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Why Japanese Web Design Is So Different (randomwire.com)
270 points by spinningarrow on Nov 12, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 129 comments

I think it is also hard to be aware that you are in a trend when you are living it. Many of the things that pass as "clean design" at the moment are just a trend, and I promise you that they will look dated soon. This always happens. It happened with 80s hair, with 90s androgyny and it will happen again big text, extreme minimalist, big poetic photo backgrounds and so on.

I'm half convinced that we're seeing the result of a brilliant conspiracy by Getty Images, Shutterstock and Corbis to infiltrate the design landscape of Silicon Valley and sell more stock photography.

Also: the Golden Gate needs a better agent. Given how many times that bridge has appeared in photo backdrops, it should be rich enough by now to stretch further into Marin.

Apparently the CEO of Shutterstock is NYC's first tech billionaire: http://www.forbes.com/sites/edwindurgy/2013/06/28/oh-snap-sh...

All kidding aside, he's an impressive businessman. Evidently Shutterstock was bootstrapped for a large portion of its 10-year existence -- which is interesting, considering the size and capitalization of the entrenched players it was going up against.



The author is conflating two things which don't necessarily have any bearing on each other - equating fickle trends in design to mastery.

Flat icons, low-contrast fonts, parallax scrolls or whatever else are not necessarily an evolution in, much less mastery of web design.

I'm not quite sure it's quite the same as saying that Western designers have "mastered" the web, but my memories of Japanese websites from ten years ago are remarkably similar to how they look today. It seems more relevant that web design in the East hasn't evolved or changed over that period, when western design has.

Yeah, and current trends aside, surely the current design landscape in the Western world has more in common with traditional Japanese art and architecture, than does Japanese web design as it looks today, just as this article suggests.

Arguable, some things cease to be a trend and really end up being classic design, and thus, timeless.

"clean design" has been around since the 20th century. It just went away, but came back, and it will go away again and will most likely come back again. So yes, design is in trends, just like any other field has trends, but "clean design" has pretty good odds to come back again. 90s grunge design.....not so likely.

We might have different concepts of what "90s grunge design" is, but I'd place it squarely in the bucolic/naturalistic/romantic/bohemian tradition, something harking back to a time when geometry (Mother of clean design) hadn't been discovered yet. So I'd say the odds of an eventual comeback are quite high.

I agree with this, but I guess many Asian websites do feel like they're stuck in a 1998 trend. Actually this also seems to apply to music too... when I hear my Taiwanese friends' music, it seems like it still hasn't escaped boy-band era (1998?).

Like "the West" had escaped anything… Justin Bieber? JLS? Even goddamn Take That are still outselling everyone else except newer manufactured pop acts.

People in glass houses should not throw stones.

Haha sorry my bad, that is definitely true, but I meant the sound of that era, not boy-bands in general.

>when I hear my Taiwanese friends' music, it seems like it still hasn't escaped boy-band era

1998 might have been "boy-band era" for YOUR culture. Not for everyone in the world. The have their own culture, they don't have to escape to some current trend in the USA.

The 'boy band era' has been going since for-freaking-ever. Hey hey, they were the Monkees.

Two words: "One Direction". No one will ever escape the boy-band era.

This article sheds some light on your claim: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2013/11/07/ux-and-the-civilizing-p...

One of these points is way off the mark. I'll add my own two cents.

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.

1. Many of the Japanese coders I've met have put in the effort to learn English. They might not be able to carry fluent geopolitical conversations, but they do tend to have enough chops to read API docs and skim code. Most of the Japanese professionals I've met, in any trade, are ultra professional, and will do whatever it takes to stay on top of their craft, including learning English if needed.

2. It's easy to forget that some of these programming languages, notably Ruby, are actually from Japan. As recently as a few years ago, some of my favorite resources for Ruby were in Japanese, out in front of English.

3. Go to a Japanese bookstore and check out the section for programmers. More recent web languages/tech, like node.js, are not well represented. But then look to the next shelf and you'll see something like Unity stacked to the ceiling. It could be that Japanese coders would rather work on different kinds of projects, spend their time learning new tech in those domains instead of the web, and only see the web as a means to an end. I wouldn't consider this a "language barrier", but rather a difference in priorities.

>Many of the Japanese coders I've met have put in the effort to learn English.

I put a longer response addressing this point in a different thread, but you're interacting with the cohort that has already chosen to be a computer programmer. It's a biased sample group. I would expect people with no interest in learning English would be disinclined to even enter programming.

