The puzzle of Japanese web design


Jeffrey Zeldman Presents

With respect to clarity, simplicity, and boldness of line, the Japanese have been a thousand years ahead of us in fine art and graphic design. Our best painters learned minimalism, cartooning, and much else from the Japanese during the “Orientalism” period of the late 19th century. Before that, western fine art was judged in part on its complexity and detail. And our posters and advertisements! Don’t ask.

Even the way the Japanese design chopsticks reveals this genius for simplicity coupled with a reverence for the natural world. Your Chinese chopstick is all lathe work. It’s about the gloriously smooth finish of the stick. Chinese chopsticks are miniature masterpieces that we tragically toss away after a single use. But they are masterpieces of human skill.

In contrast, the Japanese don’t change the shape of the wood. They simply put a small crack in one side—just enough that you can snap it like a wishbone when you’re ready to use the chopsticks. The Chinese chopstick is about Man and His Craft. The Japanese chopstick is about the sacred, ephemeral beauty of the revealed world.

Given Japan’s world-leading preference for the boldly simple in the applied and graphic arts, it’s puzzling that so many Japanese website designs prize clutter over clarity. The online presence of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is typical of the style. See also Japan Airlines, stat.go.jp, mora.jp and so on. Even web consultancies show off their capabilities on sites that are models of this strangely cluttered aesthetic—an aesthetic that is doubly strange coming from a culture that has long prized elegant simplicity.

Certainly, the West has its share of crazy cluttered sites, and there are plenty of big Western internet companies like Yahoo and MySpace that paste the content thickly to the page. But here the cluttered approach to design wins no awards and is considered a sign of design amateurism—a guilty pleasure at best. It is odd that in Japan, land of world-leading minimalism in the traditional arts and design, web users and skilled web design practitioners believe more is more.

108 thoughts on “The puzzle of Japanese web design

  1. I wonder if perhaps web sites fall into the same cultural category as advertising, which is often very cluttered and busy (to my eyes, anyway).

  2. I think you might be starting at the wrong place – if you look at Japan’s print media traditions rather than it’s artistic ones, (specifically their newspapers and magazines) you’ll notice a similar aesthetic as we have in our newspapers – ie. cramming as much stuff onto the page as possible in as an assembly of rectangular content blocks.

    Japan is an incredibly literate and actively reading society – witness the circulation rate of newspapers there – they take the top 5 spots worldwide.

    Thus, if only to provide a comfort factor for viewers, I tend to think that japanese webpage design is more a bleed-over of their traditional media designs than their art style.

  3. Yes, I think the point about advertising is well made. The other thing that occurs to me is the Japanese urban landscape. In my one trip there years ago, I was struck by this exact contrast. But it wasntbetween the traditional Japanese arts and crafts and web design, it was the fact that the cities and towns were such a jumble, the signage so chaotic, seemingly without organization or high standards. Japanese web sites strike me the same way. Speed and convenience (of construction, not of use) seem be driving factors, rather than a sense of creating something elegant that’s meant to last.

  4. I like to think of Japanese websites as similar to a Pachinko parlour. Loud, crowded, noisy but also very popular to Japanese people. I’ve never understood Pachinko in all my visits to Japan and equally I don’t understand their busy website designs.

    Also, you can find many large Japanese companies whose websites are 10 years old plus and have never been refreshed or redesigned.

    I too share your consternation as to why so many Japanese things/experiences are so beautifully designed but often their websites are not. I do wonder whether the typical UX afforded by iMode mobile sites has ended up influencing the web as a whole (iMode was very busy).

  5. I’ve always considered Japanese advertisements as cluttered. So to see their sites reflect his isn’t surprising. The difference in characters on their websites also lead my brain to think cluttered.

  6. My eyes, my eyes!

    Those are cluttered and cumbersome website examples that indeed seem to contrast with what little I know about Japanese minimalism. Ouch!

  7. Might be a cultural thing. One curious thing though – if you were to change the text (writing system) to our language, the clutter sort of disappear. It can be appreciated when you do a Google search for “Sony Japan” the Japanese link above looks cluttered in comparison with the English one under it. Those chopsticks might be a work of art of simplicity, but their usage it’s difficult to master :)

  8. Have you been to Japan? If I look outside the window, the city I see looks very much like the websites I see…

    Not yet, Oliver. Been invited many times and definitely want to go, but family concerns (young daughter) have kept me closer to home these past years, and will for some time to come. I’m of course familiar with Tokyo from the movies.

    Eric’s theory—that websites are considered a form of advertising, and that advertising in Japan is visually “busy” by western standards—seems to be winning. Which doesn’t resolve the essential puzzle. How can a people so dedicated to elegant simplicity in most spheres of life and design be so dedicated to frenetic density and visual chaos in other spheres (urban landscape, advertising, web design)?

    Any thoughts on that?

  9. Interesting timing. I just heard Don Norman address this very issue in a speech Wednesday, and he alluded to the same point Oliver does: the density and urban chaos of Asian life is reflected in its web design.

  10. The difference in characters on their websites also lead my brain to think cluttered.

    Yes, definitely. For a person who doesn’t read Japanese, massive amounts of Japanese characters, even when well organized with clear visual hierarchies, can contribute to the sense of clutter, as the western eye goes slightly bonky following the many lines and shapes.

    On the other hand, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was a box A Book Apart sent to a Japanese reader that was returned to sender by the Japanese post office. The simple Japanese post office mark in red ink on our plain white box was so glorious it took my breath away. Also: very simple.

  11. With all due respect to the respective authors, many of these comments are a bit too western-centric. What we consider an efficient, communicative design is not a universal concept.

    I used to work for Rakuten USA, the stateside division of Rakuten Corporation. We tried to develop our products with clean designs and interfaces, which came in direct contrast with the home company’s approach. It was understood as a cultural difference.

    Rakuten is the 9th largest e-commerce company in the world. They own the country’s largest online shopping mall (think Amazon or eBay stores), travel agencies, golf properties, one of the country’s largest banks, a baseball team, and many other types of properties. They’re huge and they’re expanding quickly to the global market.

    Over 50% of Japan’s consumer-age residents are active members of Rakuten’s sites. Many of these people use it to buy everyday things. One of Rakuten’s success stories was about a merchant who sold eggs from very specialized chickens.

    Eggs. Online. What?

    Their Japanese sites are full of text, images, animations, clashing colors, and scroll-scroll-scrolling layout choices we’d politely poo-poo in public and intensely mock in private. (I would link to some of these pages, but Rakuten now auto-forwards to English-language versions that are more in line with our design preferences. However, the pages were not unlike those Jeffrey linked to.)

    My point being that what would seem to be an unsuccessful design in the Western world (if the stated goal in this case is user engagement with regards to the ‘buy’ button) is clearly not hampering many companies whose culture is vastly different from ours. Further posturing that these designs are amateurish or, perhaps, below our own choices is dangerously close to say, “Wow, they sure talk funny over there!”

  12. I love looking at design through these cultural prisms, something that I did in 2001-04 when I was completing my MFA in interactive design. At that time I was curious about design in Finland which, interestingly, shares some cultural sensibilities with Japanese culture and design (some of Marimekko’s top designers were from Japan).

    Somehow Finland seems to embrace both modernism and nature together, with an elegant commitment to minimalism. It also seems to cross many areas of design: textiles, glass, architecture, print, and web.

  13. I just heard Don Norman address this very issue in a speech Wednesday, and he alluded to the same point Oliver does: the density and urban chaos of Asian life is reflected in its web design.

