20crime_slide01_2Fearing Crime, Japanese Wear the Hiding Place” in The New York Times describes a young fashion designer who has developed a skirt that can transform the wearer into a vending machine, helping her to elude criminals on the street.

Does this seem a little charming? Would thugs be so foolish as to not see your shoes beneath the trembling photograph of a Coke machine? The report excuses Japanese naiveté because their crime rate is one-seventh of America’s.

But that’s not the story. The real story is how Japan celebrates innovation. The culture recognizes what any brainstormer knows: Come up with ideas in quantity. Separate idea generation from idea assessment. Have faith that someone else can fetch your far-fetched idea and bring it home. As the Times‘ reporter Martin Fackler writes:

To be sure, some of these ideas have yet to become commercially viable. However, the fact that they were greeted here with straight faces, or even appeared at all, underscores another, less appreciated facet of Japanese society: its fondness for oddball ideas and inventions.

Japan’s corporate labs have showered the world with technology, from transistor radios to hybrid cars. But the nation is also home to a prolific subculture of individual inventors, whose ideas range from practical to bizarre. Inventors say a tradition of tinkering and building has made Japan welcoming to experimental ideas, no matter how eccentric.

“Japanese society won’t just laugh, so inventors are not afraid to try new things,” said Takumi Hirai, chairman of Japan’s largest association of individual inventors, the 10,000-member Hatsumeigakkai.

In fact, Japan produces so many unusual inventions that it even has a word for them: chindogu, or “queer tools.” The term was popularized by Kenji Kawakami, whose hundreds of intentionally impractical and humorous inventions have won him international attention as Japan’s answer to Rube Goldberg. His creations, which he calls “unuseless,” include a roll of toilet paper attached to the head for easy reach in hay fever season, and tiny mops for a cat’s feet that polish the floor as the cat prowls.

It’s time to rethink the reputation of the Japanese. Many Americans once misperceived Japan as a people whose homogeneous culture stifles creativity. Think again. Look beyond Sony and sushi: Kabuki. Anime and Manga. Nihon teien. Hayao Miyazaki.

To see the Manhole Bag, a purse that can be dropped on the street, immediately masquerading as a manhole cover, see the Times’ slideshow.