(This is still tertiary to actual cultural preferences in web design, mind you.)

I'd like to add to this remark that the Japanese as a whole are not as proficient at English as one might expect. I know I had some expectation that the Japanese had some working knowledge of English (maybe because many countries do encourage learning it?), but after visiting Tokyo I realized my assumption was way off the mark.

Negative. One of the best Japanese coders I know runs his own property management business, and learned coding (and English) so he can stay on top of the various stuff he's created in support of his operations.

That's one arbitrary example. It's meaningless if he represents 1 out of a 10000 sample size.

It's anecdotal, but dispels the idea that my "sample group" was limited to career programmers, which was the point in the parent comment.

Your last point is dead-on, and I think it's not just true for Japan but also for Germany and Russia. People from these countries tend to approach technology from a much more hardware or math centric view. The interest in UI stuff is nowhere as great as in the US and it doesn't garner the same level of reputation.

Can you give a few examples?

What would be interesting is actual data beyond anecdotal evidence and I think there is some. Just look at the size of various industries in these countries.

Japan and Germany export tons of complex high-tech machinery but not much end-user facing software. And it's not just software, it's also global ad agencies, the film industry or even music. There are of course exceptions like Sony and SAP.

Examples for the reputation of things are a little difficult to come by, because it's a feeling you get when you talk to people. But look at the names of contributors to open source software.

If you see a Russian name, the odds are high that they are working on some of the most challenging engineering parts far away from anything user facing. You'll see them work on garbage collectors (https://plus.google.com/113761107534428240799/posts/LjPnay7h...), web servers (http://sysoev.ru/en/), (http://cesanta.com/), that sort of thing.

Of course you see people from the US do these things too, but the distribution appears to be different.

"Language Barrier [...] Many of the Japanese coders I've met have put in the effort to learn English."

If they have to put in an effort, there _is_ a barrier. Compare that with parts of Europe, where the first words kids learn to read are "OK", "Cancel", "Yes", "No", and "Level". And that's only a slight exaggeration. That's a barrier, too, but a lower one.

It's a fair point. I guess I should say that most of the coders I know over there have overcome this barrier.

There are good points made here. I suspect there's also a bit of herding going on.

In Germany, for example, it's pretty easy to find major websites which are fixed-width, left aligned and looking dated. There's no real geographic or historical reason for how it is, other than the fact that their neighbours have a similar style.

In a similar vein, many startups have similar designs. Even on the Internet, where you can connect with anyone in the world, there's a lot of tending towards those who are closest to you.

Yeah, I suspect this is the major factor. Or maybe I'm just bitter after going to blender.org this morning and finding that they have ditched their orange-on-black color scheme for the "white minimalist + photo" style that's all the rage these days. Bleh.

I agree - this is 'culture'.

If I look at these sites (picked because I have seen them in use, because I know they're 'important'), I'm having trouble understanding the design decisions as well



So .. isn't this just these sites catering to their local culture? Who cares about people from overseas shaking their head?

On the other hand, you might have a look at the state news broadcaster http://ard.de

It's not just Japan or asian websites. The further away you get from the silicon valley bubble, the more sites look like they are from the late 90's. It's not really even location specific, more how tuned in developers are to the bay area style. You can look at local news papers in the US for example, or even government sites. I think part of the reason is that there's a lot of design talent in the bay area, and the further removed one is from being involved, the less people care about things like flat design and having lots of space and less content, etc.

That's a good thing. I am sick of lots of space and less content - I I go to websites to read things, not just look at them. A lot of minimalist websites are pretty in the abstract but unfriendly towards potential customers by withholding information or making users jump through hoops to get to it.

Yeah a lot of websites make you scroll too much. So sick of scrolling like 3 pages to see one sentence slide in from the left in 48 point text.

A few more points:

- Compared to English, Japanese text can cram more information into an easily-skimmable space, but typing is slower, so cluttered, link-rich interfaces have an advantage. This may well explain why Yahoo! Japan's portal is so much more popular than Google's.

- I can well imagine that, in the minds of the staid gerontocrats who maintain an iron grip on Japanese corporate life, a website is merely a modern version of those "me! me! me!" brochures that get shoved in my mailbox every day. So it's natural that they would expect it to look like one.

- Japanese culture is not nearly as minimalist as its made out to be in the West. Minimalism has its place, of course, but in commercial spaces its all about competing for attention, to the point of sensory overload.