    Great minds think alike, I guess. Personally I’m not satisfied with that explanation. Why should the chaos of urban centers be taken as an aesthetic for web design?

    I live in New York City. I don’t design websites that look like New York City.

  14. Eric’s theory—that websites are considered a form of advertising, and that advertising in Japan is visually “busy” by western standards—seems to be winning. Which doesn’t resolve the essential puzzle. How can a people so dedicated to elegant simplicity in most spheres of life and design be so dedicated to frenetic density and visual chaos in other spheres (urban landscape, advertising, web design)?

    First, are you sure you share the same definition of simplicity?

    Second, it’s about space. Japan can’t expand out, only up. They use space very efficiently.

    When exploring the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, I was continually amazed by how they used available space. Walk down a main street, and there’s a side street. Walk down that side street and there’s a smaller side street. Off of that, an alley. Off of that, a smaller alley that might allow 2 people to walk side-by-side. Down that alley are restaurants with space for, at most, 4 people. There is very little waste.

  15. I suppose no country has got such such a monolithic culture. Japanese popular culture often seems to lean towards a kind of baroque effervescence (an Ayumi Hamsaki performance).

    There’s also a country called the United States, where some decorate their verandas with a gaudy proliferation of objects which look almost random to eyes accustomed to Belgian landscapes, others seem to make of their livings spaces (or public spaces) late experiments in modernism. Others still design ‘A List Apart’ :-)

    It’s all about audience, how a product is perceived, high-brow vs low-brow, and finally how those that create a product perceive themselves. Until recently, I think very few web designers in Italy, for instance, thought of themselves as ‘serious’ designers, hence a big lack of aesthetic drive (outside of some niches).

  16. Due to the nature of my hobby, I’ve been visiting several japanese websites over the past 5 years. Clutter is one thing, love for grids and textual content over images is another.
    Eric Meyer put it well, but then again , every programme on any japanese channel similar; be it news, talk or kid shows, they’re extravagant, cluttered, animated billboards.

    But there’s also good examples: http://www.nintendo.co.jp/

  17. I live in New York City. I don’t design websites that look like New York City.

    Maybe you should try it. It makes sense, it might make people more comfortable and they see something they expect everyday. Crowded like the subway and congested like the traffic. More densely social.

  18. In my personal opinion as a Japanese web designer, there are only few web designers in Japan.
    What I mean is that many people don’t understand what web designer do.
    Sometimes I feel like I am just a go to guy who knows how to use a Photoshop.

    There are many web designers in Japan who can achieve clutter less web designs, but I guess most of them are same as I am a guy who know how to use a photoshop.

    I was once actually told that I am not the one who decide how navigation should be designed.

    So that’s what I believe why so many website are cluttered.
    You can say it’s a cultural things. I kinda start believing it must be.

  19. Looking at American Airlines homepage it appears every bit as cluttered as JAL’s to me. So I think it really just depends. Not being able to read Japanese I imagine is heightening the sense of busyness, clutter and chaos. Looking at the main sites of Muji, Uniqlo and Rakuten, I don’t see much to differentiate them from their western counterparts eg. Muji (Target), Uniqlo (Gap) and Rakuten (Amazon).

    I agree however, that all the government sites are terrible looking. Though that’s not unique to Japan either.

  20. Your use of the word ‘minimalism’ brought to mind a recent post by Dmitry Fadeyev — It Isn’t Minimalism. He makes the point that reducing a subject to its necessary elements is design, not a type of it. Reading his post along with yours makes this trend among Japanese web designers all the more puzzling. I know very little about their language, but I wonder if condensing information into a small space is difficult. That would only offer a partial explanation, though.

  21. Their Japanese sites are full of text, images, animations, clashing colors, and scroll-scroll-scrolling layout choices we’d politely poo-poo in public and intensely mock in private. (I would link to some of these pages, but Rakuten now auto-forwards to English-language versions that are more in line with our design preferences. However, the pages were not unlike those Jeffrey linked to.)

    In the west we also have these type of sites, but they just aren’t celebrated these circles. Simplicity doesn’t always win, sometimes designs that win are the designs that can be produced by the talent pool that exists in an organization or their circle of influence. Often, no one bats an eye in that organization because it still makes money or is seemly successful.

    Heck, we invented the internet and our sites looked similar 5-10 years ago. I’m sure there will be a web design revolution at some point in Japan where simple Web Design will become popular. But, how are we to know, we don’t frequent their sites.

  22. Just yesterday I was looking at a monthly mailer from Marukai, an American chain of Japanese stores (http://www.marukai.com/index-e.html), astonished at the density of products described in their 32 page color flyer. Just like a pachinko parlor, or perhaps more precisely like a walk down Tokyo’s Akihabara district. Bright, garish colors, lots of different fonts. Yet, very effective.

    The wonderful minimalism that we Americans appreciate in Japanese design is much like the similar reverie floating around these days for Dieter Rams’ designs for Braun in the 60s and 70s — these designs are held in such high esteem because they are so rare.

    The idealized Japan that we think about – peaceful temples where everyone wears Kimonos and spend hours preparing a cup of tea – has nothing to do with the everyday Nintendo world that most Japanese live in.

    Reminds me of some Chinese fireworks packaging that @cabel passed around recently – all the Americans had big cars, Ray-Bans and lots of guns – Rambo basically. The stereotypes we have about other people and places – while often positive and reverential – rarely have any relevance to daily life.

    You should visit. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka. An Event Apart Tour of Japan! You’d enjoy it.

    -Daniel

  23. I agree with Paddy and others — it’s about where you look. There are cluttered websites everywhere, and there are also designers striving for simplistic elegance. From my own personal, unscientific research of Asian standards-based websites for my own Asian web gallery, Japan is still light-years ahead of other countries like Taiwan, Korea, and China.

  24. There are examples of great Japanese web design, but keep in mind there’s the fundamental hurdle of the web stack being English-based. This means tools predominate over hand coding, and many sites are coded in less than proficient tools. Imagine how much harder we’d find HTML if it was kanji-based & we had to use HomeSite Builder :) Because of this (+ poor Windows typography) ppl have tended to favour the graphic over semantic, eg text as image is almost universal, lots of Flash etc

    Then there’s this fun aspect of Japan that it is implicitly contradictory. Washlets vs squat toilets, air conditioning but no insulation, honne vs tatemae… Sometimes I wonder if it’s the same for the Japanese web.

    For what it’s worth I’m working on it ;)

  25. One more thing, decision-makers over here are even more clueless than international norms; seniority-based promotion, low web usage (or even computer knowledge), and prone to demand their welcome letter be the first thing on the homepage. Fun!

  26. Adam G. gave an interesting talk on this very subject at the IA Summit years ago. He had many interesting stories from working in Japan and discovering this cultural design paradox. Of the many stories that stuck in my head, I remember his talking about the seemingly inexplicable popularity of an animated farting man. He discovered after exploring a bit deeper that it had to do with sites needing to appear humble and somehow that communicated humility.

  27. I think this might’ve been mentioned a few times in the comments. I think the Japanese favour English speaking countries, and anyone who speaks English there is revered as better than most Japanese-speaking salarymen.

    With that said I do think most Japanese’s opinion of North American culture is loud and cluttered, so perhaps this sort of stereotype is reflected in their web design also. We don’t know how to appreciate it because we’re surrounded by this everyday. But in Japan I think they look up to it. In the same way we like the simplicity of the presumed ideals of Japan, they like the loud and cluttered style some of our big cities are built.

