The Mujirushi house: Fans finally get total immersion

April 2nd, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

The model "wood house" near Kita Matsudo station. Sorry, they wouldn't let us take pictures of the interior.

The model "wood house" near Kita Matsudo station. Sorry, they wouldn't let us take pictures of the interior.

Mujirushi is the Elvis of that marketing sub-genre known as the private brand. Launched in 1980 by Seiji Tsutsumi, the chairman of the Saison retail group, as an inexpensive line of merchandise for his Seiyu chain of supermarkets, the “non-brand” (which is what mujirushi means) soon garnered a following thanks to its iconoclastic simplicity courtesy of Ikko Tanaka, who designed the line for Tsutsumi.

In 1983, Saison opened the first Mujirushi Ryohin store in Aoyama, Tokyo. By that point, the line had outgrown its original set of cheap food and household products to include apparel, stationery, accessories, even furnishings. Of course, the idea of having “no label” implied that the usual advertising and marketing costs attached to “brands” did not apply, but while the items weren’t as expensive as many brand products they weren’t cheap either, and the irony implicit in the Aoyama store’s subsequent success was that “no brand” could itself be a big brand. By the ’90s, when Mujirushi Ryohin Keikaku split from Seiyu it represented a distinct lifestyle to many people.

Mujirushi peaked in 1998 when it reported ¥13.3 billion in profits. But the company got cocky and opened stores faster than it could develop new products. It lost the simplicity of its original design model and by 2001 profits had dropped to ¥5.6 billion. That year, it had to destroy ¥12 billion in unsellable merchandise, mostly clothing. Already, other companies had appropriated the no-brand concept, like the drug and sundry retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi, the apparel maker Uniqlo, the household goods store Nitori,and the myriad ¥100 shops that were features of every new mini-mall. But Mujirushi cleaned itself up and returned to its roots, and now it’s bigger than ever.

Nationwide there are 192 company-owned stores, 69 licensed stores and 78 sections within Seiyu supermarkets. There are also about 50 stores in Europe and six in New York City, where Muji, as its called overseas, is very much a distinctive brand since no one there has any idea with “mujirushi” means.

Central to the Mujirushi renaissance was the company’s decision about five years ago to finally put a house on sale. The design was, like their household products and clothing, based on simplicity and function. The housing line has since grown and dedicated fans of the brand, called “mujirah,” can now totally immerse themselves in the Mujirushi aesthetic.

There are three general designs: the morning house, the wood house and the window house. Depending on the size, it will run you between ¥15 and ¥25 million. That’s about the same as other, comparably sized manufactured homes by companies like Sekisui and Tama Home, except for one striking difference: the Mujirushi house comes with nothing in it — no shelves in the closets, no lighting, no bathroom fixtures. The idea, of course, is that mujirah will outfit their new homes with Mujirushi goods, which is why the designs are flexible. Walls can be moved, room configurations rearranged, panels installed. You can opt for one of those cheap, ugly “unit baths” or have a specially Mujirushi-certified tile bathroom installed. You can put in kitchen cabinets or just a floor-to-ceiling sliding door behind which you can stack all the Mujirushi off-white containers your heart desires. Most importantly, you can make the windows any size you want — and you can make them all CLEAR glass rather than that pebbled or clouded glass that other housing companies insist on.

Though the product itself is not revolutionary and may, in fact, be out of the price range of most mujirah (you still have to provide the land, of course, which is the real cost of property in Japan), the Mujirushi house could shake up the new housing market substantially. Most manufactured home companies make their money by being inflexible: You have to stick to the design they give you, which is why they have so many of them. Mujirushi only gives you three designs, but enough flexibility within those three so that you can meet your needs and wants easily.

The value is in the material and the construction, which means that Mujirushi homes not only qualify for eco points, but also for “long-life housing” tax deductions, since they are built to last much longer than the standard 35 years. Consequently, that also means the resale value will be higher than that for a conventional manufactured home. Mujirushi now is working with major developers on residential neighborhoods and even on condominiums. There are now model homes all over the country, so start immersing.

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