- Compared to English, Japanese text can cram more information into an easily-skimmable spaaaaaace, but typing is slower, so cluttered, link-rich interfaces have an advantage. This may well explain why Yahoo! Japan's portal is so much more popular than Google's.

I second this theory. A similar version of this happened in China too. A few years back, when Baidu was still copying Google's minimal design pixel by pixel, they suddenly discovered that it was losing traffic to a random site with only one static html page setup: hao123, which also fit into the 'cluttered, link-rich' interface category. Baidu ended up acquiring hao123, spending close to a million dollars on a few lines of html. Note that Chinese language bears quite some similarities to Japanese, they are both character based and typically a hassle to type in large chunks.

Somewhere I have a text file with links to several studies on information density and reading characteristics, but for now this might be interesting (unfortunately some of the pages before are cut):


> "Walking around Tokyo, I often get the feeling of being stuck in a 1980′s vision of the future"

I'm British, living in the US, and I've always felt this way about America. I recently heard from an American friend that he felt exactly the same when visiting Britain.

Not sure what to make of it, but it's interesting!

If you average all of those feelings out, then does it mean that we really are living in a 1980's version of the future?

Only tangentially related if that, but I re-read Neuromancer recently and realized with some sadness that its very evocative opening line [1] will quite quickly cease to have meaning for generations who grew up without analog TVs. We tend to think of literature as timeless, but there's a very real, if small, slice of it washed out by the tide of shifting metaphors.

[1] "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"

I've heard it observed before that current generations will assume this meant that the sky was blue, or perhaps black, that being what many televisions display when 'tuned' to an inactive input.

Before i got to your comment, reading the grandparent about this being a 1980s future immediately put me in mind of something else William Gibson said in ~1993:

"The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed"

I like to think they'd envision a big blue box stretched across the sky, with the words "This channel only available to premium subscribers." If nothing else, it'd capture the cyberpunk aesthetic nicely.

> realized with some sadness that its very evocative opening line [1] will quite quickly cease to have meaning for generations who grew up without analog TVs

Meh, I don't think this is really a worry. We still read Shakespeare - we just have to make an extra effort to understand the nuances. In fact, that's part of what makes it so interesting.

I would assume that this comes from a general feeling of disengagement to the urban environment that person is living as the 1980's were a period of significant anxiety about the future. Science Fiction of this period tends to be quite dark. After living in Honolulu, San Francisco, Berlin, Tokyo, and Singapore, I believe that only Singapore truly has a blue-print of the future laid out properly. A lot of green / smart housing developments. Deeply multi-cultural. Strong emphasis on education and personal development (plus world-class universities to support this). Of course living in an endless summer helps.

"I recently heard from an American friend that he felt exactly the same when visiting Britain."

The "same", meaning he felt like Britain was stuck in 1980's version of the future? Or the past? Strange, my experience and I think the usual experience of Americans visiting GB/Europe is of feeling like you've timewarped into the past. How far depends on where you visit. Paris/London may feel twenty years back, other places fifty or a hundred.

Since I'm pretty sure I'm who DanI-S was referring to, I'll respond.

My impression was that something "modern" in Britain would tend to fit a stereotypical 1980s-era optimistic prediction of what the early 21st century would be like. Compared to the U.S., a "modern" space in the U.K. seems to me a little more ordered, neat, well-packaged, brightly lit, and perhaps a little more sterile than its counterpart in the U.S.

Of course, most spaces in the U.K. are not like this. But that may be why such "modern" spaces exist: if your town has an 800 year-old castle, and your pub is 150 years old and filled with well-worn, comfy furniture, having other more brightly-lit, ordered spaces is probably an interesting contrast.

My impression of the U.S. is that "modern" spaces are a little more warm, and less concerned with presenting an ordered and tidy facade. For example, it's easier to find "modern" spaces with exposed ceiling pipes, building supports, etc, in the U.S., whereas those seemed almost always hidden away in British spaces.

But at the same time, you don't have nearly the same amount of contrast between spaces. So it's hard for me to find a "pub" in the U.S. that has the same warmth and comfy feel as a U.K. pub.

Good morning from Tokyo! Sites like Rakuten have more to do with in-house politics than Japanese design trends or a love for information density. http://bm.straightline.jp is a better guage of where he Japanese web design trends are headed. As you can see, there's a lot of echoes of flash heavy sites and flat one page designs, but little which represents the special kind of chaos large bottom up created sites like Yahoo or Rakuten. They're more akin to the million dollar website than anything else.

Thanks for that insightful perspective.

