From Issue Six of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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In his opening remarks during a 2017 seminar on MUJI’s philosophy, the company’s influential Art Director, Kenya Hara, cited his predecessor, Ikko Tanaka: “The simplicity that comes from stripping away frills can surpass splendor.”
The quote is a modern incarnation of the Japanese su aesthetic, a principle that permits simplicity to serve as something more than mere necessity or frugality, and that when done thoughtfully, supersedes plainness. This is the MUJI aesthetic, one that could be easily dismissed as yet another minimalist money-grabber, if only the company hadn’t been following this core tenet when its product lineup sat at around 40 items at the time of its founding in 1980. (Today, that number closer to 7,000, with goods ranging from children’s pajamas to furniture to foodstuffs.)
“We think American customers are realizing now that they don’t need to buy a pack of ten pens. One good pen will do.”
In his speech, Hara also hints at ku, another traditional Japanese aesthetic that translates, roughly, to “emptiness” — but not the West’s definition of it. Rather, in the same way an “empty” sketchbook represents creative opportunity, MUJI’s products do not demand hyper-specific usage. They are anti-ergonomy. The beauty and intended goal is that you decide how best to use them. This takes shape in ambiguous product names (“low table” instead of “coffee table,” for instance); head-scratchingly little in the way of instruction manuals; and a great many scalable, modular offerings.
The stores, too, serve as shrines to su and ku. There isn’t a logo to be found on a single product, and, despite operating stores in the US for more than a decade, some of the labels, price tags and manuals remain, still, only in Japanese. From humble beginnings inside a supermarket chain, the company now operates more than 400 stores in Japan, with hundreds more scattered across China and Europe. However, despite a fervent, almost cult-like, devotion among American consumers, there are only 15 in the US and seven in Canada. Fortunately, that will soon change; the company is about to embark on a relatively aggressive US expansion, with three new stores scheduled to open in Seattle, Portland (Oregon) and Santa Monica later this year.
On the lower level of MUJI’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City, I met Toru Tsunoda, the man most responsible for pushing MUJI into the American market. It didn’t seem to matter that we were meeting in the morning before the store opened; it was no more or less calming than it had been the countless times I’d ventured there before — the aroma diffusers still quietly spewing a melange of yuzu, rosemary and lavender oils into the air. We wandered around for a few minutes searching for a spot where my recorder wouldn’t pick up the store’s atmospherics or employees shuffling around preparing to open up shop. We pulled together some stools from the back and circled up just behind the cash registers.
For example, Japanese people tend to buy groceries almost every day for only that day. In America, the majority of people seem to buy groceries once a week to stock up for days at a time. This goes the same with household items. In Japan we do not buy things in bulk, instead, we purchase what we need. Especially in urban areas, Americans are beginning to do this as well.
You learn a customer’s values the same way in any country, I think. We put a lot of emphasis on listening — listening to our staff, the people who come into our store, what’s going on around us. There’s also the simple fact that each store and location is different. The top product in each of our stores is mostly the same, but the second and third and fourth top-selling products in the SoHo store are not the same as the Williamsburg store, and so on. We have to think about the neighborhoods we inhabit, what ethnicities and groups of people live there.
There’s certainly a difference between the US and Japan in the popularity of certain categories and the people who shop MUJI. In Japan, seventy percent of our customers are women, whereas the US is more like sixty percent, which is a much bigger difference than you’d think.
There are things we just can’t replicate for you online — the aroma diffusers, food-tasting sessions or the pen-and-pad testing area. It doesn’t matter to us if someone only buys a pen when they visit; if they use that pen and it works for them, they’ll come back and try our other products. And they’ll bring others in with them. That is the strength of making quality products.
I bought my business-card holder right before I joined the company [in 1996] and I’m still using it. It looks the same today as it did then. We sell almost the exact same product today. Making things well isn’t a trend for us. These are the things we’re focused on — making products that do their job in a convenient, long-lasting, unobtrusive way.