Has any retailer given us a greater number of cunningly simple solutions to the mundane compromises of domestic life than Muji? Take its simple refillable bathroom bottles – white, of course – which have neatened up the messy corner of many a bath. Or its right-angled socks. Our ankles are right-angled, so why had socks never been made that way before? Even the notion of selling pyjama tops and bottoms separately revealed an insight into how people actually live. Meanwhile, other Muji products, such as the Naoto Fukasawa-designed wall-mounted CD player, have, thanks to their purity of design and function, ascended to iconic status, finding a place in New York's Museum of Modern Art.
To mark its 30th anniversary this year, Muji – short for Mujirushi Ryohin, or "No Brand, Quality Goods" – now has some rather more ambitious plans up its sleeve, including the very homes we live in. I visited Tokyo recently to immerse myself in the Muji world, meet some of the company's key staff, and see its grandest project yet: a new Muji Village housing complex, which has just welcomed its first residents.
From its initial incarnation as 40 label-less, own-brand, cut-price household and food products sold at the Japanese Seiyu department-store chain, few would have predicted Muji would one day be fetishised by people with trendy spectacles around the world for its Zen-like simplicity. But its "design by subtraction" approach to a "total lifestyle" range of furniture, homeware, stationery, food and clothing has won it a place in the proudly dispassionate hearts of design-conscious rationalists everywhere.
Yet when the "no-brand" brand was launched, the response from the Japanese public to its plain brown-card and Cello-phane packaging was muted. "When Muji was born in 1980 there wasn't much reaction," the company president ' Masaaki Kanai tells me at the company's (frankly disappointing) Tokyo headquarters. "It wasn't really until we opened our first store in Aoyama in 1983 that people started to notice." Unlike its HQ (sorry to go on, but surely chintzy, shabby, generic office furniture and ugly lighting have no place in those hallowed halls!), the Muji store environment is intrinsic to understanding the brand's values, as anyone who has visited a branch knows. Back then, goods sold in bulk-style packaging from buckets on wooden floors from a chic warehouse retailer with no name must have been as radical as the opening of the first supermarkets had been.
''There was, and still is, a risk that people will see our products as ordinary, bland," says Kanai. "But the stores gave them an important context to communicate their real meaning. We were trying to compete in a market which valued peripheral things associated with brands, such as prestige and design, things we didn't see as the real essence of our product. Muji started as the antithesis of commercialism, fashion and design. Although we have eventually become cool, we didn't originally want to be there."
Eventually, those stores spread overseas; first, in 1991, to London's Carnaby Street, where the concept captivated shoppers with the exoticism of its Japanese uniformity and confident understatement. Muji made homogeneity cool.
Its designers eliminated all waste with a thrilling ruthlessness: selling the crusts discarded in the manufacture of sandwiches as a fried snack; offering us refillable ballpont pens and dateless diaries (rendering them non-perishable at a stroke); and, most famously, the curved ends left over from the manufacture of spaghetti. Not all of its products are of a practical or parsimonious nature, though: I have been known to consume an entire bag of its strawberry marshmallows in the journey from check-out to street.
I've been a Muji fan – or "Mujirer", as they are known in Japan, where according to the company they are three million strong – since I came across that first London store in the early 1990s. (There are now 14 Mujis in the UK.) According to the people I speak to at Muji HQ, my own relationship with the store followed the classic pattern of how both individual customers and new territories react to the brand; starting with the stationery, progressing to clothing, before embracing everything from the aroma diffuser to furniture.
The original Muji packaging bore no brand name at all; that principle had to be compromised as other companies started to mimic its style, but still today the Muji name does not appear on the products themselves. Neither do the often world-famous names of its freelance designers: Yohji Yamamoto designed a clothing range, for instance. Other Muji part-timers include Sam Hecht of London's Industrial Facility; German furniture maestro Konstantin Grcic; Jasper Morrison, who came up with perhaps the best description of Muji's aesthetic: "Supernormal"; and the great Italian rationalist designer Enzo Mari.
For the first 20 years, Muji grew mostly by word of mouth, with help from the ground-breaking graphic style used in its quirky ads (which remain willfully obtuse). The company's fortunes wobbled at the turn of the century, however. Insiders blame diversification into un-Muji territory – pet items, for instance (there should no place in the Muji home for animals, if you ask me) – but it has weathered the recent financial storms to emerge strongly, with profits up and a gung-ho expansion into other parts of Asia, China in particular. Muji now sells almost 8,000 products in 362 stores worldwide, from must-have aluminium business-card holders to cars (in Japan only, in partnership with Nissan) and even off-the-peg houses.
But Muji is now aiming not just to persuade you to part with your money in exchange for its products, but for those products to have a more meaningful impact on your life. "Nowadays, people have enough material possessions," Kanai tells me with just a hint of a mischievous smile playing about his face. "They want spiritual wealth. More people are asking, is the consumer society good for consumers?"
That's a rather troubling conclusion for a company whose profits are predicated on selling stuff, surely? "Let me explain." Kanai leans forwards, calmly placing his hands one on top of another on the table in front of us. "Our principle of design by subtraction is no longer unique enough to distinguish us. We need something else. Perhaps the best way is to give you some examples of new products. We have just started selling a new chair, made from recycled card. It costs only 1,900 Yen [£13] but the idea is that parents build it with their children and customise it. They create the chair. By creating it together, it becomes a priceless experience."
Last year, Muji launched what it calls – with characteristic Japanese corporate loquaciousness – the Quality Products for Everyday Life Research Centre, using the internet to engage with 700,000 of its customers. As an extension of that, the website asked fans whether – in exchange for a few tokens – it could send a couple of its designers to their homes to photograph how they live; to learn about the problems they faced day to day; and to see the solutions they were employing.