Is there a breakdown somewhere of two distinct groups of human activities:

Design where correctness is defined as optimizing some metric goal, like designing an electronic circuit for maximum performance at a fixed price, or the strongest bridge pylon for a fixed cost or perhaps for a fixed concrete volume.


Design where correctness is defined as a large group of people trying to imitate each other at an optimum distance as close as possible without introducing legal difficulties with accusations of direct copying and not failing at user interaction much worse than anyone else.

Web design and most software UI is obviously almost entirely in the latter category.

A huge source of disaster and trouble is people using language and attitudes from one category in the other category.

I'm not sure what to google / wikipedia for... this must be well trodden ground after a couple millenia of ladies high fashion clothing design, for example.

The anecdotal cultural 'explanations' here are a little ridiculous without some real data to reference.

> Logographic-based languages... actually allow Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in short period of time / space

not true - article with references: http://persquaremile.com/2011/12/21/which-reads-faster-chine...

> Japanese doesn’t have italics or capital letters which limits the opportunities for adding visual punch that you get with latin alphabets

Italics and capital letters have little or nothing to do with how 'Western' web layouts are generally created, and are far from the only way to create emphasis or hierarchy in text.

> Language Barrier... Although much gets translated this still causes a delay in new technologies and trends being adopted

Is the claim that the Japanese are technologically behind the rest of the world? Why would web development/design be different than almost every other technical industry? This sounds much more like surface intuition than considered insight

> Risk Avoidance

This might help explain why Japanese websites look similar to each other, but not why they look different from 'Western' websites. You could make a similar claim about big sites like Microsoft and Yahoo that have copied the look an feel of Google, or the mass of slightly-modified Bootstrap-based 'Western' sites. Risk avoidance/copying is universal - it does not explain the difference between Japanese and non-Japanese websites.

> Consumer Behaviour - People require a high degree of assurance, by means of lengthy descriptions and technical specifications, before making a purchasing decision

Evidence, or is this just a personal observation?

> 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

Haven't Google, MS, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, everyone demonstrated that this is the goal of what they're doing? It's not culturally unique.

> Urban Landscape

This has some research to back it up - Nisbett, Masuda, Shah, others

Other claims also read as casual inductive observations that don't hold up to much scrutiny. There probably are very interesting reasons why web design appears to be so culturally influenced, but this article doesn't really elucidate much.

/end rant

While I agree with the vast majority of your criticisms, I wouldn't be surprised if you're underestimating the language barrier issue.

>Is the claim that the Japanese are technologically behind the rest of the world? Why would web development/design be different than almost every other technical industry?

Many programming languages are based on English and the Latin script. Programming, and more specifically web programming, requires a level of fluency with English and its alphabet that I would expect significantly decreases the available talent pool in non-Anglo countries, especially countries with different writing systems[1].

No other technologies lean so heavily a specific language. Math and science are universal and independent of any language. Computer science is universal. Computer programming is not.

[1]Comparing a country like Vietnam (that uses a Latin script) to another equivalent Asian country might be interesting.

I would expand this to include the sciences. I did a 2 month industry internship in Japan a few years ago and I was blown away by the effects of the language barrier. They are incredibly disconnected from the rest of the world. While the rest of the world is publishing their results in English, they are publishing in their own Japanese trade journals. It's kind of ironic, b/c in a less developed country (China), or a less populous country (European countries) you wouldn't have the local base to support the publishing of local language journals and technical books. So they're victims of their own success.

Sure they can go read an IEEE article, but 9/10 times they'll go to a Japanese source b/c it's so much easier for them.

For programming it's probably only worse. I imagine there is a Japanese equivalent to Stack Exchange, but it will have a tiny fraction of the help you get on the English language one. It's probably like programming in the 90s! =)

Well Ruby came out of Japan. So in 1995 some of Japan's coders were programming like it was 2005.

Mouahaha you killed your argument with this example. Matz is not really a typical Japanese. He is a mormont, he's fluent in English, and lived extensively overseas. There's almost no Japanese like him. So let's forget about this case.

This is an interesting case. A new programming language is a frail thing, and can only grow and prosper if it finds an unoccupied niche. Japan was the perfect environment for Ruby to develop until it was ready to take on the world.

It's as if mammals evolved on an island without any dinosaurs, and then swam over to the mainland.

Well, one of Japan's coders. Matz was kind of revolutionary.

Ruby isn't exactly revolutionary. See: Smalltalk. RoR, however, was.

Apart from having Latin-like script I don't think there is much similarity between English and Vietnamese.

