Muji & Ambiguity

By Catherine Nakajima


In Japanese culture, there is a special value placed on ambiguity. Ambiguity, or aimai, is an inherent part of the Japanese language because it paves the way for compromise and maintains cooperation and harmony in life.  This means that in Japan, people are expected to express themselves ambiguously and indirectly.  Speaking definitively or decisively—or flat-out disagreeing—is considered to be rude for its harshness.

Although Americans often censor themselves in an effort to be “politically correct,” at the end of the day, Americans value straightforward communication and freedom of expression over abstractness.  In America, hesitancy and uncertainty are viewed as weaknesses. Thus, the Japanese ambiguity in communication often seems ridiculous for the confusion it can cause.  But the Japanese language is based upon this system of ambiguity, and is understood by most native speakers.  The American proverb “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” does not exist in Japan; instead, its Japanese equivalent states, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”

Considering that this Japanese proverb applauds conformity and silence in expression, one would think that Japan would be empty of innovation.  And yet, the opposite is true; from limitation and constraint emerges ambitious creativity. A perfect example of creativity and ambiguity working together is the store MUJI.

You may have encountered MUJI before.  There are currently four stores in New York City, 53 in Europe, 77 in Asia, and hundreds in Japan.  The word “MUJI” is short for Mujirushi Ryōhin, which translates to “no brand quality goods.”  This name encompasses the store’s business and design philosophy, which includes carefully selecting  materials for all items, streamlining the manufacturing processes, and simplifying the packaging of every item.

MUJI’s signature quirk is the fact that its business model and its designs are all  part of one philosophy. The goal is to achieve simplicity through complex thought and design, to get rid of frills, and to aspire towards modesty and plainness in order to appeal to as wide a group as possible.   The sparse packaging is its own marketing tool, and MUJI tries to avoid spending money on other forms of advertising.

This self-marketing method is evident when you walk into the store; the carefully-sorted selection of containers, folder organizers, and brand-less shampoo bottles are arranged from clear, white, to tan. Each bottle has a with a small tan label that says MUJI.  The products, which have been carefully chosen as items that designers deem necessary for everyday living, are mostly clear or white.  “White moves in the opposite direction of chaos; it is the singular image that emerges from disorder,” states MUJI’s Creative Director Kenya Hara.

At MUJI, you won’t find a pen whose exterior color does not match its interior.  The products in this store are honest—what you see is what you get; each design is meant to be as straightforward as possible, so that you can see what the product is made out of.  But while the designs themselves are straightforward, it’s the way customers use these products which is ambiguous. This step is left for the user to decide. Japanese people value ambiguity in language is because they assume that the person they’re speaking with is knowledgeable. It is considered that speaking overly explicitly to someone implies a level of ignorance.  In a similar way, MUJI assumes that the user has his or her own design intelligence, and lets the user decide what to use the products for.

For an example of this open-endedness, MUJI has an array of small containers of various sizes.  They don’t give suggestions for what to put inside them, but customers can decide what to put in them based on the nature of the shape.  The product itself is straightforward, but its functionality is left open to interpretation. This is  where we see the ambiguity of Japanese language translated into design.  Through its simplicity, the product is automatically tailored to suit everyone. MUJI is an empty vessel, a product that molds itself to the context of every lifestyle, appealing to young and old, male and female.

Despite the fact that its name means “no brand,” MUJI has created a unique brand for itself.  MUJI stands out from other stores with its plain and stark no-brandedness. Thus, a paradox has surfaced: MUJI is unique for its denial of a brand, and through this lack of brand,  a new style emerges.  MUJI becomes special for the very thing it is not. Hara is aware of this paradox, and his reasons for having “no brand” are driven by values of simplicity, ecological awareness, and an appreciate for life’s undervalued staples. In its pursuit of the ordinary, MUJI achieves the extraordinary.


For comments, questions, or to obtain references, please email cathmnaka@gmail.com

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