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The Muji Paradox

A open love letter to the Japanese retailer.

Inside a Muji store. Photo: View Pictures/Getty Images

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Muji and I, we have a routine.

Whenever I’m feeling a little edgy or in need of some self-care — which, in 2016, has been unrelentingly often — I wander into the minimalist Japanese retailer’s warm and pleasingly-lit walls to browse the rows of desk supplies and sensible button-down shirts. Often, I’ll purchase something — some pens perhaps, or an elderflower-scented travel candle — but the total rarely exceeds the cost of a lunch.

Usually one to exhibit a reasonable amount of self-control when it comes to buying things I don’t need, I am woefully powerless when it comes to these micro purchases at Muji. Earlier this year, on the first day of a three-week trip to Japan, I squealed with delight when I found that they actually sold Muji products in one of the major convenience store chains (quaintly named “Family Mart”), just in case you needed a 20-pack of non-branded Q-tips along with your machine-dispensed iced coffee. As I wandered through the retailer’s five-floor outlet in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood, I felt a silent kinship with the kind of Japanese shopper who would intently examine the seam on a heather gray camisole before purchasing it. You wouldn’t be caught dead owning a novelty 5K race T-shirt, I thought. Neither would I.

Inside a Muji store. Photo: View Pictures/Getty Images

Indeed, it wasn’t until this trip to Japan — a country that has a knack for turning even the most ascetic person into a rabid consumerist, hence the success of Marie Kondo — that I began to see the Muji paradox as clear as a stain on one of its organic linen tunics: that I can feel so strongly about a brand that goes out of its way to be dogmatically un-branded seems a kind of magic trick of capitalism that no other retailer pulls off so ably.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t need the things I buy at Muji, but they do make my life measurably better, if only infinitesimally. Things like the mini travel soaps with the accompanying plastic box, which eliminates an unnecessary liquid from my carry-on-only packing system. The mini lint roller, which folds up into its own case and fits in a handbag so my coat never has errant hair on it. The right angle socks, which I’m convinced are the only no-show socks on the planet that can comfortably be worn with Vans slip-on shoes. The transparent plastic zipper pouch for carry-on liquids, which I smugly pull out when attempting to bypass London Heathrow’s liquid-obsessive security line. In a cold, cruel world full of big problems, these tiny victories add up — which is perhaps why I come back for refills of my favorite items again and again.

The Muji effect extends beyond my own life, too. I would be lying if I said that, upon seeing the bedroom of a romantic interest for the first time, that person’s stock does not immediately rise if their bed is outfitted in muted-toned Muji sheets. Similarly, a person who has a cup full of Muji 0.5 mm pens on their desk not only broadcasts an affinity for fine writing implements, but also an attention to detail that I’m likely to appreciate. A stranger who strides through a throng of holiday shoppers with a single large carrier bag from Muji somehow seems exempt from perpetuating capitalism and all of its ills, even though they are.

Indeed, Muji espouses a kind of pious minimalist ethos that draws in a particular type of discerning shopper (me) who, instead of buying more hangers, gets rid of clothes to fit the amount of hangers they already own. The promise that, with each new visit, I may find an ingenious solution for one of modern life’s subtle but vexing inconveniences excites me. It makes me feel that perhaps I’m not being extravagant, but rather sensible, by paying Muji a visit every now and then.

Ryan Patel is a retail analyst and consultant who helps brands scale internationally. He says the cult of Muji is based on simplicity, consistency, and the idea that the stuff is not screaming at you to buy it, but rather patiently waiting for you to find it.

“The design of the stores has a warm appeal. It creates a feeling that’s non-intrusive, it doesn’t pressure you to spend money,” says Patel. “Plus, you’re shopping for an everyday item, you’re not shopping for a high-ticket item — there are a lot of consumers who are just looking for something that is what it looks like. Muji doesn’t need to have a brand name because the brand name is the store. They’ve parlayed this simplicity into credibility.”

The credibility has proved lucrative, of course. After all, Muji may want to reduce the clutter in my apartment, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t want its highly functional stuff to be in as many apartments as possible. Though it only has 11 stores in North America (compared to 227 in East Asia and 61 in Europe), its plans for expansion are decidedly not low-key. In its 2016 annual report, it notes that it hopes to expand from 24 to 34 countries and regions worldwide, with a particular focus on China, where it hopes to have 200 stores by the end of this fiscal year.

And yet, Patel is right. Everything in Muji is how I want my life to be all the time: clean, orderly, soothingly-lit, warm, in a neutral color palette, and non-intrusive. Even the salespeople don’t bother you unless you ask them to. Add in the mission creep aspect of the operation — I walk in to buy pens and walk out having just bought essential oils, nail clippers, and a normcore gray sweatshirt — and you see why its self-stated mission of “creating a pleasant life” is an ingenious way to bolster its bottom line.

Alas, we all know a pleasant life can’t be found inside the walls of any retailer, even a Japanese one. And indeed, it was during my trip to Japan that I began to see Muji as emblematic of — rather than exempt from — the kind of consumerist fever that makes Tokyo a really fun yet financially dangerous city to go shopping in. However, even though Muji’s clever capitalistic jig is up, it’s still unlikely I’ll put an end to my self-soothing shopping routine any time soon. After all, Donald Trump is almost president, and I like the socks too much.