Either way, isn't Japan also famous for its engineering prowess? I doubt that country with such high engineering competency will lack talent for web development simply because of the language barrier (if there is actually the lack of talent at all). I'm not saying language barrier doesn't exist but if language barrier didn't prevent them from having companies like Konami, Square Enix, Namco, Bandai, Nintendo or Sony then why would it prevents them to have more web developers?

Ruby was created by a Japanese for that matter.

Unsurprisingly, the companies you listed churn out some pretty terrible code. Square Enix for example has pretty big problems with ffxiv because hacking and botting is so easy. Maintenance windows have gotten longer and are occurring more often in an effort to patch vulnerabilities. Just last week players who were in a specific city accessing their retainers (personal bankers) had their money flushed from their characters by hackers who compromised the trade cluster and transfered it to their bots by listing bogus trash items for millions of gold.

Sure, but it's not like companies in western world don't make similar mistake. WoW/DB3 have plenty of exploits too. Bad code are produced by everyone regardless the cultural or native language background.

Japan's engineering prowess - very distinct from any sort of design prowess. Look at the classic example of Honda and Toyota, two great engineering companies who succeeded in spite of their design. The early Toyotas were derided as ugly little box cars, and their only redeeming value was that they were cheap and well engineered.

Or possibly that is good design prowess - if you're Japanese.

I would argue it's less 'good' design and more that design is a secondary, or ever tertiary concern - which, from an engineering standpoint, it is.

>Many programming languages are based on English and the Latin script.

Because UX/design = programming..?

> Why would web development/design be different than almost every other technical industry? This sounds much more like surface intuition than considered insight

I'm not the OP, but I am working on side projects here in Japan with two guys working for local large internet players, and I personally worked for another very large one where I was close to technological decisions at the company level, so I'll offer more than "surface intuition".

Language barrier exists. Not only the lack of documentation (which is real), but the lack of Japanese stackoverflow (&co.) answers, fewer people on the mailing lists, and other language related problems seriously hamper the adoption of new technologies. It is also one of the many factors behind the large amount of NIH seen around. Using open source maintained libraries in your software makes less sense if no one on your team will be able to read the docs, changelogs, & co. NDAs prevent me to cite examples, but I'm sure you get the point.

> Logographic-based languages... actually allow Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in short period of time / space

not true - article with references: http://persquaremile.com/2011/12/21/which-reads-faster-chine...

This article and references is about continued reading speed (bandwidth), and as it notes all languages read at similar speed, because the bottleneck is in cognitive processing. Actually, how adults read English is not much different from how they read Chinese -- ie. we do not parse individual letters, just as a Chinese reader does not parse character components.

But for a shopping website, the relevant issue is not bandwidth, but latency -- ie. how fast the reader can recognize what's written on a button, and I suspect the results there may be quite different.

Katakana can be used for emphasis much like italics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katakana#Usage

That's true, but it would feel very weird to use katakana as a way of denoting hierarchy.

You can bold, color, and shadow Japanese text just fine though, so I don't really see the author's point.

The bigger issue I think is limited font choices.

Look at Western design/font choices - Helvetica. Helvetica everywhere.

> Italics and capital letters have little or nothing to do with how 'Western' web layouts are generally created, and are far from the only way to create emphasis or hierarchy in text.

They are key to graphic design. Though even in the West, web designers have only been waking up to formal graphic design in the last few years.

> Haven't Google, MS, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, everyone demonstrated that this is the goal of what they're doing?

The real money now is in commerce, and Japan is well-known for being behind in online commerce due to trust issues with plastic money. I guess that leaves them with old model of ads which would explain the 'million-dollar homepage' look.

There may also be something to these sites appearing noisier to Western eyes because Japanese characters, being more complicated, appear aesthetically noisier than Roman characters.

Just a guess though.

Ok, there's some truth to this article, I'm not going to say the author is all wrong, but look at Amazon.com's home page and imagine you couldn't read English.


It would look really jumbled, incoherent, and poorly architected. Given that you can speak English, it's relatively easy to digest the nav, suggested books, ads, etc.

My guess is that there are cultural expectations driving their design choices (particularly in color scheme). But the biggest difference is probably the fact that their type appears impossibly complicated. Nothing more.

I can read Japanese fluently, and Amazon.jp is no problem to navigate (it's a dream compared to Rakuten), but I still find many Japanese sites to be a cluttered mess. I've noticed some nicer ones recently that seem to be on the Bootstrap bandwagon, but overall the browsing experience is terrible for me.

