It almost seems like a Japanese nazonazo (riddle)—what is the most well known Japanese brand that isn't a brand? The answer is the ubiquitous Japanese department store 無印良品, that for over thirty years has produced thousands of characteristically neutrally designed, yet highly functional products.
The name of the store, 無印良品, isn't really a name at all. 無印【むじるし】translates as 'no brand' or 'unlabeled', and 良品【りょひん】means something like 'high quality goods', or 'superior articles'. The sign at the front of the shops is really just a descriptor for what's inside: countless well-made products, with no distinctive emblems, logos, brand names or fancy packaging.
Muji's first international store was in London, UK. There, the shop had to have some kind of anglicised name, so it went with 'MUJI', which doesn't mean anything at all, since it is the Japanese reading of the first character, 無, and the first mora of the second character, 印. Say 'muji' to a Japanese person and they may have no idea what you are talking about. But with this, a brand is born: MUJI.
Eye for design
The total focus of MUJI's endeavours seems to be about design, and this is abundantly clear when you hold one of their products in your hand. From the notebooks that look identical no matter which side you open them from, to the international travel adaptor that is elegantly functional, it's no wonder that MUJI products have regularly won international design awards, and have been featured in collections the world over. The stores are immaculately laid out, and the staff are mercilessly attentive. The packaging is simple and functional: only essential information and a price tag is affixed to the item.
It's a mystery
MUJI is in many ways more secretive than Apple in what it reveals to the public about how its products are made. Little is publicly known about which manufacturers produce the products (the majority of MUJI's collection is made in China, with only certain flagship products boasting 'Made in Japan' on their labels), and most products aren't attributed to one particular designer. This collaborative approach results in a clear homogenisation of style across all of their products.
From home furnishings to homes
MUJI's flagship store is in Yūrakuchō, Tōkyō. I paid a visit last year to see what all the fuss was about. The store is said to have every single product in MUJI's current inventory, which means that you can buy stationery items, clothing, foodstuffs (generally packet sauces, dried snacks—all not particularly appetising or of exceptional quality), luggage, home furnishings, office furniture, various cold drinks, and much more: all 5,000 individual MUJI-created items under one roof. The store, although not particularly big, even boasts a full-sized show home on the first floor.
The Yen's incredibly high value over the last few years has hit Japanese exporters hard: Japanese goods are just too expensive at Japanese prices. MUJI appears to have bucked the trend, however.
MUJI has achieved great success in France, with six stores in central Paris alone, and plans for even greater expansion across Western Europe through a franchise model, which is an uncommon business practice for Japanese brands venturing overseas, such as UNIQLO who tend to prefer to maintain exclusive control of their operations.
In Japan too, you'll find small collections of MUJI items in many convenience stores, and most regional airports have a small 'MUJI to go' stand, which sells a range of items relating to travel, such as alarm clocks, power converters, stationary and luggage. This means that the MUJI brand has infiltrated every-day Japanese life. Their products are used by millions, and because they are not branded, they may not even know it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and find who’s ‘borrowed’ my MUJI pen, again. They really are the best everyday pen around.