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,, 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.