I have a retina screen now, but the effect of cheap Windows laptops on the aesthetics of Japanese text shouldn't be underestimated either.

You don't need to imagine: http://www.amazon.cn/

You're assuming that Amazon doesn't design things any differently for their Chinese site vs. their US site.

Not a good example. Amazon.com is famously a jumbled mess.

It's an excellent example; it's directly comparable with the Japanese sites which are also big legacy companies with a lot of content competing for attention. It's not as if Amazon is an outlier in design terms amongst major Western ecommerce or portal sites. Most Yahoo regional sites look a bit like the Japanese one, although some got round to updating the logo quicker. The US top sites list boasts portals that are even more text-heavy ike Reddit (and of course the infamous Craigslist) or noisy like the Huffington Post

Japanese startups, on the other hand, appear to enjoy their SV-style big stock photos, large bold text and colourful calls to action: http://thebridge.jp/en/2013/06/top-50-japanese-startups

I think it is a good example. Amazon is a powerhouse in the US and Naver, one of the South Korean sites the author linked to that resembles almost all the other sites he posted, is on similar footing in Korea.

I don't think so. Even people who can read both languages seem to notice the difference.

I guess the cultural aspect is a big reason here. Everyone who has ever watched japanese television or has seen the nightlife of major japanese cities will be overwhelmed by the amound of screaming, blinking lights and information, it's quite different from the western point of view.. :)

I agree. The design may seem unusual from a Westerner's point of view but from a Japanese prospective, this may fit the bill as a clean, simple design. The same can be said in reverse.

i don't think the design is unusual at all. It's not like i go to theatlantic.com and the first thing i notice is that the design is "unusual." it's just not as "slick" as something like qz.com

Interestingly the information rate of spoken Japanese is comparatively low.


That is interesting. Though I don't have supporting evidence I find that the exformation rate of Japanese language amongst native speakers is relatively high. This view is widely held by Japanese people themselves. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishin-denshin

I'm familiar with the concept as it's one of the things that makes me feel even more comfortable with the language– for certain things at least. That being said, there is also a form of comedy based on the vagueness and misinterpretation of speech. I'm at a loss for what it's called– a quick check brought me to manzai[0] but it's not what I'm thinking of. I'll have to keep searching.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manzai

That's a side-effect of having fewer phonemes.

But with 2000+ characters to choose from, written text can be very dense.

Semi-related story. I was doing a fan site for Final Fantasy XIV (mmo from Square Enix). It's interesting to see how things have to behave differently when a tech company has to deal with Japanese and English.

For tweets from their marketing department, they would write a tweet in Japanese first which would fit into a single tweet, but would spill over between 3 tweets when translated to English.

Within the FFXIV game, they had a chat box (like chat in many MMOs). The input field for typing in text only allowed 80 or so characters. This was fine for Japanese, but for English it was extremely limited. They fixed it soon after release, but it was something the dev team didn't realize as they were all Japanese.

There was a blog post from James Fallows last year[1] which contained a English translation of a single Chinese tweet. 140 Chinese characters transformed into 115 English words with 676 characters.


In the first picture I saw border navigation panels and a main center content area. Why is that "too many columns"? 1998 was a good year, web pages contained more information, not just text boxes super sized freakishly, low content, just large massive items on screens which have shrunk vertically the past several years which is far more of a conundrum to me. Making use of columns seems to make more sense now than it did in 1998. If anything, the Japanese are ahead of the curve. If screen sizes start growing vertically again then I could see your point.

The Japonic devotion to craftmanship does not typically extend into the virtual world. The culture certainly places an emphasis on physical goods.

I disagree in general with his statement, but Nobel Prize winner in physics Hideki Yukawa said that "The Japanese mentality is, in most cases, unfit for abstract thinking, and takes interest merely in tangible things".

He also said that at least 46 years ago.

was he talking about theoretical physics vs engineering?

I feel like the author wrote this article with a bias that Western websites are better and more aesthetically pleasing because it's simpler. But those are all subjective matters and Asian users probably prefer what they have. I come from a Korean background and I visit many different Korean and American websites daily, including the ones mentioned in the article. While some of the reasons given may seem plausible, non of them were actually convincing. There isn't really a solid reason why Asian websites look like that. That's just how it was and users are familiar with it. Some people like Hacker News because it's simple, while some people don't like it because it's too simple. There's no better or worse, it's just a preference.

