet!
The posterchild of on-the-go convenience, vending machines have been synonymous with urban Japanese culture for decades. And there’s a good reason. Japan’s city-dwellers are famous for slogging through extremely long work hours, so quick transactions from automated machines are pretty essential for a busy workforce.
While it might all sound a little soulless, discovering all the weird and whacky offerings from different vending machines is one of the most fun ways to spend a day in Japan.
With a population of 125 million people in a country roughly the size of California, Japan is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet. Not only that, but around 75% of Japan’s terrain is mountainous and uninhabitable, meaning real estate prices in urban areas are sky high, including retail spaces.
So, street vending machines are a clever solution for Japanese consumer companies looking to sell goods without having to pay extortionate rent rates for a whole store. Plus, there’s the added money-saver of not having to pay employees to run a store, except for the machine’s refill and repairs guy!
Japan has more than five million vending machines dotted around the country, from the streets of Tokyo to the summit of Mount Fuji. With the aforementioned population of 125 million people, that works out at around one vending machine per 25 citizens.
With this number of vending machines, it’s no surprise that when in Japan you can get a hold of pretty much whatever you want, wherever you want. From useful things like umbrellas, medical testing kits and hot meals to even more essential items such as Pokémon cards and cake in a can.
But if you are on a diet, you can stick to the cabbage vending machine!
I hope you were amazed at these ingenious and unusual Japanese inventions and design choices! Thanks for reading.