  28. You pose an interesting question — one to which I don’t know the answer. However, after six years in Japan, I think the Japanese might be better at making sense of that visual clutter. As you alluded to in one of your comments, the Japanese tri-une writing system is generally quite dark on the page, and comprises many more ‘strokes per inch’, making it appear (to those who don’t read Japanese) as very busy, very cluttered. Beyond the text, those commentators who make reference to Japanese print media are probably right when they write that the Japanese web follows the print model.

    About

    the density and urban chaos of Asian life is reflected in its web design.

    I think that’s just part of the picture. Visit most Japanese homes, and you will not see uncluttered simplicity; you will see organised chaos — small living spaces packed to the ceilings. So perhaps it’s the Japanese home, rather than the street that is reflected in its web design.

    Having said that, I do believe that Japanese web design is beginning to trend away from the mayhem and clutter.

  29. As a followup, Jeremy Keith and I discussed this post over breakfast. He pointed out, as have commenters here, that Japanese print media seems to be all about maximal concentration of information—getting the most information into the smallest space. Ditto advertising and other portions of their culture.

    Their art, on the other hand, is as you have observed: breathtakingly spare, minimal, elegant, beautiful to many eyes. It’s about saying as much as possible in the most minimal ways possible. But that’s another side of the same coin, right? It’s a different kind of information density, but information density all the same, and similarly valued.

    I further wonder if in the West we (probably without meaning to do so) set communication of information and artistic beauty in opposition, and our (likely subconscious) preferences speak to what we value most.

  30. Great article and comments many of which have touched on the visual complexity of newspapers & other media, the Kanji writing system, and the places people live. One factor I have not seen mentioned is the effect of the population density on Japanese comfort levels with visual complexity.

    I go to Sapporo regularly, and while it is considered a smaller city, I’ve been exposed to such large numbers of people in concentrated spaces that it makes NYC appear sparsely populated. There was one festival in Odori Park where there were so many people, most of who were in motion, that I could not visually track my fianceé who was a foot or two in front of me. I had to hold on to her physically because my brain was in overload. It took a while to get used to that kind of thing, but I would imagine growing up in such an environment would account for the high visual complexity that you see in media: lower complexity would reduce the concentration of information to below accepted levels.

    One other factor I should mention is that many of the truly minimal and peaceful places in Japan are meant for special occasions such as a vacation or to take a quick rest from the frenetic pace of daily life. These are exceptional places rather than the rule and there is usually a place like that not too far away.

    Lastly Japan is a contradiction. In many ways it is still the 1980’s there, while at the same time feeling like the future. Sometimes this is detrimental, but it is also part of what makes Japan great. People still make things in Japan, and hopefully the current wave of caring about the provenance of things we buy will reinforce that and prevent them from repeating our mistakes in that area. At the same time, not always the people making things are specialists in their field. Sometimes people within a large company are assigned projects in an area where they have no experience. I could see the company website falling under this category. :)

  31. The idealized Japan that we think about – peaceful temples where everyone wears Kimonos and spend hours preparing a cup of tea – has nothing to do with the everyday Nintendo world that most Japanese live in.

    Daniel Sofer makes a valid point there. That, coupled with HTML using American English element names, plus the love of mobiles in Japan, and the picture begins to make sense.

    Only one thing puzzles me. Are there not millions of ‘zen’ like Japanese sites that mirror the minimalism and beauty of their calligraphic art? Or is practicality of the site always king over design?

  32. Brilliant discussion I found thanks to Twitter, so excuse me if I jump right in…

    Perhaps the fundamental issue here is one of purpose? Minimalist art is how it is because that’s its purpose: to be attractive, calming, thoughtful etc. If Japanese print journalism appears frantic, that’s probably because its job is the passing of as much information as possible in a legible (to its target audience) manner as can be achieved, and how it looks is secondary. If this philosophy is carried over to the web design.. well, why not? If we in the West value “pretty” in web design that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only way of approaching the subject. Maybe just getting over as much information as efficiently as possible is an equally valid approach, and that means the “cluttered” web sites are completely fit for purpose? They don’t look pretty because that’s not an aspect their target audience cares about?

  33. I read a discussion on the state of web design in Japan just over a year ago. A couple of insightful contributors pointed out that one of the main reasons the visual design of websites over there has fallen behind pther countries is because Internet Explorer 7 was never released as an automatic update for the Japanese version of Windows, so the vast majority of web users were stuck using IE6 until recently. I never managed to verify if this is true or not, though.

  34. Yuya Saito made an interesting point — maybe it isn’t a cultural difference in design but a cultural difference in the management of design.

    If you look at individual signs (in Tokyo) the minimalism can still be found, but it is confined to a box surrounded by thousands of other boxes.

    The Ministry of Health site reminds me of signage (eg: shops in a building), instructional leaflets and manuals. Everything in Japan has a manual or set of instructions!

    Not all of Japan is a pachinko parlor — in my experience even the Japanese think Tokyo is crazy (coming from comments I got in Kyoto).

    An interesting article on the cultural differences of advertising Macs in Japan.

  35. To me, it seems as if many of those Japanese companies are simply treating the web like print — The same problem we still have in the West. I think it’s just a case of catching up. They’re ahead in many areas, so it makes sense they may be a bit behind in others, especially when you consider a lot of the evolution of web design happens in English.

  36. I think a lot of it has to do with the clutter that seems present in the characters themselves. I can’t read japanese, so to my eyes the language looks like a lot of little design elements with tightly packed lines.

    I’m not saying the sites are clean, but if I use chrome to translate them to english instantly many of the sites look much less cluttered. They still couldn’t be called ‘minimalist’ in any way, but neither could the New York Times or the Onion.

    I think this site might even look a little ‘cluttered’ translated to japanese.

  37. Many Japanese companies considering the website as an advertizement, not as a useful tool.
    Even the national flag carrier site, the area by advertisements is larger than inquiry form. Japan airline’s web site is almost the same with ryanair.com.

    And I think that Japnaese who respect minimalism, simplicity and zen spirits have been less and less. I never say disappeared, but it’s not in Tokyo the cluttered and busy city. And the buissiness which needs website is always in Tokyo.

  38. The main point of the essay is not that Japanese websites are necessarily less cluttered than American websites, but rather that Japanese websites are, pound for pound, more cluttered than their other forms of design.

    He’s absolutely right, it is puzzling, and there’s nothing ethnocentric about posing the question.

  39. this article is pretty ignorant and anglo-centric. the japanese are a very literate culture and like to have their information condensed so they can plow through massive amounts of information to find the content they find meaningful. kanji only helps them do this, as its form allows for rapid scanning and parsing of content. traditional print media follows the same form as well. why would one want to scan through thousands of pages of nested links when one can just scan one page instead? it’s much harder to do with english because we have to scan each sentence to infer meaning, but for many character based languages this is just not so.

    pick up any hot pepper magazine in tokyo, or read a japanese magazine or newspaper to see what i mean. having so much information in one place is actually quite convenient if your language is conducive to rapid pattern matching. unfortunately, english is not.

  40. I disagree with the cluttered city, in tokyo atleast they had beautiful architecture. Clean elegant and often to stand out from the crowd but yet subtle.

    I found alot of the graphics to be really close to where I am from Scandinavia. But I did notice differences.

    I have somewhere on my harddrive pictures of their poster art, which where totally stunning! so clean, minimalistic and often with no or little titles, paragrafs. Almost nothing. There where one about clean air, that just had beautiful painted images of city landscape and O2 kinda overlayed/multiplyed over.

    So their poster art, where like Swedish webdesign.

