Japan: the land of the rising sun, zen gardens, delightful tea ceremonies and the foundation grounds of some of the most awe-inspiring digital inventions the world has ever seen. Though despite all this, one question always seems to roll around: why is Japanese Web design so different to ours?
It's really quite a paradox. While Japan is has architecture, books and magazine designs, cars, robots and a digital industry that leaves the rest of the world green with envy, none of this seems to go into designing websites that have quite the same draw-dropping astonishment. In fact, the trend of websites in Japan seems to adhere to a sort of 1998 chic.
If you perform a web-search for some of Japan's most popularly visited sites (try Rakuten, for a start) there seems to be some common less than inspiring trends;
- Densely packed text
- Extremely small low-quality images
- An abundance of columns
- Bright contradicting colours and flashing banners
- Overuse of outdated technologies, like flash
While all this may be a little less than impressive, there are theories as to why Japan's web-design is as it is, for which we have attempted to expand on.
While it may seem terribly ignorant to typecast a nation's web-design to be influenced by cultural implications, it is inevitable to try and differentiate it from it. In the same way that Western web-design is influenced by trends and qualities that derive from our cultural implications, in the same way Japanese culture impacts heavily on the country's web-design.
In general, the Japanese culture eschews risk taking and standing apart from the crowd. Once a precedent or paradigm has been set for things to look or behave in a certain way then everything else follows it; regardless of whether there is a better solution. this even applies to Japanese subcultures and fashions, and is certainly inherent in web design.
Unlike us here in the West, Japanese companies see advertising as just another platform to enable them to put their message across: as loudly as possible. Therefore websites end up focusing on the maximum concentration of information into the smallest possible space available. Therefore websites often look more like pamphlets than a commerce tool.
Walking around the Tokyo cityscape, you are bombarded by neon signs, bright colours, noisy game arcades and an explosion of senses. This seems to have rooted itself into Japanese web design. Furthermore, due to the fact that physical space comes at a premium in Japan, none is wasted, hence why white space on a web page is kept to a minimal.
Logographic based languages contain a lot of meaning in just a few characters. While for Westerners, these symbols may seem cluttered and confusing, in fact they actually enable Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in a short amount of time and space.
Japanese doesn't have italics or capital letters which limits the opportunities for adding emphasis that you get with latin alphabets. Obviously this makes it all the more difficult to create the hierarchical contrasts required to organise information with just type. One way that many Japanese designers get over this is with graphic text.
Most of web and programming languages were designed by English speakers or Western corporations, hence the majority of documentation and educational resources being in English. Although much of it gets translated, it still causes a delay in technologies being up-to-date.
Legacy of mobile internet
Long before mobile web graced these shores in all its glory, the Japanese were using their version of mobile web on some of the more advanced flip phones; long before the iPhone came in. Back when mobile internet was new to Japan, mobile screens were tiny in comparison to today's, therefore mobile sites had to be designed to cram a lot of content into a small space. Obviously this trend has continued to influence how mobile web design is still conducted in Japan.
Web fonts for non-latin languages, such as Chinese and Japanese, are quite lacking. This is due to the fact that a font requires thousands of individual characters to be individually designed. This in turn is prohibitively expensive, time consuming and would take a longer time to download. So for these reasons web designers tend to use graphics as opposed to plain text to display non-standard typefaces.
Windows XP & IE 6
While in this side of the world, these ancient versions of Windows have become digitally fossilised, in Japan they are still alive and fairly well. While the number of people using these systems is slowly decreasing, there are still a fair number of people still using them, especially in corporate environments.
For me, Japanese web design is a paradox. While Japan boasts a digital world that pioneers the way we do things in the West, it can also seem like a dystopian version of the future predicted in the landscapes of old computer games like Streets of Rage.
Whereas one side, there are scenes of absolute beauty, creativity and some of the finest masters of their crafts, the other side seems to be stuck in the realms of conformity which is all to difficult to snap out of.
Though, that being said, there are several small companies who are doing truly amazing things in Japanese web design. Check out UNIQLO, MUJI, Kinokuniya for great examples of functionality and aesthetics in Japanese web design.
Let's hope that these guys can lead the way and revolutionise web design up to this standard.
For more articles on web design from around the globe, technical advice and pointers for your digital strategies; check out the Kalexiko blog.