In the mind’s eye of many people, Japan is a land of tranquil Zen gardens, serene temples, and exquisite tea ceremonies. Both traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture, books and magazines are the envy of designers worldwide. Yet for some reason, practically none of this mastery has been translated into digital products, in particular websites, most of which look like they hail from around 1998.
Go on a safari around some of Japan’s most popular sites and here’s what you can expect to find (see Goo, Rakuten, Yomiuri, NicoNico, OKWave, @cosme, and more):
- Dense tightly packed text
- Tiny low-quality images
- More columns than you can count
- Bright clashing colours and flashing banners
- Overuse of outdated technologies like Flash
A beautiful haiku or minimal wabi-sabi they not. The theories for why this is are numerous and I’ve tried to expand on some of the most prevalent below:
Photo by shootjapan.com
Character Comfort – Logographic-based languages can contain a lot of meaning in just a few characters. While these characters can look cluttered and confusing to the western eye, they actually allow Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in a short period of time/space (the same goes for Chinese).
Lacking Emphasis – Japanese doesn’t have italics or capital letters which limits the opportunities for adding visual punch that you get with Latin alphabets. This makes it more difficult to create the hierarchical contrasts required to organise information with type alone although many designers get around this by adding decoration or using graphic text.
Language Barrier – The web and most of the programming languages which drive it were designed by English speakers or western corporations and hence the majority of documentation and educational resources are also in English. Although much gets translated this still causes a delay in new technologies and trends being adopted.
Risk Avoidance – In general Japanese culture does not encourage risk-taking or standing out from the crowd. Once a precedent has been set for things looking or behaving a certain way then everybody follows it, regardless of whether there is a better solution. Even Japanese subcultures conform to their own fashions and rules.
Consumer Behaviour – People require a high degree of assurance, by means of lengthy descriptions and technical specifications, before making a purchasing decision – they are not going to be easily swayed by a catchy headline or a pretty image. The adage “less is more” doesn’t really apply here.
Advertising – Rather than being seen as a tool to enable people Japanese companies often see the web as just another advertising platform to push their message across as loudly as possible. Websites end up being about the maximal concentration of information into the smallest space akin to a pamphlet rather than an interactive tool.
Urban Landscape – Walk around one of Tokyo’s main hubs like Shibuya and you’re constantly bombarded with bright neon advertisements, noisy pachinko parlours (game arcades), and crowds of rambunctious salarymen or school kids. The same chaotic busyness of the streets seems to have spilt over to the web. Added to this, because physical space comes at a premium in Japan, none of it is wasted and the same goes for negative/white space on a webpage.
Job Roles – Look on any job site in Japan and you’ll still see adverts for roles like “Web Master” and “Web Admin” which hark back to the day when a company would employ a single IT guy to hand-code and run their entire website – many still do. On the other side of the equation, creative people want creative freedom which they’re not likely to find in a large Japanese corporation so they go elsewhere.
Photo by scion_cho
Mobile Legacy – Japan was using their version of the mobile web on advanced flip phones long before the iPhone came along and in even larger numbers than personal computers. Back then the screens were tiny and the way sites had to be designed to cram content into this small space has continued to influence the way things are now.
Web Fonts – There is a lack of web fonts for non-Latin languages (Chinese, Japanese…). This is because each font requires thousands of characters to be individually designed which is prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and would take longer to download. For these reasons, designers tend to use graphics rather than plain text to display non-standard typefaces.
Windows XP & IE 6 – although the number of people using ancient Microsoft software is rapidly decreasing there are still a fair number of people using these dinosaurs, especially in corporate environments. Enough said.
Walking around Tokyo, I often get the feeling of being stuck in a 1980’s vision of the future and in many ways, it’s this contradiction which characterises the design landscape in Japan. On one side we have enormous conglomerates churning out uninspiring mass-produced conformity while on the other side we see master craftspeople making things of incredible beauty and functionality.
On a more positive note, smaller design firms and companies like UNIQLO, MUJI, CookPad and Kinokuniya are proving that you can make aesthetically pleasing and functional websites in Japan. Let’s hope the rest learn from them and catch up soon.
More interesting discussion here: one, two, three, four, five.
Update 1: A lot of people have been commenting that much of the above also applies to websites in other regions of Asia so here are a few to look at for comparison –
- Mainland China: Sina, 163, 51job, SouFun, Eastday
- South Korea: Naver, Daum, Tistory, Nate, Chosun
- Taiwan: Eyny, Yam, PChome, HiNet, Ruten
Update 2: A big welcome to readers from Reddit, MetaFilter and Smashing Magazine! Unfortunately, all the traffic knocked the site offline for most of Wednesday but things should be stable now. For future updates, you can follow Randomwire on Twitter or Facebook. For any questions or enquiries feel free to get in touch.
Update 3: Some kind folks have translated the article into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and Korean.
Update 4 (10 years later!): A couple of YouTubers have created in-depth videos dissecting some of the technological and cultural arguments above. It’s amazing to see how far this article has travelled and how it seems to still be relevant today.
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[…] to be less easily swayed by catchy headlines or images than their Western counterparts. Therefore lengthy descriptions and technical specifications become extremely important in the selling a […]
I completely agree and understand what you are trying to say in this article. I myself is a Chinese-Canadian and I have learned web design program in Canada. But often when I look at those most popular websites in China, they are obviously using a very different layout system than any western countries, or countries that use latin language. And the most headache I had was, sometimes when i try to design website in Chinese, there no web font at all. Maybe there are some, but they use some js to make the browser preloads the font from the outsource web font server, and then cover all the text. This process creates a huge loading time and extra data transition before the actual web site could even open itself.
