October 25, 2007, 12:11 pm
The Inside Joke Behind the Muji ‘Brand’
By Jennifer 8. Lee

New Yorkers, used to the egocentric Japanese personalities like Nobu and Masa, may assume that there is a man named Muji behind the Japanese brand that has already seduced design-conscious crowds at MoMA and is scheduled to arrive in New York City on Nov. 16 with its first American store, at 455 Broadway in SoHo. (And a 5,000-square-foot space in the new New York Times Building on Eighth Avenue and 40th-41st Streets in January.)

But there is no Muji the man. New York shoppers who can read the characters in the Japanese label (無印良品) immediately get the inside joke. The first character, 無 (mu), means “without.” The second character, 印 (jirushi), means “brand.” “Muji” is simply short for “Mujirushi Ryōhin” or “brandless quality goods.” Muji started out in the early 1980s as a generic supermarket brand for Seiyu but has grown to encompass a huge array of goods including housewares, lighting and clothing.
Now Muji is bringing its minimalist wares to the United States, after having already invaded Europe. But lost in the translation, either consciously or not, Muji’s “brandless” has become a brand. (Perhaps Muji’s upscale-fication outside Japan is not so strange given that McDonald’s, overseas, has gone designer.)
Muji’s items in MoMA often sell at a 30 to 50 percent premium in dollars compared with original the price in yen on the labels. This City Room reporter made a faux pas when, influenced Muji’s chic presence in MoMA, she proposed shopping for gifts at Muji in Tokyo as a thank you for an older Japanese woman.
The horrified response from a Japanese-American friend: “You can’t do that! It would be like buying a present from Target!”
Muji follows on the tail of Uniqlo, the Japanese powerhouse fashion retailer that opened its flagship store in SoHo last year and is known for its sensible prices and high quality. Together, the two companies represent the arrival of Japan mass-market aesthetic into the United States.
Japan, which is responsible for about 40 percent of global luxury good sales, itself has historically been the “land of the brand.”
“Before the bubble burst, the Japanese, they wouldn’t buy something that was inexpensive simply because it was inexpensive,” said Debbie Howard, president of Japan Market Resource Network, a market research company that does work in Japan. The retail Japanese brands that have arrived in the United States have been luxury and niche products — Mikimoto, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto.
Uniqlo and Muji are among a number of Japanese no-frills retailers that grew up after the bubble — a mini-backlash to brand consciousness. Others include discount-chain Don Quijote and Daiei. Uniqlo Japan, for example, brags that it has no labels or nearly invisible ones on its clothing. It was about the quality of the clothing, not the brand, executives said.
But maybe Americans are not nearly as ascetic as the Japanese.
When the Uniqlo store opened in SoHo, one of the first things the company did was to add red-and-white Uniqlo labels to all the clothing.
New Yorkers, it seems, like labels.