Also, those patterns are not unique to Asian websites. If you go to cnn.com or msn.com, they're not that different either.

The bias you speak about is evident in the article's title. "Why Japanese Web Design Is So ... Different". The baseline is by implication English design, since the article was written in English. Probably also some subset of English sites that the author feels is representative, and expects his/her readers to resonate with. This is fine, but the problem is that this bias is not made explicit. It feels a little like asking "why are all these foreigners speaking funny languages?"

Since Japanese sites apparently look like they have not evolved since they were last like English sites around 1998, the better question might have been what factors have been driving evolution of English sites which did not affect Japanese? You may add other languages, but I'll just stick with Japanese since it is referenced by the OP.

I'm surprised this article got so many upvotes. It's a lot of anecdotal evidence, and even the anecdotes and websites they pointed out don't support the point that much.

http://yahoo.com and http://yahoo.co.jp both have similar, tight aesthetic with a lot going on.

http://youtube.com (view in incognito if you are signed into an account http://nicovideo.jp are very similarly information-dense. I'd say Youtube's layout is even more jumbled with all the different column widths as you go down the page.

http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/ and http://newyorktimes.com are both very information-dense, with a lot of text on the page.

And these are the cherry-picked examples that this very article chose.

Here are some other sites that are among the most popular in Japan:

- http://naver.jp - Clean, Google-like simplicity

- http://www.ameba.jp/ - Very common splash page style front page, and inside is a very busy social-network-like page, but not really that much different from Facebook, except the ads are a bit more tastefully done.

- http://www.nifty.com/ - Yahoo-like portal

Do these sites really look that different to you? If your answer is yes, I'm going to guess that you probably don't read Japanese, and that it being an unfamiliar jumble of characters is what makes it look weird/different/intimidating. Look past that, though, and you'll see that the similar sites ended up at a similar conclusion, even if aren't mirror images.

Re: Yahoo!, I guess you must be in the A group and I must be in the B group, because on my browser they look very different.

About a year ago, yahoo.com and yahoo.co.jp looked rather different. Yahoo! Japan's portal was astonishingly cluttered. Then it seems that Yahoo! HQ cracked the whip and ordered everyone to get in line, so the Japanese site became more like the US one. Still pretty messy, but nowhere near the sensory overload levels it reached before.

Now, it looks like Yahoo! have cleaned up their site more, and turned it more into more of a "What's hot!" portal. But, on my browser, Yahoo! Japan hasn't changed yet.

Of course, the article is cherry-picking a bit, but I don't think it's being unfair. Popular Japanese sites, including big e-shops, are garish and cluttered to a degree that would be unacceptable in the West.

Even though there may be a cultural difference, it's not enough. Look at Modern Japanese architecture. There are tons of different styles. Some clean and minimal, others maximal and extremely busy.

Japan is a very pluralistic country and there are going to be all kinds of different styles and personalities there in any field you choose.

My feeling is that big companies take a long time to change design. In the US, sites like the new york times, Dell, yahoo, Ebay, Techcrunch, zappos all had, at one point recently, really old-looking or just plain bad websites.

Even amazon is busted. Try searching for something and navigating to the 10th page of your search results. amazon is a wasteland in terms of usability and design.

There's actually some truth to this that is missing in the article. I had lived in China for awhile and it was so incredibly difficult to navigate Chinese websites. I'm using China as an example because the web designs are similar.

There was some study done awhile ago within China that I can't find the link to that compared the designs of a complicated site like sina.com.cn with text and images all over the place and compared it with a much simpler design that practiced white space and minimalism. It showed that the Chinese actually preferred complicated designs over simple designs. Having lived in China, this makes sense to me because of the culture. Simplicity and white space is not very well practiced. The "East Meets West" graphic by Yang Liu is probably a good example of some of the cultural differences.

I had not heard of the East Meets West art by Yang Liu. Looked it up and found it very interest...if not spot on. Some made me quite sad about Western culture, such as grandpa walking the dog instead of his grandchild. Or the one on "self".

Would you mind linking to that graphic?

Hey thanks for the link, and for not being a passive-aggressive prick.

Maybe I was a little rude (not quite as rude as calling someone a "passive-aggressive prick," mind you), but this behavior is annoying. I thought it was one of the "rules of the internet" or something that you make the bare minimum of effort to find something yourself before you bother people about it.

"Different" is a very diplomatic way of saying it. Probably better to just call it what it is: wrong. The link seems to be dead so I haven't even read the article but I do have some personal experience in the matter.