There are a lot of brilliant programmers and designers i have known in Asia, but I always wonder why this is still such a problem, even after the whole western world has already evolved to another level.
It’s not that surprising. Making web safe fonts for East Asian languages is an awful lot more expensive, probably more than fonts for Roman, Cyrillic and Greek fonts combined. Even for phonetic scripts like Hangul. Imagine trying to hint thousands of characters, that would be an absolute nightmare. Fortunately Google and Adobe have now given us the Noto font family.
I miss the days of functionality>layout. I just want to load a page, see everything right there and now, and I dont mean swiping and swiping myself to arthritis to view it all. Its as if every web page was designed for a phone. Nowadays I see this glaring empty space screaming at me on nearly all western sites, while taking up some 40% of my viewing real estate. I surely didnt pay for monitor upgrades all these years to… see LESS content that I could back when I was running on a 15″ monitor, than on my 27″. I do hope that at least, designers give the option to let the viewer choose the layout vs being forced to.
Having lived there some 8yrs, one word summarizes it, mottainai.
[…] Yeah! In Japanese, you can read top-down or right to left. I’m curious to see how websites are handling that as well. We read English; therefore, we see everything in the context of the English language (top to bottom, left to right). I’ll share with you a neat article I read, titled Why Japanese Design is So Different. […]
[…] after the West. This would have knock-on effects on related markets, such as online shopping and web design, where sites were designed for feature-phone screens, with clunky user […]
[…] Like these finches, many industries in Japan modified in unique ways. For example, Japan had phone cameras, email, and 3G years before the rest of the world. Nevertheless, it meant that the industry clung to flip-phone models, resisting smartphones until years after the West. This would have knock-on effects on related markets, like online shopping and web design. […]
[…] La cosa ha avuto degli effetti sui mercati collegati alla telefonia, come il commercio in rete e il web design, visto che i siti erano progettati per gli schermi degli […]
[…] الموضوع على Random Wire […]
Great article – and very useful. You have put into words a lot of things that I have felt or considered only on the level of impression.
Nowadays, I am writing my graduate dissertation and I need to include some insights on Japanese (in general, East-asian) website layouts. It is amazing how those are so similar across that area, yet so different from the rest of the online world.
Question is: do you maybe have some more sources on what you have written? Articles of any kind? Anything will be of great help:))
Again, thanks for a great read!
Thanks Antoaneta; most of my sources are linked in the “More interesting discussion” note at the bottom of the article, I’m afraid I don’t have anything other than that.
Almost same problems I faced during design and development of Japanese Website.
[…] Western eye, and even though there are technical, cultural and linguistic reasons underlying such bold Asian design, are evolving towards simpler aesthetics in a bid to become more accessible and usable. Asian […]
I think it all started with Yahoo!, companies copying Yahoo!’s design and from then on since higher-ranking old web designers/developers are in position it is hard for new talents to convince those on top to change the “usual” design. I think this is also cultural in a sense here in Japan. Although I just started a web design and online marketing company here in Nagoya, Japan called BraneBox http://branebox.com we would definitely try to convince our clients to go with the minimalist design because according to studies to many distractions would make it hard to convert those visitors.
I don’t want them to change follow what the west is doing. In fact I hate the modern web design. It’s bulky and annoying.
The modern websites have some big unnecessary image at the top and just one line. We have to scroll multiple time before we can see any actual content. Some of them even have video in the background. I want to see the actual contents with minimum scrolling. That’s why I prefer the old designs and wish that Asian sites don’t change.
I’m with you in this aspect. I prefer a website without wasted space and dont have to scroll a lot just to figure out what the content is.
In recent months I have complained to the communities behind various web-focused programming languages and tools about their lack of translations, outdated translations, and poor quality translations. Every response I received was overflowing with English language elitism. The common message I got back was “If you can’t speak English you can’t be a good developer.” What is most depressing is most of the messages were from people who did not have English as their first language. I could almost understand if it was only native English speakers saying this.
[…] Minimalism and whitespace is valued in western cultures like Sweden and the US where information in its desirable form needs to be easily readable and processed. Eastern cultures like Japan value finding information promptly, resulting in websites that by western cultures are considered dense and unappealing. Interestingly, what’s appealing to the west is rather inefficient to the east. David, a Japan based software engineer, explains the linguistic, cultural and technical factors influencing Japanese website trends. […]
Great article, it sumarized everything I’ve read in blogposts and on reddit about this. Very informative and well crafted. Thanks!
Maybe you can answer a question re: japanese design that I’ve wondered about for years, unable to find an answer to:
Why do japanese designers often overlay type (horizontal or vertical) on top of intersecting lines? It seems that in Japan, if a designer has a background picture of say, a beach with an ocean horizon, he/she will place the text/headline right on top of the line where the ocean and sky meet.
Why is that? To my western (Scandinavian) eye, it seems messy. Careless. I’d always place it on top of the sky, or ocean, free of colliding with lines underneath.
PS: I find it a very interesting design phenomena. Kinda like off-balancing and “let’s not get too minimalistic and orderly here – let’s be a little punk / rock’n’roll!” 🙂
Hi David, thank you for the very interesting article. I’m a graphic designer based in Tokyo, and I was wondering if you would allow me to translate the article into French and add it to my blog?
Hey Manuel, please feel free as long as you add a link back to this page. Thanks!
If you look at the Philippine’s web shopping portal, shopee.ph, you get the same kind of cluttered look, but like Amazon, you get a comparatively sparse page without long text about the product. It’s sort of a cross between the need to maximize page space, but without the need to spend lots of time describing the product to get people to buy.
Japan: the place where your intergalactic warp-able space cruiser runs on DOS
I very much prefer this design, I find it both more aesthetic and practical – even with European languages.