    I think their sites are actually like that due to commercialism, in Japan/Tokyo it’s common to get papertowels w/ a commercial flyer or a coupon w/ it. That graphic! is exactly as their commercial website. Somehow this cluttered, smal gifs, alot of info on “one-single-page” triggers commercialism in the Japanese brain I think ;P

    So it’s cultural phenomena, a clean minimalistic website is more “enterprise”. If you want to sell me something directly , or DM … you need a single-page cluttered with offers.

    A clash between the “cluttered” commercial aspect is this firm that sells small apps. http://pentacom.jp/

    you see their clean approach to webdesign, clash with the idea, of .. all offers on a single-front-page thinking.

    but yet still I return to that site for inspiration.

    Tripleship is a webdesign firm, with clear structure in mind. likes the grid!

    http://www.tripleships.com/

    but here I think we see , the enterprise. They don’t need to “sell” directly to you. They are not DM.

    Same with

    http://www.mono-lab.net/

    they are experts in minimalism on internet, and I just love their WP themes.

    PS: I’ve been to Tokyo and wants to go back, if you haven’t been in Japan you have to go! atleast one time in your lifetime. It’s an experience that’s almost out of this (western) world! :DS

  41. How can a people so dedicated to elegant simplicity in most spheres of life and design be so dedicated to frenetic density and visual chaos in other spheres (urban landscape, advertising, web design)?

    I would think that it’s not unlike what I’ve been running into:

    In my team, I created this “policy” that none of our (developers) work sees the light of day until a graphics designer and a technical writer go over it. Frequently though, people higher than I am (usually the Pres – who is more in sales) come back with “I want a scrolling banner” or “something that flashes”. It’s a constant battle.

    So, if you think about it as (at least) two sets of people: the artsy folks, or at least folks with some appreciation for the arts – the Zen folks – and business/sales folks – the Yen folks. Over time, as the Yen folks try to come up with ways to attract people to their products keep pushing the “loudness” to one up their competitor the Zen folks keep having to give in to what the Yen folks ask.

    I fought back the scrolling banner and the flashing text. I had to give in to “everything must be a button”. So, no links whatsoever on the web based software. The Pres though that the links were non-intuitive. And instructions like “Next” wouldn’t do. They have to be “Click here to do such and such” INSIDE each of those buttons. Sadly, the Yen folks won that one. I had to stop fighting those battles to not lose my own inner Zen. I’d imagine it’s the same thing over there.

    Also, what we see of Japan is hundreds of years of history that’s been carefully selected by time. There, the Zen folks won.

  42. @zeldman I get this question a lot, and I usually try to answer it as short as possible. It takes about 10 minutes of fast speech to answer it properly.

    A. Just like @ilovetypography pointed out: By looking outside the window I didn’t mean just urban architecture. Average Japanese design in general is very busy and cluttered and (at least to a spoiled Swiss eye) actually pretty ugly. The nice stuff that reaches your shores is the exception to the rule.
    B. The ability of Japanese to write and process more information per inch doesn’t help minimalism.
    C. Japanese webdesign is a couple of years back because companies are slow and too few Japanese designers speak enough English to follow the latest trends.

    About travelling: You definitely should stay at @ilovetypography’s house. It’s stunning and one of the big exceptions to the rule. I’d be happy to show you around town, of course, but our place is too small and cluttered (i.e. Japanese) for design sensitive guests. ;-)

  43. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Japan and I love the place – but I reckon the minimalism of the culture is more like a respite from the general craziness of the modern place. And it’s pretty cool. right in the middle of a city suburb there will be a tiny small but very peaceful little temple. Or at the fish market, noisy, flashing neon, general mentalness – but sit down to enjoy a meal and you get the satisfying snap of the simple chop stick. It’s not that minimalistic really – but the bits that are really stand out and are all the more enjoyable.

  44. Not that have an answer, but an interesting thing to note is that the Japanese do have good print magazines involving web design.

    I ran into Web Designing not too long ago, even received a couple of issues and was really surprised by the high quality of the magazine. Excellent page layouts, great topics, very classy, to the point where it beats just about every other web development magazine I have ever laid my eyes on (which, in truth, aren’t that many, but still).

    So they do have proper sources to learn from.

  45. what if they don’t make simple chopsticks because of the beauty of the earth, nature and so on… and they just make them like that because it’s easier, and cheaper? and what if those websites are precisely an evidence of their lack of taste? what if minimalism for art is what homeopathy is for medicine?
    but hey, I also like simple things…

  46. @discobanco
    I’m inclined to agree with you on that. I’m never sure if it’s amazingly well planned or simply accident – a bit like most of my bizarrely chaotic business dealing with Japan

  47. I think you might be thrown off by the visual noisiness of Kanji in general. When I switched JAL’s website to English, it seems to me that it uses the same design as the Japanese version, but suddenly the site looks very similar to other, western airline sites (wizzair.com, for example), and most of the complexity vanishes.

  48. I think it’s a lot to do with the Japanese character set. It’s big, it’s bold and to the western eye can look a little scruffy. It’s also all the same size so can feel a bit like it’s all shouting for attention.

    I worked on a Japanese site recently and during development we used English language. I felt the design was simple, clean and pleasing to the eye. As we neared the end of development we switched it across to Japanese and suddenly if felt crowded and messy.

    If you look at the English version of the Japan Airlines site for example: whilst not beautiful it does suddenly just feel like every other slightly dull grid based layout.

  49. As someone, who has always found paper easier to design with than the web, I wonder if the Japanese style of writing, which is very drawing-based, isn’t clashing with the whole concept of “coding,” thus perhaps leading to bad code. This is just a guess, but maybe someone has the answer to it. You definitely see more elegant games coming out of Japan.

  50. I find the websites mentioned rather quiet and well layed-out. There are a lot of Chinese/Taiwanese websites that are far “worse”. I think one factor is that we tend to read information and that our script is quite page filling. Simplicity draws attention. Asians languages like Japanese and Chinese are being scanned with the eyes and are more compact. More info on the same area and you need attention drawn to your information. Quite frustrating for the western eyes, but normal for the Asian eyes.

  51. THEIR WEBSITES JUST LOOK CLUTTERED BECAUSE THEY DON’T HAVE SMALL LETTERS. WON’T YOUR WEBSITE LOOK CLUTTERED AS WELL IF YOU TYPE EVERYTHING IN CAPS? =)

  52. i don’t think it’s their design as much as their character set. it’s just an illusion. their layouts/grids are comparable to amazon’s, it’s just that they use kanji characters that may seem overwhelming to those not used to it.

  53. I think it’s just Western eyes not used to Katakana. Run it through Google to Romanize the text. Suddenly, it doesn’t look so cluttered.

    Looking @ your blog in Japanese:

    The top looks just as “cluttered” as the websites you reference. Furthermore, your site is a HUGE swath vertical scrolling filled with space-wasting white-space on the left and right just so it adheres to “magazine/print” formatting. Wth?

    IMO, one has to appreciate the Japanese “lack” of overwhelming Flash in sites referenced. Instead, most of the content is heavy on actual useful TEXT, like back in the Lynx text-browser days, and totally indexable; unlike Flash heavy American sites. The minimal wasted white-space is a testament to their philosophy and engineering.

    Then Consider that most Japanese browse the Internet through their large-screen beyond-3G phones (large desktops take up too much room @ home so it’s either a small laptop or the computer at work), and the functional packing of information makes even sense.

