MUJI, founded in Japan in 1980, offers a wide variety of quality products including household goods, apparel and food. Due to its minimalist/simple design, this is often dubbed Zen design or commercial Zen. But are there real connections between MUJI and Zen? And if so, what are they exactly?
Although it’s called “MUJI” outside Japan, its real name is “無印良品 (mu-jirushi ryohin).” “無 (mu)” is an equivalent to the prefix “non”, “印 (jirushi, or shiruji)” means “signature”, “symbol” or “mark,” and “良品 (ryohin)” means good products. “Mu-jirusi” was a word coined by MUJI to declare a mission to seek product designs that would truly help and enlighten people’s daily lives by wasting no energy or resources on non-fundamental, non-essential elements. They believed that products would eventually become “anonymous – mu-jirushi,” rather than a strong “brand – shirushi”, becoming so natural that they would completely dissolve into peoples’ lives.
It is a surprisingly bold statement that questions the way our society has been designing commercial products. (Who would pick a brand name that starts with “No”?) And what’s interesting about MUJI is that such belief is supported by their unique “aesthetics”, rather than a well defined mission statement. Instead of explicitly defining what “Mu-jirushi Ryohin” should be, MUJI let people – designers, employees and users alike – decide what a product means to them based on the MUJI aesthetics, which could be interpreted differently by each of them.
The word “aesthetics” here is used to translate the Japanese word “美意識 (bi-ishiki),” but they are not completely equal. Although “bi-ishiki” in Japanese literally means “sensitivity and consciousness toward beauty,” it also refers to your personal guiding principle. You can question: “Is it ‘beautiful’ to act this way?” to make decisions. For example, the samurai had very unique bi-ishiki, the culmination of which was an honorable death – the most beautiful act of living from their perspective. (This is a complicated one, so look for more information if you are interested). On a daily basis, you would use your bi-ishiki to avoid listening to gossip, for example, because you know that it’s not a “beautiful” thing to do.
For MUJI, the unique bi-ishiki is their “non-mission statement” that inspires MUJI people to design products that make lives more “beautiful.” And it’s not just about aesthetics. MUJI aspires to help people behave, act and interact with other people or the surrounding environment in a way they believe is “beautiful.” This kind of approach makes MUJI and Zen look similar, because Zen is a religion based on Buddha’s teachings, that attempts to integrate your body and mind with the surrounding environment.
But is it possible to make more explicit connections between MUJI and Zen?
Zen philosophy: 空 (kuu) and 不立文字 (furyumonji)
We need to start by reviewing that Zen is.
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism which spread among East Asian countries over thousands of years. Whereas each school has its own approach and history, Zen emerged in China around 9th century, and was subsequently brought to Japan. Compared to other Mayahana schools, Zen has very distinct characteristics: it denies the written text and tries to rely on physical training, notably mediation, to achieve religious goals. You can think of it as a religion of silence. Through meditation, you try to vacate your body to ultimately become an empty container. First you block out any external support. All you can do is to talk to your inner self, or become keenly aware of your surroundings (which was often nature, because Zen priests frequently meditated in the natural environment). After long and difficult training, you ultimately reached the stage at which you no longer felt the need to talk about yourself nor worry about what was around you. You completely dissolved in the vast universe, becoming part of eternal peace. You embraced the boundless and abundant silence-emptiness. Zen maintained that such as state could only be achieved through physical training, not by just reading or studying.
Two major tenets of Zen will help make clearer connection between MUJI and Zen: “空 (kuu)” and “不立文字 (furyumonji).”
“空 (kuu)” is the core tenet of Buddhism that defines its worldview. Buddha observed that our world was “empty – kuu,” because all of us and everything on Earth were destined to change. For example, even if you think you are always you, the you of today is not exactly how you were yesterday. If you are destined to change, you can never be defined because you are not an absolute existence. If you cannot be defined, you are “empty.” This “emptiness – kuu” is the key to discover the truth of the world where we exist (read more about “kuu”). Zen attempts to reach the state of “kuu,” the ultimate goal of religious endeavors, through mediation.
“不立文字 (furyumonji)” is unique to Zen, and it means “do no rely on the text.” Text is inherently susceptible to various interpretations, which could lead to unproductive disputes that have nothing to do with achieving religious goals. The concept of “furyumonji” demonstrates Zen’s strong belief that truth can only be found in leveraging our physical abilities, senses and behaviors. We therefore have to let them guide knowledge and intelligence, not the other way around. Whereas our world often prioritizes information and forgets about the importance of the cognition acquired through physical/sensorial concentration, Zen is very strict about the order: text should not supersede physical truth.
