Sushi, Muji and Shibui

Harish Bhat | Updated on June 14, 2018

Simple living Muji aims to cut wastage and make affordable, yet elegant, products.   -  REUTERS

Lessons in simplicity from the Land of the Rising Sun

Tokyo simply takes your breath away. As I ambled through its streets on a recent visit, I found streets full of loud, crackling neon lights, interspersed easily with historic Shinto shrines. There are karaoke bars where you can sing to your heart’s content, and manga cafes where you can read comics, or even sleep for the night. I stopped at a couple of these locations in the Roppongi area, but then decided they were not my type of place.

Very soon, though, I saw my type of place, and walked in. This was Otsuna Sushi, one of Tokyo’s best known and oldest sushi bars. I was dying to eat good sashimi and sushi, so I walked right in. Here, the sushi-chef Katsuya Kondo served me some of the most memorable seafood I have ever eaten. He began by serving me a dish of baby squid pickled in sake and soya sauce. Natural brown, extremely soft and most delicious. Then came the sashimi, which is sliced raw fish. The tuna and salmon were so fresh and juicy that they made my saliva run all over. And finally, a platter of sushi, which was raw fish simply pressed on top of small blocks of rice. As I quietly ate each piece of sushi, with some wasabi dabbed on, I closed my eyes to relish the flavours very carefully, and thus I think I reached quite close to culinary heaven.

When I stepped out of Otsuna Sushi that evening, I reflected on this glorious meal, and one word stood out for me – simplicity. Sashimi, which is just raw and sliced fish, is arguably the simplest food in the world. Sushi, which brings together fish and rice pressed by hand, is equally simple in its recipe. Yet this simple Japanese food is now seen as the pinnacle of culinary sophistication in many parts of the world. People are willing to pay a premium to eat great sushi, and it commands prices well ahead of other cuisines which involve complex recipes and considerable cooking. In London, New York and Mumbai, sushi restaurants are incredibly busy. Could simplicity be the new craze, the new luxury?

The new luxury

This thought returned to me during an entirely unrelated conversation with my young Japanese host, Kobayashi San. I had requested him to take me on a visit to some retail stores in Tokyo, and I asked him which Japanese brand appealed most to him. His answer was spontaneous. “Muji”, he said, “my family and I love Muji products.” I asked him why. “Muji is simple”, he responded, “These are beautiful and simple products, of very good quality. And I love the idea that Muji products are unbranded.”

So I discovered Muji. Founded in 1980, but reinvented as recently as 2001, it is one of the most coveted brands in the country today. Muji sells a wide variety of goods in its stores, including kitchen utensils, home appliances, fashion garments, stationery, soap, cosmetics and furniture. But its unique selling point is its simplicity – it believes in simple, low-cost products of very good quality. Amazingly, none of its products carry the brand name. In fact, the name Muji comes from the Japanese name “Mujirushi Ryohin”, which means “No Brand, Quality Goods”.

What is Muji? The best answer I have found comes from Muji’s own website. “Muji’s origin was a thorough rationalisation of the manufacturing process, with an eye to creating simple, low-cost, good quality products. We have been credited with being resource-saving, low-priced, simple, anonymous and nature-oriented. Without placing a disproportionate emphasis on any one of these varied assessments, Muji aims to live up to all.”

Muji is about cutting out all waste to make affordable products. Its paper products are unbleached, which saves cost and also ensures a natural purity and freshness. Famously, its pasta products once featured U-shaped spaghetti, which is the left-over section that is normally discarded when straight spaghetti is manufactured. This enables the brand to offer surprisingly reasonable prices. I visited the Muji store in Mumbai as well, just to doubly verify this, and I found the prices pleasantly affordable here too. Most importantly, Muji contrasts its simple products with the “prevailing over-embellished products in the marketplace”, a philosophy which has now won it great appreciation and franchise.

But as I looked through the products in the Muji store, it quickly became clear to me that this simplicity did not mean basic or “cheap-looking” goods. On the other hand, Muji’s products are beautifully designed, because the brand has been very successful at integrating the aesthetics that result from its cost-cutting with its fundamental design principles. Muji is about products without logos, with plain earthy colours, and naturally flowing designs, all of which promote a sense of Zen-like peace and quiet. I found the designs very functional, smooth and normal – they evoke the sense of easy comfort that a well-worn pair of jeans or sneakers often provide us in our lives.

Such simplicity links Muji with sushi. Both are simple products, superbly designed. Both make simplicity seem the ultimate in sophistication. Both spell comfort. And both are, of course, Japanese.

A practical aesthetic

That’s when I learnt a new Japanese word, which I think new-age marketers should fathom. This word is “shibui”, and it refers to a particular aesthetic of simple, subtle and unobtrusive beauty. Shibui objects appear to be simple, but they are actually designed thoughtfully and carefully, to be high on utility, appeal and comfort. Muji and sushi are “shibui”, as are some other Japanese brands such as Uniqlo.

I think marketers should know “shibui” because an increasing number of customers today seek simple, enriching experiences. These customers are turned off by complexity, over-embellishment or wastefulness. A simplicity study (Global Brand Simplicity Index, undertaken by Sigel+Gale) shows that 64 per cent of consumers are actually willing to pay more for simpler experiences. And not just in Japan. American and European brands such as Google, Ikea, Amazon, Aldi and Lidl have all shown us that simplicity wins. Therefore, as I sat at Narita Airport, waiting to board my flight back to India, I was wondering when we would see the Indian equivalent of Muji. For now, sayonara, Tokyo!

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons, and author of “The Curious Marketer”.

These are his personal views.

Published on June 14, 2018

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