    I’ve checked the sites with Opera Mobile and the Android browser, and I can see and read the JP sites with minimal scrolling. This site …

  54. Perhaps the Japanese have simply discovered that dense web pages are better at communicating effectively. Have a look at this essay on typography by Ellen Lupton:

    For example, it was once progressive to promote the use of “white space” in all things typographic. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the value of density, from page to screen to urban environment. Down with sprawl, down with vast distances from a to b, and up with greater richness, diversity, and compactness among information and ideas, people and places.

    This may not agree with your design sensibilities, but hey, if it works…

  55. Dood, have you considered that just because you have no idea what is written, or can’t even understand the basics of Japanese, those seem to you a bunch of sketcher ?
    O can understand (mostly) what is written, and they do not seem that packed !

  56. The jumbled design of Japanese websites depend on what kind of website you look at.

    99% of the sites I browse are of Japanese museums, and they are as elegant as Japanese art. So I think people here are generalising a lot, which is just… wrong.

    Japan is a country of contrasts in absolutely everything, and websites design might be just yet another example of it.

    However, I must agree that Western eyes might not be used to Japanese characters.

  57. Hmm I see a lot of comments here conflicting, or simply just because people don’t really know the landscape here in japan.

    first of all, web site design has little to do with city design. I live in Tokyo now, but despite what many western people think, Tokyo isn’t all of japan, and much of the countryside here is absolutely EMPTY.

    Most Japanese people I know also hate the overcrowded and crappy web sites. It’s not just the design, it’s the features. Big companies here are very conservative, and act very very slowly. Most of the bank web sites don’t allow you to do anything useful besides check your balance, and maybe make domestic transfers. Compare that with the likes of trade bank in the us. They look craooy because they are Old, and half the time designed by someone who has never used the Internet. The boss makes up a design, discusses it with all his 60 year old manager coworkers, and makes uo a spec, which is finally passed to some poor fresher to write.

    There are exceptions to this, though, usually with the “Internet companies” like live door and mixi.

    As other people here have mentioned, print media in general is somewhat crowded. Japanese companies tend to be very form oriented, and love lots of paperwork. You may have heard that Japanese like minimalism, but they also like details. Everything I do at work is supported by an amount of documentation that would seem obscene in the us or another western country. This is part of the culture of “Quality”, but whether it always results i netter quality or it is sometimes overkill is another issue.

    At any rate, most of the websites here are simply outdated in general, and the desi is only one aspect of that.

    One legitimate difference is that japanese people in general like pastel colors, and you will find those everywhere for backgrounds, etc.

  58. I agree that the look-and-feel of the Japenese pages are sort of icon-driven rather than text-driven; maybe that’s partly influenced by the nature of pictographic Asian languages. But in any event, at least those websites don’t have anything flashing and moving, the way so many western website do! Talk about distracting! Whenever I go to a page that has some flashing or moving advertisement, I immediately hit the ‘back’ button. In addition to the javascript overloading the browser’s memory, it’s just plain rude, totally distracting, impossible to concentrate on the content-part of the page. So compared to such western advertisement-heavy, adhd-inducing nonsense, the Japanese websites are the pinnacle of calm!

  59. I go there often. Pretty much exclusively Tokyo.

    Everything there is busybusybusynoisylouddoesthithinghaveanoffswitch.

    Doesn’t surprise me a bit.

  60. It’s a bit of an old chestnut.

    Whenever this question of why J-sites so cluttered and visually chaotic comes up, you always get a few self appointed sociology experts who will tell you “oh, Japanese prefer that kind of page”.

    Hogwash. People are people.

    My wife is Japanese, most of my friends are Japanese and they share the same distaste for horrible web design that I do.

    True, there are no doubt a few talented Japanese web designers around but they are rare exceptions.

    Why? Well for one thing, in the west, how many talented designers would aspire to work for a huge corporation? Practically none. Creative people tend to prefer creative freedom. In Japan though, there is still tremendous economic and social pressure on all graduates to join a megacompany, follow orders and inch up the ladder until retirement.

    Secondly, university graduates in Japan don’t choose a career. They choose a company. Once they get in the door they know that they will probably be moved from one department to the next every 2 to 5 years so there is not too much incentive to really commit to learning the craft of web design.

    Third, because of the language barrier, many Japanese find it hard to participate fully in the online forums, discussion groups, webinars, blogs and so on that really drive creative innovations.

    Fourth, to the extent that people here ARE learning graphics and media technology, it tends to be focused on games development, which is a huge market.

    If you poke around under the hood of the majority of Japanese websites, you’ll see a lot of nasty, antiquated coding techniques. Which speaks to my point about the standard of the local web industry, unfortunately.

    One final anecdote:
    I know somebody who works for a recruiting company in Tokyo. She says that they have no way of really assessing or sorting the good designers/developers from the hacks. She said they just pick a female candidate that looks pleasant and send her to the interview because 9 times out of ten they are given the job. The interviewers (who are almost always HR people, not IT or design) don’t have a clue either!

    Frightening.

  61. The Japanese chop sticks are about the beauty of the “revealed world.” The same goes for much of the Japanese fine artwork I have seen. But with the web, what world is being revealed? Is it the technology behind the web? Or is it simply the thoughts of the designer?

    Could it be that just like chopsticks reveal the underlying structure of the wood, Japanese web design reveals the underlying structure of information gathering techniques and human attention?

  62. I found very beautiful and minimal elegant japanese websites too. though there exist a lot of cluttered ones.
    if you check some fashion or design magazine you can see very beautiful design

  63. Your article is insightful, but I am not sure that those sites are actually as “cluttered” as you would think. From an english-reader’s perspective, the characters of the Japanese language themselves offer a lot of visual noise. I think this adds to the distress we feel when looking at those sites since those characters mean nothing to us.
    In terms of content presentation, I don’t think those pages are any worse-off than say, Amazon or Facebook. Certainly, they are no worse than any of the US government pages (see IRS.gov).
    I think that those of us in the design community tend to elevate the design of one-purpose microsites and blogs which generally have fewer necessary elements to them than an auction site or a news magazine site. They are inherently minimalistic.
    I wonder: does a Japanese blog look cluttered? Do the Japanese value the simplicity of a one-function microsite?

  64. My first impression was that it was more complex. On second thought it occurred to me that part of that complexity was actually the the Kanji on the pages. The intricate characters seem to give the site an overall complexity that if I were Japanese I probably would not perceive.

  65. I haven’t taken the time to read all the responses before posting this so excuse the unintentional repetition. A few years ago, a study came out that suggested that Asians view things differently than westerners.

    If you accept this hypothesis, then the “cluttered” nature of Japanese web design starts to make more sense. Japanese users’ ability to focus on the periphery leads to sites that lack the clean visual hierarchy we’re used to seeing in the U.S.

  66. It occurs to me in looking at, particularly, the Japan Airlines site in English and Japanese that a significant portion of what might be perceived as clutter is partly the Kanji…but more the font. I view the “English web” using a variety of screen fonts designed to look clean. When I view a site using extended Unicode characters, as far as I can tell, the font it ends up using (on my machine) lacks much of the typographic goodness I expect. So, the lines look harsh, somewhat more garish; the characters are fairly boxy and angular rather than elegant and flowing. They are, in fact, nothing like the elegant calligraphy Japan has to offer. I googled a page of Japanese Unicode fonts and came up with this: http://www.wazu.jp/gallery/Fonts_Japanese.html There are several of those fonts which I expect would be far more “pleasant” than the font I see the Japanese characters in. I do not know if the average Japanese web-surfer has better fonts than I do on their computer, although I’d hope so, but regardless, I think typography may the source of much of your complaint.

