No brand

Japanese retail whips SF into a frenzy -- but are they that much different than the chain stores we already have?

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STREET SEEN To the casual observer, it may have appeared as if I had taken a painful, rainy early morning Muni ride into SoMa for the sole purpose of eating plastic-wrapped Japanese pancakes filled with red bean paste in a chain store. But to adherents of the Muji phenomenon, I was actually witnessing the birth of cross-Pacific retail revolution.

"The minimalism of Muji fits San Francisco perfectly with what the city is trying to do with conservation," said store manager Eric Kobuchi, who was standing with the cash registers behind of him, and the sleepy-eyed attendees of the November 30th press preview and reception in front of him. His company was to open its first West Coast location (540 Ninth St., SF. in an hour-and-a-half.

Among minimalism aficionados, this brand is paramount. Muji was born in 1980, originally as a line of 40 house and food items that were sold in Seiyu supermarkets. The name itself means "no label, quality goods." The items were cheap, but relatively high quality. These savings were possible, said the company, by simplifying packaging and production, and utilizing offbeat materials, like the parts of the fish near the head and tail for its canned fish.

Muji fans kindled to the line's recycled, plain packaging (the company has courted the "sustainable" label for decades). Being a Muji consumer is an identity unto itself, at least according to the brands's brilliant ad campaigns. From a 256-page coffee table book of such endeavors presented to me at the preview: "Muji tries to attract not the customer who says 'This is what I want,' but rather the one who says, rationally, 'this will do.'"

Zen. Today, Muji's selection is an Ikea-Gap mélange. The San Francisco location, says Azami, has a similar, but smaller product selection (minus the food -- tight regulations here make importing comestibles complicated), and the same layout and presentation as its Japanese stores. I don't doubt that little changes have been made to the Muji formula for its West Coast audience — during the press preview, display prices for some of the stock were still only visible in yen.

Muji is but one simple, made-from-recycled-material package in a shopping bag full of newish Japanese brands to hit the Bay Area. Daiso, in my eyes the epitome of dollar (or rather 100 yen, roughly $1.50) store excellence, has been plying lunch boxes, fake eyelashes, party wigs, and stationary on the West Coast since 2005. It has several stores from SF to Milpitas (SF locations at 570 Market and 22 Japantown Peace Plaza).

We have homegrown Japanese retailers as well. Lounging in a bright office lined with shelves of Japanese comics, Seiji Horibuchi explained to me how he came to open retail complex New People (1746 Post, SF. in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown.

Dressed in head-to-toe Sou Sou, a neo-traditional line of Japanese worker comfortwear whose signature item is its brightly patterned split-toe shoes, Horibuchi says he moved to the city in 1975, and started his anime-manga publishing house Viz Media in his adopted city in 1986. Viz Pictures, a distribution company for Japanese films followed, and then New People was born, originally as a movie theater at which to play Viz titles.

But the project grew, and by its opening in 2009, the J-pop mall included a gift shop, art gallery, and entire floor of Japanese fashion brands like Sou Sou and the babydoll goth Lolita brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.

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