At this point in our discussion, a light goes on above the head of our expat photographer, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert. "You've been to my house!" he exclaims. It turns out that his Japanese wife, a Mujirer herself, logged on to the website a while back and answered its call. Two Muji designers spent an afternoon chatting with her and photographing the apartment where they live with their three-year-old daughter.
We visit Muji's design department on the next floor, and meet one of the team who visited Sutton-Hibbert's apartment. Though they can't find his file, the researcher remembers his home, tactfully, as "not too sorted out, but comfortable enough to be able to access everything". I do get to see some of the files on other Muji customers. With their photographs of
open cupboards and bathroom nooks and crannies, there is a slight whiff of the stalker about this very un-Japanese invasion of privacy; but, equally, it seems a brilliant way to go about researching solutions to the everyday issues of living.
Those refillable bathroom bottles are a direct result of this kind of dialogue between Muji and its customers and – judging by the evidence on show in the open-plan design office – we can probably expect something in the household-cleaning equipment line. But the DIY chair takes the retailer-customer relationship in a whole new direction. Muji, it seems, is now set upon nothing less than finding a "solution" to what it sees as its customers' quality-of-life deficiencies.
"Currently, purchases are driven by ego, but Muji wants to supply reasonable satisfaction, going beyond function into virtuous living," says Kanai. He asks what I think of Muji calling these new products its "Cause Line", adding that it has recently starting working with Fair Trade on some products. I tell him the word "cause" has political connotations and doesn't sound quite right to me. But whatever it is called – and I do hope that, unlike many Japanese corporations that can't resist including inexplicable English phrases in their corporate copyrighting, it is run by a native speaker first – it seems to me quite an exciting notion for a retailer to sell products which nudge customers to spend "quality time" together.
In fact, I had inadvertently bought another of these products while visiting Muji's 3,300sq m flagship store in Yurakucho, close to Ginza, the previous day. The store is one of my favourite places and I usually fill a suitcase on visits there. Though tempted by a tin of whale meat and a pack of transparent Post-Its (brilliant for map books), this time a macaron kit caught my eye, containing all the ingredients (bar the egg whites), all perfectly measured out, for creating your own versions of the current patisserie du jour.
I happen to have the box in my bag on my visit to Muji HQ and I show Kanai, who is delighted (though I don't tell him I bought it because I was deeply sceptical that a DIY kit for the most notoriously tricky baking challenge could work). "Yes. You could buy the finished thing, but cooking together with your family is a great experience," he says. "You know, even kids in Japan are super-busy. There isn't much time to spend with family. We see our job in the future as bringing people together. That's where the real wealth, the real values, are."
Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this is Muji Village, a three-block, 150-unit apartment complex which recently opened in Tsudanuma in the eastern commuter belt, built in partnership with the construction giant Mitsubushi. This quiet, not terribly attractive, residential district is an hour or so's train ride from where I am staying in Shinjuku, past endless fields of pastel-coloured tower blocks, vast baseball nets and oceans of pachinko parlours.
There I meet the complex's manager, Mr Takano, who kindly opens up a couple of show apartments – airy, light, simple to the point of bland, but with telling Muji details, such as handleless kitchen cupboards and soothing, natural colours. Apparently, members of the Muji and Mitsubishi teams had very heated discussions regarding the size of the skirting boards. Muji preferred none at all, but Mitsubishi insisted they were needed to protect the walls. In the end, they agreed on the tiniest ones possible. We all get down on our hands and knees to inspect them. They are indeed dinky. The apartments range from 70-80sq m, and cost from 30m-40m Yen (£215,000-£286,000), no more than others in the area.
Muji's virtual dialogue with its customers has had a significant influence on Muji Village. Contrary to prevailing Japanese architectural wisdom, its predominantly thirty-something prospective customers – mostly couples and young families – told researchers that they wanted to live "low", hence the floor-to-ceiling windows and inclusion of a traditional tatami mat room. The Mujirers also prioritised the dining area over the living space, so that is how the apartments are laid out. "We got feedback from 35,000 people over six months," Takano-san tells me. The project has received a great deal of attention from the Japanese media, Japanese corporations not usually being known as good listeners.
Most excitingly, as far as Takano-san was concerned, was the complex's communal space, a modest sitting-room and "library" where residents can get together. An annual Muji party is planned, and residents can borrow the facilities for their own social events. It is hardly the Muji commune I had hoped for, but I still like to imagine residents convening excitedly here over the new Muji catalogue each season, sharing Muji memories and raising a new generation of Mujirers.
I am, naturally, very keen to meet some of these residents; around 20 per cent or so, Mr Takano told me tantalisingly, were hardcore Mujirers who had furnished their homes floor-to-ceiling with Muji products. These are people who have grown up with Muji, for whom the brand represents familiar, friendly security, he explains. Unfortunately, Muji blocks my attempts to make contact with them, both prior to and during my visit: Takano-san and my Muji guide, Fuminari Kozuka, literally, physically block me when I try to doorstep one young mother we spot making her way through the communal area with her baby buggy.
So I have to make do with standing for a few blissful moments in the living-room, basking in the spring light in a fully Muji-equipped apartment, imagining how serene life would be lived surrounded, embraced by a total Muji lifestyle environment.
The macaron kit worked beautifully, by the way.
'Sushi and Beyond' by Michael Booth, is out now in paperback (Vintage, £8.99). For more on holidays in Japan, visit seejapan. co.uk. The writer flew with Japan Airlines (uk.jal.com), which offers a daily non-stop service from Heathrow to TokyoReuse content