  67. Give me a break. The two-second answer to the whole “puzzle” or “paradox” or whatever goofiness this is peddled as:

    People making austere, elegant pieces of traditional artwork… and people making gaudy, cluttered web sites… are generally not the same individuals.

    A “puzzle” appears only when one adopts the silly delusion that a shared affiliation with a political entity (“country”) should mystically create a shared sense of (among other things) aesthetics. Why people love believing that nonsense, I have no idea. It simply doesn’t mesh with reality.

    But enough of reality. Let’s just toss around inanities about “Western” vs “Eastern” ways of thinking and “zen perspectives” and “contradictions” and what not. Much more fun!

  68. Great article.

    In a closely related question, could someone suggest why the Moscow Metro (designed by the stereotypically chaotic and emotional Russians) is so much simpler in design and orders of magnitudes easier to use than the Tokyo Metro (designed by the stereotypically minimalist and polite Japanese)?

    It’s not a question of size:

    Moscow Metro:

    12 lines; 182 stations; 301 km of rail; average daily ridership 6.55 million passengers.

    Tokyo Metro:

    9 lines; 168 stations; 203 km of rail; average daily ridership 6.22 million.

    (Figures from Wikipedia)

    What is it? Something to keep people unnecessarily busy?

    You go to the Moscow cashier, buy a ticket and go. You go to the Tokyo ticket machine and it’s quite a different experience.

    Does the complexity make it more economically efficient?

    What is going on here?

  69. Ditto what NuShrike said– on my one brief trip to Japan last year, I realized all those unreadable shops for hot-rod bike parts look great on a tall, skinny cell phone. Every person on every train seemed to be reading on one.

    That sort of device doesn’t handle texture very well, which lends itself to the bright, flat backgrounds and boxiness of text. Clumps designed to be scrolled through.

    I think the sensibility some of us love — http://ii-ne-kore.blogspot.com/ for example — is as rare in Japan as Tschichold-quality typography in Switzerland.

  70. Interestingly enough, Japanese book design — cover, interiors, paper choice, etc — is, by and large, aligned with traditional Japanese architectural and artistic minimalism.

    The first time I walked into Kinokuniya when I was 19 was shocking — I didn’t understand how to process all the restraint. That’s been a guiding light for me in all the book design work I’ve done since then.

    Which is why I’m curious to see if Japanese designers will embrace the iPad from the perspective of book design or web design. I’m hoping, of ocurse, that they see it from the perspective of a book.

  71. This is a mysterious musing from somebody who I would have expected to know better. Since when has “simplicity” automatically equated to less on the page?

    Couldn’t the opposite be equally possible? I would have thought in the context of something like e-commerce, a “complex” design would in fact be perceived as simple if it helped the customer make the decision to buy. Certainly, I find myself far too often looking at self-consciously “simple” web design while wanting it to reveal more information to me. These designs aren’t so much simple as simple-minded.

    Indeed, if design was just about reducing clutter, most designers wouldn’t have jobs, and the practice of design probably wouldn’t be needed in the first place!

    On a different subject, I find much of the tone of this discussion reductive and rather distasteful. You cannot and should not make gross generalisations about cultures, people and traditions in the way Zeldman and others here seem to be doing. @Bardak on the Moscow metro – where do you get this “chaotic Russian” crap from? Did Russians not utterly defeat both Napoleon and the Hitler? The latter the leader of the Germans, who no doubt you would characterise as being stereotypically efficient and well-organised. Another spurious mystery for you to solve, eh?

    Zeldman is not making himself look very good here. and frankly I wish he’d never come out with this.

  72. To Jonathan:

    I specifically listed “chaotic and emotional Russians” as a stereotype to suggest that I thought it was a very inaccurate generalisation. I then went on to sing praises to Moscow’s wonderful metro. Have you ever used it? It’s fantastic (especially compared to, well, anything else.)

    No mysteries here – as long as you have a decent pair of reality goggles or basic competence in reading.

  73. Thinking more on this topic, I have these ideas to share:

    1. Kanji is often small on the web page and therefore set in fonts that don’t use anti-aliasing. The characters appear sharp and pixelly. Numbers and dates appear crude compared to the smoothness of Roman fonts we adore so much. Will the coming influx of new web fonts matter as much to the Japanese readers as to those in the West fed on a diet of Times and Arial etc?

    2. Websites are not likely to be minimal in practice due to their very nature. What do I mean? I mean they must convey dozens of hyperlinks. So whereas a piece of art can use just a few lines of static text, or even just a few characters, a website may need to contain masses of text and links. How to be minimal then? A question I have yet to figure out myself, as you can tell by my site. :-)

  74. I really agree with Juan’s idea that the text itself really creates this chaotic look, especially to those who don’t read it all the time. To the untrained eye it can look as if someone’s written the whole page WITH SHIFT HELD DOWN AND ALL IN BOLD. If you go to a general Japanese HTML site and and do an automatic conversation things “start” to look more natural to us Roman readers.

    I don’t think this is the whole story though. There is a very large aesthetic difference in design between your western and eastern cultures, especially in those things that are meant as “fast food” or “fast consumables”. I think there’s an interesting gradient if you take a look between Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese sites.

    Chinese sites are interestingly very similar to Japanese sites, though your more likely to run across a bunch of rainbow gradients. Korean and Taiwanese sites are more westernised, which I think makes historic sense at least. Korean sites are very interesting in the fact that you can tell a Korean site within seconds of seeing it, even without any text on it! All of them follow the same basic design; the menus look the same and the text layouts are very similar. I’ve got a good Korean friend who is a web designer and when she creates a Korean site she does it in the same style, even though when she creates a websites for westerners, or a western company, she will do it with completely different aesthetics. Interestingly even though the Korean sites all look the same to me (racist joke?) they have a lot more difference to her, they just seem to follow some good “conventions” of interface.

    There must be a whole bunch of studies on this right?

  75. The clutter of Japanese and Chinese websites has often struck me in the past, but then, one day, while looking at the Arabic version of Al Jazeera’s website and browsing a Russian one, I started to ask myself some questions:
    1) Is our aesthetic perception slanted because of our intimate association with the Latin alphabet?
    2) Is the web as it currently stands biased towards the Latin alphabet?
    3) Do differing perceptions of what the web is influence design?
    4) (Token lol option) Is UI Design chiefly a western concept?

    Since I think it’s safe to say that Design is international but aesthetic sensibilities differ, I would go so far as to say that the difference lies in a mix of the three points above. The web was originally very ascii-centric, that much is clear. Possibly, the boxy layout of the web does not lend itself well to character sets that are either more complex, such as Japanese and Chinese, or more cursive, such as Arabic.

    For a designer with any knowledge of these languages, an idea would possibly be to design a site around the languages character set and see what a difference the end result is.

  76. First:

    The simple wooden chopsticks you get in most restaurants are there because they’re cheap. In a Japanese store, or home, you find the same decorated sticks you find in china. These are not thrown away after a meal, but rather washed and used over and over.

    Second:

    Has anyone here realized that using a computer to access the internet is incredibly nerdy and quite rare in Japan? Most people use cell phones, for which the design of webpages is quite different. Maybe lack of demand is as effective an explanation as you’re likely to get.

    It certainly beats wanky romanticism.

  77. I’d go along with Jan’s 2nd comment (although not the wanky romanticism bit).

    I used to manage a band that had a decent following in Japan and we thought it would help us connect even more with our growing Japanese audience if we created a mirror copy of our (pretty minimalist anyway) website, hired a Japanese translator and got him to maintain a Japanese language version of the site.

    Whilst the UK site was pulling easily 1500 unique visitors a day, the Japanese version was pulling never more than 50 (and that was also at the same time that the band were over there playing VERY decent-sized venues).

