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Here's the Story of How Japanese Retail Giant Muji Began

From supermarket-shelf anonymity to design icon, Muji’s is the story of a modern classic.
Here's the Story of How Japanese Retail Giant Muji Began
IMAGE Muji Philippines
From supermarket-shelf anonymity to design icon, Muji’s is the story of a modern classic.

The Muji retail story is an unlikely one, rising from modest beginnings on the shelves of a Japanese supermarket chain to receiving countless design awards and feted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Muji’s transformation from shelf-filler to cult status to a global brand in the space of 30 years is nothing short of extraordinary. All the more so as Muji has built its image on eschewing the traditional concept of the brand and branding. For its staunchest adherents, Muji continues to hold the position of the anti-brand. This interesting contradiction forms the backdrop to an exceptional commercial success story in Japan and globally.       

Muji’s genesis in 1980 came in the understated form of 30 products occupying shelves alongside more recognizable brands in Japan’s Seiyu supermarket. Unlike other brands, Muji’s packaging made no attempt to mimic their more well-known competitors: the brown paper and clear plastic packaging set Muji apart precisely because it bore no brand name and only a description of the clearly-visible contents. On closer inspection, the fine print on the packages identified the manufacturer as Mujirushi Ryohin, which translates as “no name, quality goods.” This was a bold move at the peak of the Japanese economic miracle when brands were increasingly prized by consumers as much for their pricetag as their inherent value.     

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Muji’s understatement was in stark contrast to the mania driving Japan’s bubble economy, the time when consumers were beginning their worship of Louis Vuitton and Chanel. This differentiation, however, allowed Muji to branch out, expand its product lines and eventually open its first store in Tokyo’s fashionable Aoyama. The appeal of Muji’s simplicity, which was an antithesis to the times, acquired it a loyal following from its earliest days.   

Muji’s strategy remains focused on quietly introducing an overarching philosophy defined by restraint, simplicity, and relevance. This philosophy influences the selection of materials, streamlining of processes, and simplification of packaging. The identification of sustainable and innovative sources of raw materials also allows Muji to develop inherently eco-friendly products. Its design rests on the concept of “design by subtraction,” in which an item’s core function is brought to the fore. What the brand’s global success reveals is that in a world of clutter and facetious embellishment, there’s still a fundamental appreciation for that which is simple, unadulterated, and does what it’s designed to do.

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*This story originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Preview Magazine. 

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