japan-back-to-the-future

Why Japanese Web Design Is So… Different

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.

Exhibit A: Rakuten Ichiba

Exhibit A: Rakuten Ichiba Go on a safari around some of Japan’s most popular sites and here’s what you can expect to find (see GooRakutenYomiuriNicoNicoOKWave@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  • Overuse of outdated technologies like Flash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:

Linguistic Differences

Sir, is that a middle finger ? Photo by shootjapan.com

  • Character Comfort – Logographic-based languages can contain a lot of meaning in just 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 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.

Cultural Differences

Salary Man Street
  • 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 of “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 ends 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 salary men or school kids. The same chaotic busyness of the streets seems to have spilled 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.

Technical Differences

[Shibuya] Umbrella Bokeh 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 had 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.
Japan - Back to the Future Poster

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 UNIQLOMUJICookPad 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.

Source Credit:
Randomwire

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Randomwire was founded in 2003 and focuses on life in Asia, culture, design, technology, travel and everything in-between (whew!).

Comments (9) Write a comment

  1. Great article David.
    I believe the one missing thing is the “Japanese working culture” that makes it very hard to change work habits when they have been established for a while.
    For this reason It always takes them much longer to change.

    Reply

  2. Also nothing is ever questioned and directions by a superior are carried out, whether they make sense or not. This inevitably often leads to this kind of “un-design”. As a designer in Japan you are not an expert whose opinion is highly regarded, in most companies you are just the photoshop operator who creates designs exactly to spec, based on design decisions made by the whole group or committee (or your boss).

    This is closely tied to the fact that nobody ever wants to take any responsibility, so people try to get consensus and don’t speak up even if they disagree. Which is of course the perfect recipe for such design abortions like the Rakuten website.

    Reply

  3. I once asked some Japanese coworkers (salaryman sales and managers) why they preferred busy, crowded websites and offered some tasteful western-style websites as examples. They said the ones with negative space looked sad and lonely.

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  4. I would refute this a bit. The services you list (Goo, Rakuten, Yomiuri, NicoNico) seem very similar visually to EBAY, YAHOO, AMAZON, GOOGLE NEWS, YOUTUBE – all of which have looked dense, brightly colored and endlessly-columned for years. They are that kind of service. Not a haiku or tranquil garden among them.

    UNIQLO and MUJI are retail clothes stores, so of course they are different.

    I suppose all of your thoughts about Japanese people (risk-avoiding Pachinko players) are valid. I don’t necessarily disagree with them. But it’s pretty easy to compare these sites to similarly-functioned sites in America, so I’m not sure what the point of this article is.

    Reply

  5. Very good point Masaya, I agree that large consumer websites in the west also have a fair share of clutter and noise. But the amount of details on some of these Japanese ones seem to surpass the Western ones.

    David is making some interesting points why the layout and design of these sites has this amount of density e.g. reading comfort of Kanji letters or compensating the lack of custom fonts with designed text banners. Another argument I often hear is that Japanese consumers feel lost/lonely on a site with too much white space.

    I think one major issue is the lack of custom fonts on the web and not being able to put much emphasis on words (e.g. capitals, italics). It`s a painful fact I remember from my own work experience at Japanese web companies. It`s tempting to simply create images of text.

    What I also know from my work experience is that Japanese web companies have a huge focus on style and design and aim to render a design pixel-perfect on a live website. Though this focus on style and design often comes with a penalty in accessibility and usability e.g. auto-translation will not work on text in images. Or using a spectacular looking mouse-hover effects will not work on touch screen devices.

    In the west – or at least from my knowledge and work as a web designer – we have accepted that different browsers will render a design slightly different (especially when using “responsive web design”) and that is OK. Where as for Japanese web designers creating images (especially of text) is still the only way to make sure it will look 100% the same.

    With responsive web design – which only recently is picking up in Japan – one has to accept that a design will render differently depending on screen sizes (mobile, table or desktop). Responsive web design demands that one accepts the Internet as a much more fluid medium without a fixed single design. I think the fact of a fluid design is still very hard to accept for many Japanese web designers (or rather their clients and bosses).

    This post and also the comments are a big encouragement to create an article on the best Japanese web design. Luckily Japanese web design is not all just Rakuten. This should be great material for another post.

    Please let me know, if you have any suggestions for great looking and accessible Japanese websites with good usability on mobile, tablet and desktop screens.

    Reply

  6. I just struggled against client (and ads agency) who has ancient mind set. The worst task was we had to create their web site for IE7 users… the reason is one person of our client uses it, only for 3% users… I don’t like ‘customers are gods’ philosophy, so old.

    Reply

  7. This is an interesting read. It adds to this already well-versed conversation with points related to the ‘urban landscape’ of the city and also about the web as an advertising medium as opposed to one of interactivity.

    I think easily the most important bullet of this article is the one that talks about risk avoidance. I’ve been in this country for 8 years now and that’s easily one of the most prevalent not-to-be-overlooked elements of Japanese culture, business, and the people. Sites that push the button like Uniqlo and Muji are great for the industries in which they lie (as mentioned by Masaya), but they are also opening the road for more western style, spacious design in the future of Japanese web design through the sheer fact that they’re huge companies and have a massive impact on what Japanese experience. We should thank them for the building blocks they’ve established for us designers who prefer a more ‘western’ style.

    Even better, in my web experience here, I’ve found a lot of companies (at least internally) are already welcoming such aesthetic due to its ability to appeal not only to western audiences, but to position the company as more global—a well sought after brand stance here in Japan.

    Ultimately, developing a site that determines how much ‘risk’ to take requires a delicate formula of who the end users are, what language they speak, how old they are, and what your industry commands. We urge our clients to find a gray zone between comfort and innovation and then pull it back a little if we’re gearing it towards a Japanese audience.

    …oh and we also tell them they’re gonna need more content. 笑

    Reply

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