    Cut to outside the venues after a gig and practically all of the kids were using mobile phone cameras…

  78. Jeffry

    Well, I’m in Japan now, and was slightly drunk….

    Still, both of my comments still stand. Unless you were being ironic, the chopstick point doesn’t stand and this goes for the rest of Japanese industrial design as well. Most temples were originally painted, kimonos are colourful, etc…

    The second is simply the truth: owning and using a computer here is nowhere near as common as in other countries. Mostly, I guess, from time and space constrictions. Using cell phone pages here is, as far as I can understand, quick and painless.

    I agree that Japanese web pages look awful, but why make a philosophical issue out of it?

    p.s. “wanky romanticism” refers to the comments section more than the original article.

  79. I don’t think its the design, but their alphabet. The way everything is boxed in is reflective of their ‘square’ letterings / fonts.

    It may appear more cluttered as the fonts are not displaying roman lettering that westerners are familier with. A UK or US site may look just as messy to the Japanese!

  80. I hope this wan’t already brought up (read most, but not all posts)… A lot of the comments here seem to approach the sites with the idea that the design ultimately met the designer’s goal. In reality, the vision may have been originally one of minimalism, but over time, that vision may have been coopted by inter-company appeasements.

    That current balance between vision and appeasement may have a different cultural calculus in these examples. That said, I think it is something the majority or large sites struggle with.

  81. I haven’t have time to read all the comments yet but I’ve learned a lot from them.

    Comments on how Japanese characters naturally cluttered are kinda fun to me. Yes English characters are simpler than Japanese but you can still achieve simplicity using Japanese characters.
    Eg: Tokyo metro signs are very simple and effective.

    I think Oliver Reichenstein has good point.
    Most of the info on web design are in English and there are only few people in Japan read English very well so as the result we are behind a couple of year.
    One idea I’d like to add on his thought is that only few selected websites are making profit by having websites.
    Blogging has never give you enough money to keep you living.
    So that old conservative companies are setting wrong standard in Japan.
    Nobody points finger on how badly they design a website or more worse, no body praise how good someone design a website.

    I’m thinking maybe all this caused by infracture cost in Japan.
    It’s much higher and since not many people using it stay that way for long time.

    Since I am an web designer I know some friends who are working as one, but Ive never met single person to have own website.
    Having computer or using Internet is not so nerdy in Japan as someone commented but having website and sharing one’s knowledge to other may considered nerdy.
    Even though Japan has one of highest percentage of having fast Internet connection in the world, usage of it is only for consuming information not making one.
    That’s then problem I think why Japanese websites are so not zen like.
    It’s kinda like a butterfly effect but I can’t think of any other reason.

    Well, thanks again for all of you. I’ve learned a lot.

  82. Could it be that a Japanese Kanji character/word just takes up far less space than an English word?

    Take for instance the English word:
    tree

    In Japanese/Chinese that word would look like:

    That’s four characters vs one character.

    Another example:
    Dark Horse / 黑馬

    Japanese websites would therefore definitely look more condensed to a Westerner.

  83. The minimalism in Japanese art is not representative of but a relief and escape from the crowdedness and inevitable clutter of normal life and even of less-refined art. It’s an ideal that all Japanese would like to achieve but that in reality — that is, outside art — is unattainable. Why should that be so surprising?

    Also, to compare the apparent density to the Western eye of Japanese text is to misunderstand the very nature of Japanese characters and the information and aesthetic satisfaction — or otherwise — conveyed by the type and quality of calligraphy. Each character is not an an alphabetic entity, but a compete, self contained word or even expression. The average Japanese has a far more highly developed appreciation of typography and calligraphy than most westerners. Japanese text does not necessarily look dense or cluttered to the Japanese eye: the content and context are important and, as another repsondent has noted, text that appears hopelessly cluttered to a Western eye is actually very much more easily searched and parsed by the reader than is the case with English.

    Exactly the same applies to Chinese, from which Japanese characters were originally derived, in some case still without alteration. As a resident of a Chinese city for almost half a century, I have long been very much aware that signs, advertisements and, yes, websites that appear very chaotic and muddled to me are models of clarity and easy scanning to my Chinese friends, who sometimes find infuriating the need to hunt through long screeds of English text for what they seek in what may seem to us websites of exemplary clarity and organisation.

  84. There’s something missing from this premise. Why should one judge the presentation of web content based upon on a minimalist Bauhaus standard, then equate that with pre-Meiji craft-works? Japan converted itself from a feudal culture to a western industrialized proxy in < 100 years. Could that be the perception gap here?

    I can imagine the inverse analogue — Why are street addresses so thoughtfully organized in the West, yet the architecture so inconsistent?

  85. I have a thought.

    We have the ‘western’ lifestyle, we live the “more is more” philosophy daily – that’s why we consider less is more special in the websites!
    Maybe it’s the opposite in Japan – their lifestyles are so flat that they need.. “these” websites to balance things up :)

  86. Many Westerners also think Japanese wives are always soft-spoken, demure and ultra-polite, but if you have a Japanese wife you know that this isn’t true at all ;-)

    I think a major driving force in everyday Japanese culture is *CONVENIENCE*. If you’re looking for information, then minimal amounts of text and empty spaces are not very useful.

    I have also found a strong tendency to prefer two-dimensional layout of information in many places in Japanese culture. I wrote some global design guidelines for Xerox many years back, and Fuji Xerox wanted me to adapt them for their use also. One of their major requirements, however, was to break up the pages using graphics, charts, multiple columns, call-out boxes, etc. They said that developers would find it too boring to just scroll through paragraph after paragraph of text with inline images. If you look at Japanese meeting reports, they are like the web pages you showed – lots of small boxes, arranged two-dimensionally on the page.

    It also helps, I think, to consider that Japanese text is really more like a group of small icons. Rather than recognising the word shapes made from sequences of alphabetic characters, they tend to pick out ideographs when reading. (I was told that this is one reason Japanese selection lists can be longer than Western ones. While we have to read words in a list, they can scan long lists more effectively by looking for characters. I used to identify phone calls, meetings, etc in my things to do lists using words in a column of my ttd table, but if i wanted to find, say, all the phone calls, I always used to miss one or two. Once I changed the words to icons, I found it much easier to spot all the phone call related items, and usually without missing anything. I suspect there is a similar thing going on here on some level.)

    I think that if you can actually read Japanese natively, the look of the page is radically different too. Of course, what Japanese people see on screen is not characters, but ideas springing out of the page. As someone said earlier, if you even just use Google Translate on the page, to a Westerner things suddenly look much less confusing and jumbled.

    I also used to marvel at the jumble and, let’s face it, ugliness of most Japanese cities. The older post-war buildings in particular seem to typically be very square, concrete and utilitarian, and pretty much devoid of grace and elegance. But you often find small instances of graceful and elegant things within the sprawling mess, that show the beauty and perfectionism that Japan is famous for. And when you do, the contrast makes them all the more beautiful.

    But before I get carried away too much… as I was saying, I suspect that convenience culture is a major factor in the designs you are seeing, and the iconic nature of Japanese text, which is based on square designs, also plays a part in tripping up our Western sensitivities.

  87. I think, this is the best designers group in Japan are all hired by Company. As someone said earlier, if you even just use Google Translate on the page, to a Westerner things suddenly look much less confusing and jumbled.

  88. I’m Not There (1956) writes “Jeffrey Zeldman brings up the interesting issue of the paradox between Japan’s strong cultural preference for simplicity in design, contrasted with the complexity of Japanese websites.

