Competition of ‘Meaningless’ Inventions Raises Spirits of Struggling Small Factories in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Daisuke Uraji, the president of Day-Plaft Inc. in Iga, Mie Prefecture, operates Dobatto, which spouts 350 shakes of an ordinary ichimi-togarashi spicy red chili powder bottle, looked on by Indonesian trainees in December last year.

“Three, two, one, dobatto!”

With a push, a large amount of ichimi-togarashi spicy red chili powder dropped out from the belly of a seal on top of a machine. The amount of the powder coming out with a single push of the machine called Dobatto is equivalent to 350 shakes of an ordinary, small bottle of the spice. The machine was developed by Day-Plaft Inc., a resin processing company in Iga, Mie Prefecture.

The company’s president, Daisuke Uraji, came up with the idea about the machine after seeing an Indonesian trainee shaking heaps of chili powder into a bowl of udon noodles until they were all red. The machine is about 50 centimeters tall, and pressing the button on top triggers a spring, and a lot of chili powder gushes out in one go.

Founded in 2019, Day-Plaft is a small factory with eight employees. The company usually manufactures screws and other parts for assembling semiconductors. The chili powder spouting machine was shaped and put together by all the staff in between working on other jobs. To adjust the button to make it easier to press, they tried out all kinds of coil springs. They also learned about coating by watching videos on making plastic models. It took them about two months to complete the Dobatto machine.

It was apparently the first time for the company to make a machine from scratch on its own, that is, from designing to adding the finishing touch.

“There was a sense of accomplishment in working together to create it,” a 23-year-old trainee said.

However, Dobatto is far from being a sellable product, it’s completely useless. There is an annual competition for such useless products made by professional artisans in the country. The competition is called Kudaranai Mono Grand Prix. “Kudaranai mono” means useless thing. Dobatto won the grand prix at the competition’s fourth edition in October last year.

“If you only seek work efficiency, even if you can meet deadlines, innovation will not occur. New techniques and ideas are born from thinking about unnecessary things,” said Megumi Oyabu, 47, who runs the competition. She is also an executive of Daiwa Kakou Co., a rubber molding company in Fuso, Aichi Prefecture.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Megumi Oyabu, who runs the Kudaranai Mono Grand Prix, is an executive of Daiwa Kakou Co., a rubber molding company in Fuso, Aichi Prefecture.

The competition began in spring 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging. Orders to small factories dwindled, and their production lines were halted. The industry suffered from a sense of stagnation. Daiwa Kakou received 60% fewer orders. Amid the plight, the presidents of small factories had a gathering at which they started boasting about items with no practical purposes which they handmade by themselves, such as a “a gold-plated mask hanger for an executive.”

Oyabu listened to their exchanges and had a good laugh. Then she thought it would be difficult for small factories to recover after the pandemic as they were depleted by repeatedly cutting down unit prices until there was no margin to cut costs. It was high time for small factories to show their mettle.

“I will hold an event for artisans to dare to make useless things and feel proud,” she thought.

When she talked about the event to companies she was acquainted with, 20 companies gave her positive responses. In November 2020, they came to the event venue with inventions they made full-heartedly. The event was streamed online, and viewers could vote for their favorite works. The first work to win the grand prix was a company that made a miniature model of its building using pieces of metal left over from their production process.

The event received far greater responses than expected. Veteran artisans, who were initially giving a dubious look at young workers eagerly making works for the competition, eventually taught them their skills saying, “Let’s do it together.” Some young people even decided to work at small factories after hearing about their success in the tournament. Factories in Osaka and Tokyo participated in the competition as well.

Unwittingly, some inventions that were supposed to be “useless” turned out to be useful.

Maruhachi Kogyo, a car parts processing company in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, entered the inaugural edition of the competition in 2020 with a metal clasp that stops a toilet roll from rotating. The device didn’t win a prize but the company’s president, Yoshie Tanaka, 38, received a call from a welfare facility for people with disabilities. The facility was having trouble with some users blocking toilets with large amounts of toilet paper.

“It might become useful,” Tanaka thought, and the company started improving the device and developed a toilet roll holder that stops rotating after a certain amount of paper has been used. In October last year, the facility installed the holders at its toilets in an experimental demonstration. The company will analyze its results and try to turn the holder into a commercial product.

Tanaka, who cares for her intellectually impaired mother, said with a smile, “Communication with clients is all I do at work normally. This is the first time I could feel being connected to society. I hope this will be my way of giving back to the welfare industry.”

The entered works at the competition are getting more ridiculous each year, such as a machine for removing only the fillings of onigiri rice balls, an apparatus to open lids of four plastic bottles by three people, and the world’s most fragile mechanical pencil leads.

Oyabu’s company has taken part in the event every year with such devices as shogi chess pieces that make no noise or ramen made of rubber.

“It’s not easy to come up with new ideas about ridiculous, meaningless things,” Oyabu said, smiling mischievously. Her eyes were filled with confidence and pride.