The MUJI myth

Floating in the sea of harmonious minimalism that is the MUJI store, I found myself drifting towards a beautiful tea set. Instantly attracted to its delicate features, I had actually admired the tea set many times before. I found a real beauty in it. Its smooth white appearance gave it a sense of purity, perfectly suited to its surroundings full of pale bare wood, shining glass and crisp white paper. My attraction was a natural, innate reaction to beauty. I never thought to question it. But recently I have had a different purpose; asking myself why do I find it beautiful?

Discourse about beauty may have fallen out of fashion for a number of reasons. Beauty has become seen as a shallow concept associated with beautiful models and ever-changing fashion. But as I discovered, there are also other reasons. Not only is our concept of beauty is deeply personal but it can unearth embarrassing motivations or naïve ideas.

For something to be beautiful there has to be something unique and meaningful about it. The teapot has an unusual cylindrical handle that protrudes out of its side. The dainty teacups have no handles; reminders of the carefulness involved its use. These features, or lack there of, gave the objects extra meaning to me. These are not from the tea set I use at home. They cause my imagination to float away to a quiet outdoor tea ceremony in a picturesque Japanese Botantic Garden. The uniqueness of this tea set came not only from its unusual features but also from its traditional, cultural context. I associate the simple pure form of the tea set with Japanese culture as though they are somehow intrinsically linked.

Most beauty has an intangible quality and its creation is not always easily conceived. This is why I find so much beauty in nature. Alexander Nehamas said beauty leaves you with a guess or a suspicion that there is more in the work that would be valuable to learn. I find beauty in objects that have some aspect that I do not fully understand. In the case of this tea set it is that I cannot fully comprehend the significance of tea in Japanese culture and I suspect that I may never do. But by owning these objects I feel I may know slightly more.

The teapot feels thoughtfully designed and the white porcelain seems like the perfect material to create it from. MUJI’s use of bare natural materials gives the store a feeling of purity and integrity. They have been true to the materials so I assume they have been true to the cultural context of the items they sell.

My haze of Oriental beauty and tradition was interrupted when I walked into the Pearl River store and was greeted by an enormous glowing plastic Buddha. On a nearby table, crystal Buddha paperweights glittered, but they were certainly not gold. They were both obviously made from cheap materials. The objects didn’t feel traditionally Chinese. I didn’t want to learn more about the object’s history, as I knew they had none. They were a clearly fake bastardized version of Buddhist culture.

I found appearance of the bright blue plastic Buddha garish and ugly. But there was also something deeper to my repulsion. It glowed in a bizarre fashion and stared at me as if to impart its knowledge; “it’s all fake.” It made me question my love of the tea set. Had I simply bought into the myth of MUJI? I began to realize that MUJI probably isn’t anymore of a true representation of the East than Pearl River is. MUJI have just done a better job at designing their stores to look like they are. I felt like a silly naïve Westerner. The MUJI objects may be more tastefully crafted from more expensive materials, but no amount of porcelain tea sets will transform my home into a Japanese teahouse just as no amount of cheap Buddha statues will automatically change my belief system.

I seem to hold some of the same naïve views about the East that David Said discussed in his book ‘Orientialism’ in 1978, albeit in a much milder form. Perhaps not much has changed. I still think of Japanese race as pure, mild-mannered and highly traditional people and this may be why I found so much beauty in the purity and simplicity of MUJI. Could the MUJI store be perpetuating my own stereotypical views about Japan?

What you find beautiful is an extension of our personality and even your belief system. If you’re willing to ask why you find something beautiful, you may begin to also find out aspects of who you are. You may gain some useful insight but you may also learn a little too much about yourself.

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1 Response to “The MUJI myth”


  1. 1 Yabbadabadoooo November 11, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Uh?
    Are we talking about the same muji?
    Muji isn’t exactly promoting themselves as being traditionally asian culture (except for keeping their japanese logo). Rather the opposite, they receive designs from their customers and act as a mass producer for them.


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