  89. A few old realities of designing Japanese websites that contribute to the problems described above:

    * The variety of reliably available font choices is even more limited than for Western languages.
    * There are no italics in Japanese
    * Capital letters provide a nice visual punch at the beginning of a line. Japanese doesn’t have caps.
    * As long as Windows XP lives, text below 12px will be illegible, above 20px ugly, to many users.

    This all means that it is more difficult (though not impossible) to create the contrasts required to organize information with type alone. Many designers get around this by adding decoration or using graphic text.

    A lot of bad design seems to stem from the fact that websites are controlled by either the company’s overworked IT department trying to keep up with endless update demands via an aging or non-existent CMS; or a sales-driven ad agency who threw in the website for a song on top of their massive media budget, and find it easiest to manage their revolving stable of suppliers by selling plug-n-play flash “promo” sites. Neither of these situations lead naturally towards long-term design planning.

  90. I wonder how much design and money would have been reallocated to clunky text based content delivery systems that really only supported emoticons as image content? Essentially Japanese are accustomed to using their handphones for searching for things and news, more so than desktop computers. What would the Western web design look like if WAP took off? Crazy right…? Well that’s what seemed to happen in Japan. How many years have people in Japan been able to buy tickets using their handphone, or effectively capture information using QR codes?

    Once you remove the need to sell, there is much less incentive to dress things up. Selling is mainly done via TV and print media.

  91. if you have a Japanese wife you know that this isn’t true at all

    @Richard Ishida — lol! 頑張れ! :D

    PS @bardak not quite sure what the metro comparison was about — most people use IC cards or their phones to pay for subway trains in Japan, and while ticket machines may be overwhelming to western eyes they’re not hard to use (I sense a theme here…). Also your usage stats are off: Metro systems by annual passenger rides (Wikipedia)

  92. @bardak @oli
    The reason for the *Tokyo* metro being a mess, is because it started out with 2 competing operators running the lines with a policy of non-cooperation and it just got worse from there on. The Osaka system is a lot more pleasant to use with or without an IC/RF card.

    As for the cluttered Japanese web design trends, I find it interesting that although the Chinese has a different historical take on design to the Japanese, Chinese web design has similar problems.

    But then I always wonder if it is a problem, because although to our eyes they look horrible, they have had a chance to develop or evolve. Forgetting about sites for bureaucratic organisations, and concentrating on commerical sites, it seems that the dense information approach is continued to be used. If it didn’t work, you would have seen a slow change over the past 5-6 years to a more western oriented style. To use an evolution analogy, we might look at the poor male angler fish’s life cycle with horror, it is working for the species. I must resist the temptation to tie it with Richard Ishida’s comment, my wife’s Japanese and a black belt :p

  93. Karl Dubost of Montréal, QC, Canada, was unable to post for some reason, so sent me his comment via email:

    so let see…

    U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, American Airlines for USA.

    Small user test. The person is not a Web designer at all. Questions to my Japanese partner in life: Do you know a Japanese Website from a big company which *you* would consider “Design”?

    Her:… hmmm UNIQLO? But I consider it a mess. Difficult to find information.

    Me: What about Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare?

    Her: Hmmm not beautiful but easy to find information.

    For the litterature, There are magazines such as WebDesigning with a balance between flash design and web design. I have seen beautiful Flash sites (Unfortunately flash ;) ). The point has been made already that many micro flash sites are a lot better than the typical design. Some companies have decided to go entirely flash such as IMG SRC

    If you want to see the influence of characters on your perceptions check the difference between OurWorld (Japanese) and OurWorld (English). This is the Web site of United Nations University hosted in Japan.

    Another thing which has been mentioned in the comments. Who decides? The structure of Japanese companies is very different and most of the time (no generalization) top to bottom. Moving up in the hierarchy means often getting older (not merit) and having good connections. The Government offices are also with a touch of gray and papers accumulated everywhere. Fluorescent Tube lamps are the main lightning you get in all offices and administration.

    One of the issues of this blog post is the western romanticism about *one* of the characteristics of Japanese culture (Wabi-sabi), but Japan is not only that. The question would just have been better asking people to share Japanese Web site well designed. And ask your Japanese readers to tell their impressions about these government Web sites. The bias? Your Japanese readers are most likely designers and not common people.

  94. Some cross-cultural work I’ve seen on usability and aesthetics suggests minimal differences in how people use websites.

    So the difference in design is probably not related to Japanese users having a preference for cluttered style.

    I’m waiting for someone to drag Hofstede’s cultural dimensions into this discussion.

  95. Mixi.jp (think Japanese-facebook) is a Japanese site I consider to be designed quite well. Smart.fm is another (which has both English and Japanese versions – from a Japan based company at least)

    Heated comments from my better half who also happens to be Japanese is that because of the ‘customer is God’ approach to Japanese customer service there tends to be a paranoia that customers may complain if there’s not enough information right in front of the customer. It’s very apparent in SOME advertising where they cram in every single piece of info that they think might be beneficial to customers. But it’s not always the case, and I think there actually is a lot of variety in advertising in Japan….. it’s just the cheap and nasty sometimes overpowers the beautiful, when competing in the same space.

    there is a lot of flash, and Yugo Nakamura is pretty famous for the stuff he’s done with it (Design and the elastic mind being a good example of him at his best…. or some might think worst – http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2008/elasticmind/ )

    I guess there’ll be a lean away from this as iPhones/ipods/ipads have a pretty good chance of surviving in Japan. @font-face embedding should definitely help too but some are also pretty hefty because the kanji character sets are so large that it’s not practical to embed the whole thing (I guess that might be another reason for flash in that respect.)

    anyway…. my 2 cents.

  96. Thanks for posting my previous comment.
    Just found by chance this one today: Farmers Market designed by Media Surf Communications. It bears a lot of similarities with the one of UNU. The market is associated with UNU. That would not be surprising.

  97. My personal explanation for the particularities of Japanese web design is that the brain of the Japanese people is set up for highly reach of information content. Have a look on their magazines, newspapers and (sometimes) books. As a design they are very similar. The Japanese kids start to learn kanji from the very first year in primary school. Their brains must distinguish correctly highly complex characters. As a result they develop specific acuteness for detail and complex patterns. For them (most probably) Japanese web design is very normal information environment weather in “western” type design they will feel something like information deprivation. It will be like ordering a coffee and the waitress bringing you a drop of coffee per minute – it will be strange and making no sense for them why they are offered so little and so slowly. Their eyes (or rather their brains) “see” different then ours.

    These all of course are pure speculations and I can be completely wrong :)

    PS. Somebody mentioned that can not come in Japan because has a little girl. My girl is for 4 years old and my boy 1. My personal opinion is that if you have small kids – Japan is the country to be in terms of how safe it is for kids (and adults). (I am comparing it with Europe (Belgiuim)).

  98. Wow, so many comments on this! I’ve been wondering the same thing myself, coming from a background in the graphic arts and growing up with a father who is a designer by trade. It seems that the web sites should be designed much more simplistically, although living in Japan, advertisements, posters, etc are also often cluttered and more busy looking. Of course, this can be seen in Western art as well, but I feel there is more “busyness” in Japanese design – unless purposefully designing for traditional concepts.

    One might also argue this is similar to a shopping experience, where there is so much information being shouted at you and shown to you and for anyone not accustomed to this type of service, can be a bit overwhelming. No, this doesn’t happen everywhere, but visit any busy shopping place/area and it’s noticeable.

    In any case, this is just speculation derived from my own observations of living in Japan.

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