Kenya Hara and “emptiness”
Kenya Hara, an influential graphic designer, played a pivotal role cementing MUJI’s brand philosophy. He is an advocate of the aesthetic of “emptiness” and MUJI’s products are infused with it. By the way, Buddhism’s “kuu” and “emptiness” share the same Chinese character “空.” The concept behind them is virtually the same.
According to Hara, MUJI’s aesthetic is not so much about being “simple” – although it would be the first word linked to MUJI – but is about being “empty.” MUJI designs their products to become “empty vessels” so that the users can place their own things, whether it’s an idea, creativity or physical objects.
The first is the idea of “emptiness.” The idea of simplicity comes from Western contemporary design and takes a rationalistic form. But in traditional Japanese design, simplicity has a slightly different character. It is the simple form that gives users the freedom to develop their own way of handling an object. It is this depth that I call emptiness. MUJI essentially embodies this emptiness. For example, the MUJI mattress with legs can also be used as a sofa. You could also put several together to create an elevated floor. Giving users the freedom to use our products however they wish is what I mean by emptiness. We feel this is not something to be explained in words. Our visuals are designed to wake people to this emptiness so that users feel it the moment they seem them. (“Visualize the Philosophy of MUJI”: Kenya Hara)
The Pocket Coil Mattress Hara, mentioned above, is one of MUJI’s long-selling, signature products. It is “simple” because it is made only with a mattress and removable legs. But Hara argues that it is rather “empty” since 1). It fits any room with any interior design and can become a quiet background. 2). It can be used as a bed or a sofa, leaving rooms for users to decide how to leverage it. 3). It focuses on functionality (sleeping comfort, stability and adjustable height), rather than on excess frills.
For MUJI, simplicity is never for the sake of simplicity. It is the result of a careful process to make products as universal and fundamental as possible – or empty – by eliminating any unnecessary additions, prudently considering how they would be used by different people in different settings.
How has Hara fostered his aesthetics of “emptiness”? One of the decisive moments came when he visited several national treasure-level traditional rooms and chashitsu (tea room) in Kyoto to photograph MUJI’s chawan (rice bowl: image below, courtesy of Ryohin Keikaku) as part of its marketing campaign.
As he directed the photo sessions, placing a single chawan on the tatami floor in several small, empty traditional rooms that were designed and built during the late Muromachi era (late 15th century ~ 16th century), and saw how the two blended together, it dawned to him that his belief and sympathy toward “emptiness” must have been exactly what the people in the Muromachi era felt when they designed those rooms. (see the actual photos from MUJI advertisement)
Despite his previous conception that his “modern” works had little to do with a traditional culture that already stopped evolving, Hara found that there has always been core aesthetics in Japanese culture that is too fundamental to change. And “emptiness” was part of that.
In the presentation, he continues to introduce the roots of “emptiness” as fundamental of his aesthetics.
Before the Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century from China, Japanese people believed that there were “eight million gods” in nature (八百万の神, or yaoyorozu no kami). Gods represented the sun, the moon, the mountains, the oceans, storms, fire and the harvest…every element in nature. But since they were in nature, they were elusive. Respecting their elusiveness, Japanese honored their territory (deep in nature) and kept the human sphere of influence limited, so that the gods would not be disturbed. Only when people needed to “communicate” with the gods, would they make something like a “shiro,” which was an empty area for channeling the spirits, placed in between the gods’ realm and peoples’ world.
In the Muromachi era (14th ~ 16th century), such emptiness took the form of “wabi-sabi”, strongly influenced by Zen. Zen was brought to Japan from China as it was transitioning from an aristocrat-led society to the one controlled by military leaders (10th ~ 12th century). Zen resonated with the emerging samurai spirit because it focused on physical/mental training to become self-controlled, self-dependent and self-sustained. Wabi-sabi was, in a sense, an art to pursue self-sufficiency without seeking the source of beauty elsewhere. It refused luxurious, superfluous decoration and additions both materially and mentally, and sought abundance in the naked, honest – ultimately “empty” – face of nature, including humans. If you will, it was the art of “no brand.”
It is interesting to see that the encounter of MUJI and chashitsu (tea rooms) was such a perfect fit. Chashitsu emerged as a device for tea ceremony, which was established as one of the major part of wabi-sabi Zen culture in the 16th century.
The tea ceremony is the art of “bi-ishiki” on behavior. Its main goal is not to so much about tasting tea, but about fostering keen consciousness toward your behavior, which would in turn determine your ability to appreciate the relationship with others and the surrounding environment. The tea ceremony gathering was developed as a vehicle to train such keen consciousness, encompassing major behaviors that touch our “bi-ishiki.”
