The Thomasson: Useless, but meticulously maintained

All right, I’ll admit it. It’s intimidating to come back to my blog after a break of several months. (Why was I away? Grad school applications. Don’t ask, it was brutal.) One of the things that kept me going while I was away was weekly email updates about the statistics on my blog. “Neha! Two people favorited your blog this week!” “Neha! Seven people viewed and four people liked Stuff My Boyfriend Tells Me’s FaceBook page this week!” “Neha! Eleven people printed that comic of your boyfriend rocking to Daft Punk on their newborn babies’ onesies this week!” (Okay, that last one is made up. But only a little.)

Providing irrefutable proof that folks don’t know what to do with themselves in the lazy, food-filled days between Christmas and New Year, the last week of December showed unusually high activity on my blog. I immediately pointed out said blog activity to Boyfriend, and as per usual, Boyfriend nodded sagely (if “sagely” were inflected with a hint of “That’s impressive”). He was curious about why I still got updates on my blog when I wasn’t posting on it, and I said it was because I liked keeping tabs on it. “You know, to maintain it, keep track of what’s going on, etc.”

“That’s interesting. So even if you never posted on your blog again, there would still be maintenance on it?”


“So it could be a Thomasson of the blogosphere. I wonder how many of those exist…”

“A what-now of the blogosphere?”

“A Thomasson…”

(You know the drill by now. No need to ask. Just wait for it. 3…2…1…)

“Did you know, a Japanese artist coined the term “Thomasson” in the 1970s to describe architectural features of buildings that no longer serve any purpose but are maintained nonetheless?”

...Are you saying these stairs don't lead to that little door in the wall that takes you down to the basement where miniature people live in secret?

So… that hole in the wall isn’t a door used by the miniature family that secretly lives in the basement? This staircase with the freshly painted railing actually leads nowhere?

I have no desire to turn my blog into a Thomasson. But it is only fitting that my first post after the break should deal with the nomenclatural genesis of this eloquent term. And there isn’t much to it, really. In fact, you could even say that the entirety of this term’s history lies in just two observations:

A: (As some of you may know) Artists are often interested in architecture;

B: (As some of you may not know) Japan is very interested in baseball.

How do these things connect? Bear with me.

A: The year is 1972. Channeling the flâneur within him, Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa is wandering the streets of his city. As he walks past a building, his attention is arrested by a staircase. This staircase, to be precise:

Staircase to Nowhere

The staircase leads up to a landing and then down again on the other side. But there is no door there, a feature that immediately strikes Akasegawa as odd. “What a strange thing,” he thinks. “I have stumbled upon a Staircase to Nowhere.”* Assuming this structure-with-no-purpose is part of an older construction, Akasegawa is about to move on when he notices that the railing on the staircase has just been repaired. “Hmm,” he thinks again. “An architectural feature that is entirely useless, but still undergoes careful maintenance!” Akasegawa is fascinated, and from that point forward he seeks out architectural features like this one in other buildings as well: doors that are boarded up but freshly painted, water pipes that haven’t carried water in years but are still cleaned, or windows that hug brick walls but still have their glass replaced when broken. Anything that fits the bill of “useless but well-maintained.”

B: The year is 1980. After having played his last game for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Major League Baseball player Gary Thomasson is bought by the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Nippon Pro Baseball. Having played for the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Athletics, and the New York Yankees before he was traded to the Dodgers, Thomasson is a bit of a star. And as these things tend to happen, the Yomiuri Giants give him a contract befitting a star. The heftiest contract, in fact, in the history of the Nippon League. People have grand expectations; Thomasson is eager to deliver. But something happens upon his arrival in Japan, something dramatically antithetical to the fairytale denouement everyone is expecting: Thomasson loses his mojo. Drops his baseball chops, entirely and spectacularly. Truth be told, if he hadn’t injured his knee in a career-ending move, he may have set a new strikeout record for the league.

But the contract remains, and the Yomiuri Giants are under legal obligation to pay him. For two years, the player strikes out but cashes in. For the Nippon League–and many baseball fans in Japan–Gary Thomasson came to define “useless but maintained.”

You see the connection now, don’t you?

I’m not sure if Akasegawa was a baseball fan, but he definitely kept tabs on the performance of various players in the Nippon League. And when it dawned on him at some point during his quest that these “useless-but-maintained” architectural features should be given a name, “Thomasson” seemed an obvious (if slightly mean spirited) choice. He started to photograph these Thomassons, compiling and publishing them in his 1985 book Hyperart: Thomasson. The term quickly gained a cult following, and the book was later translated into English.

Understandably, Gary Thomasson himself had no comment on the matter. But meanness aside, I think Akasegawa has given us a great gift here; a name for all those life situations we’ve never been able to define. That tailbone that serves no purpose but needs you to exercise the muscles around it because you once injured it in spin class? It’s a Thomasson! That sweater you have to wash in special detergent made from a baby penguin’s belly feathers, but that you don’t actually wear anywhere because it isn’t warm enough? It’s a Thomasson! That dog you adopted to bark at strangers when you moved into a sketchy neighborhood because of sketchy career choices like wanting to be a writer, but who just cannot control his excitement upon meeting new people? He’s a Thomasson! That cat who–well, any cat, really–is a Thomasson! Thomassons all round, everywhere you look.

There’s perverse beauty in the term, you have to admit. And the best part? It’s thoroughly useful, and needs no maintenance whatsoever.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

*I may be paraphrasing Akasegawa’s thoughts here. I’m a storyteller. I can’t help myself.




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