While there are a bunch of reasons for why it is the way it is, I think a big part of it is the goddamned Keitai. For a lot of Japanese, the only way they ever accessed the web was via their mobile phone. Until smartphones, this meant a very very dumbed down experience. Sadly, even now that smartphones are prevalent, there's still an attitude of "Let's wait and see if this smartphone fad keeps up for a while..."

Most of this simply has to do with lack of disruption. Almost all sites tend to add clutter over time because new things need to be added and some stakeholders don't want old things removed. Sometimes the only way to get clean new design is to start over. My guess is that competition has been less fierce and/or has been won (rigged?) by incumbents more often than it has been in the US, leading to slower iteration and acceptance of less-than-ideal design by consumers.

Enterprise versus consumer apps is the same story - lack of disruption and consumer choice leads to decisions that make sense only to the middlemen.

I see it like this:

I regularly used a fax machine at my job in Japan, and personal computers were not prevalent in my workplace. Businesses are very conservative and don't want to stand out.

In Japan, print is still the dominant way of spreading information. I always figured that the best designers ended up as print designers—and my web developer friends used Dreamweaver.

Not only that, CSS is very inconsistent with its english: "visibility: visible" OK! so then the opposite is "visibility: invisible" right? No. It's hidden.

Try searching .io domains regionally. You'll find Japan has modern designs out there.


So I don't know what to make of http://apple.com/jp

Is it just cultural ignorance on Apple's behalf or do Japanese people secretly appreciate this design style (given the popularity of Apple products in Japan)?

I don't think there's much of a correlation between the rise in popularity of Apple products in Japan and Apple's Japanese website.

To disagree with one of the smaller points in the article: Uniqlo's website is not a great counterpoint to the trend of bad/outdated web design. I like their clothing, but their website (although modern looking) is one of the worst user experiences out there.

Search is an afterthought, and if you want to get to something at the bottom of a category page, have fun wading through several dynamic sub-category load times.

To my knowledge, there isn't just a mobile legacy- the majority of Japanese still use a phone as their primary internet access device.

One of my guess is that "applization"(I mean a web service becomes more and more like an app) has its role to play in current simple/clean/flat web design trend. A more app-like web service is more likely to require the app visual design. So this could be an interesting perspective to examine the development status of web design in different parts of the world.

404 - HN Effect :(

"Apache/2.2.8 (Ubuntu) mod_jk/1.2.25 mod_python/3.3.1 Python/2.5.2 PHP/5.2.4-2ubuntu5.27 with Suhosin-Patch mod_ssl/2.2.8 OpenSSL/0.9.8g mod_perl/2.0.3 Perl/v5.8.8 Server at randomwire.com Port 80"

If this is your server, you shouldn't be giving so much information away. Make would-be attackers work a be at enumerating you.


Google captured the page before it went down :)

Website is still down. On the other hand, the signature is a lot shorter.

    Not Found

    The requested URL /why-japanese-web-design-is-so-different was not found on this server.

    Apache/2.2.22 (Ubuntu) Server at randomwire.com Port 80

Japanese web design tends to be broadly reflective of Japanese product packaging: cram as much textual info as will fit into limited space.

They have a U.S.-sized population and nearly U.S.-sized industrial base running inside a California-sized archipelago. They've gotten good at making the most of space.

From that one screen shot he provides it looks like the reason the Japanese do it differently is because they don't assume their visitors are driven off by masses of text. I wish more websites I use were stuffed full of information (or what I assume is information) like that.

Bakemonogatari, watch an episode of that and you'll see how creative Japanese text and design can be. Unfortunately the websites don't follow that trend, and anime is certainly a creative outlet with significant freedoms. Would be nice to see a renaissance over there.

I find it interesting that a site that is posting about cultural trends is itself following one of the current western web site trends:narrow central column of text with tons and tons of empty white space on either side...

Well, their adult content is also pretty different. Think about it.

Interesting article. I really like Microsoft's metro design language but i often wonder how well it works out for asian languages.

I would just like to say that Xelom & j03w make the best argumets in this entire thread...

Wow. So ethnocentrism. Much condescent.

I agree with you.

>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.

Wow, this is like saying their clothes look different from ours because their sowing machines are too old. Their hair styles are different because their scissors have longer blades, their food is different because they use chopsticks - ETC.

Their web design is different because they are different culturally. Their tastes and preferences are stylistically different. just because their gardens are liked in the west, does not mean we like all of their stylistic preferences. This blog post is completely wrong IMO. "Enough said".

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