Murata Juko, the pioneer of so-called “wabi-cha,” declared that the essence of the tea ceremony and Zen were the same: the real beauty or art could emerge only when every single excess frill was stripped off and your raw consciousness was elevated to the highest level. He designed minimal, simple and rustic chashitsu of 4 ½ jyo (about 7 square meters) which later became the standard. In a small and almost empty chashitu, you are forced to become keenly aware of your behavior and the surroundings. The rooms and chashitsu MUJI and Hara used for the photo session were the same size: The Dojisai of the Ginkakuji and the Kasumidokoseki at Daitoku-ji Gyokurin-in were 4 1/2 jyo. Sa-an was even smaller, and measured 3 jyo.
Ultimately, the “emptiness” that helped shape Japanese aesthetics, captivated “modern” designers such as Kenya Hara and helped cement MUJI’s design philosophy, is a fundamental worldview nurtured by a way of living that is close to nature. By observing, accepting and accommodating it, the Japanese have fostered a keen consciousness on behavior that strikes a delicate balance between nature, the surroundings and other people. Zen resolutely elevated such attitude into crystallized forms of art, making the “bi-ishiki of emptiness” tangible and beautiful. Such approach is very similar to what MUJI aspires to. “Design” according to MUJI is something we could leverage to “design” our own “beautiful” behavior, which will ultimately help shape our accomplishments and happiness.
Naoto Fukasawa and “without thought”
Probably as pivotal as Kenya Hara, is an industrial designer, Naoto Fukasawa, who helped cement MUJI’s aesthetics by designing many iconic products. Fukasawa has a very unique awareness on our physical/sensory behavior and its relationship with product design. It is as if he is looking at the potential of 不立文字 (furyumonji) in the world of design – design as a vehicle to uncover our subconscious behavior to unleash fresh “AHA!” moments.
Fukasawa’s first design for MUJI was an iconic wall-mounted CD player, which is cataloged by the MOMA.
Fukasawa originally came up with the idea of “without thought,” a series of design workshops he started in 1998 when he realized that people often related with products subconsciously, not consciously. The title “without thought” was suggested by Bill Moggridge, the founder of IDEO and Bill Verplank when they heard about the idea from Fukasawa to launch a design project that leverages people’s spontaneous behavior that happens almost automatically, “without thinking.”
In case of the CD player, Fukasawa imagined that people could not resist to pull a string hanging from a product. It’s an action that requires no thinking – there’s a string, so you must pull it. And when you do it, the music will start playing. That can be an “ohhh” moment in your daily life, which is stirred by connecting a natural physical action (pull) with a sensory joy (listening to the music). Fukasawa believes that this product revealed fundamental “MUJI-ness” by elevating an everyday product to something that would embrace a sequence of behaviors and sensory reactions capable of delivering users a fresh “AHA!”
Fukasawa’s CD player inspired MUJI, which started looking into the relationships between our behavior and products at fundamental levels, by collaborating with unique designers from around the world.
Fukasawa asks more questions: In our imagination, an “umbrella stand” is almost always a box-shaped product. (It rains a lot in Japan, so umbrellas are important!) But does it really have to be that shape? Is this the best product design?
An umbrella is a long and narrow product that cannot stand on its own (left image). But since it’s often wet after use, you want it to stand without wetting the floor (center image). Umbrella stands are almost a requirement for buildings and facilities, and they need to stand upright.
If you think about this carefully, the ultimate objective of an umbrella stand is not to make a stand, but to keep umbrellas upright by resisting gravity. If you look around a room, there is something already there that is standing upright, resisting gravity: that is the walls. Therefore, the most natural action would be to lean your umbrella against the wall. Actually, if you saw that the floor was stone-tiled with gaps or cracks, you would react without thinking by placing the tip of your umbrella in the cracks so that it could lean against the wall.
This is a fundamental behavioral question. Our body and senses are capable of constantly checking surrounding environment to detect the most reasonable solutions available. But because we are trained to believe that an umbrella stand is a tall rectangle box made with sturdy material, we forget about its original objective, which is to keep something vertical that is thin and narrow.
Fukasawa believes that MUJI’s identity should be in seeking the equivalent of tile cracks for umbrellas in every aspect of our live. Its mission should not necessarily be to make and sell established products such as an umbrella stand, but to re-imagine what design is, or should be, by focusing on our spontaneous behaviors triggered in reaction to the surrounding environment.
He reminds us that it’s possible to design products by observing our natural sequence of behavior, and products designed in such a way will deliver fresh joys and comfort to our daily life. As he often says, the most beautiful product design for him is the one that “dissolves into behavior.” Products execute their purpose only when they are used. The act of using a product is a form of behavior. If we feel happy by using a product, that’s when we can feel such a behavior is “beautiful.” As Zen’s tenet “furyumonji” suggests, information or text does not, and should not, supersede our physical truth. Through his MUJI design, Fukasawa unearths our forgotten connections between behaviors and senses/cognitive abilities that happen “without thoughts,” that can re-define our relationship with products.