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Sense of beauty and information density, East v.s. West

Japanese Web Design: Why You So 2003?

I recently caught this article on Twitter and as someone who’s lived in the East and West, I can’t disagree more. To summarize the article, the author makes a point that Japan, despite it’s beautiful design heritage, creates chaotic text-heavy websites circa American web design in the 90s. He lists few major Japanese website examples:

Rakuten – Japan’s largest online retailer

NicoNico Douga – Similar to YouTube but only for the Japanese market

The author goes as far as to question: “Why is Japan, the world’s leader in robotics, hybrid cars, and Gundam models, so far behind when it comes to the web? Where did they go wrong?”

He then provides few theories on why Japanese web design developed to the way it is, namely mobile phone usage, slow personal computer adoption, Internet Explore 6, and Flash. He concludes the article by remarking “It’s Not All Bad, Though” and listing few niche (except Uniqlo) Japanese websites that cater to the Western sensibility of website aesthetics.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the reason why Japanese web design developed to be this way, but I vehemently disagree with the fact that Japan is behind and still caught in 2003. To think that there is only one way of developing is blasphemous. Social scientists often argue against the use of the terms “developed country” and “developing country” because it carries an underlying assumption of one-dimensional development with the latter countries following the earlier.

Has it not occurred to the author that Japanese web design is this way because this is how Japanese people want it?

For example, Japan is one of the few places in the world where Yahoo still beats Google.

Yahoo! Japan

Google Japan

When Yahoo first came to Japan, they formed a joint venture with the local internet company Softbank to offer products suited for the Japanese market. While Yahoo in the U.S. floundered, Yahoo Japan (which Yahoo is no longer the majority owner) have stayed strong.

When Google came to Japan, while they localized the search algorithms for the language, they kept their simplistic start page designed in the U.S.

We have this notion of Japanese beauty driven by minimalistic design, often exemplified by images of zen gardens:

Tea rooms:

Or iconic objects:

While I don’t argue against the beauty of these, it paints an incomplete and one-sided picture of Japan.

The reality is that Japan can also be a chaotic place with information everywhere, especially in the cities. Take for example the following comparisons of cityscapes:

Shinjuku entertainment district in Tokyo

Akihabara electronics district in Tokyo

New York Cityscape

Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter of Paris

The comparison doesn’t end just outside but inside as well:

Yamada Denki, electronics store in Japan

Best Buy, electronics store in the U.S.

And beyond spaces:

Elle Magazine in Japan

Elle Magazine in the U.S.

Sony iPod music player

Philips iPod music player

Menu from Watami, a Japanese chain restaurant

Applebee’s menu in the U.S.

Now can you see why a Japanese person might be used to and prefer information dense websites? How can Japanese people deal with such information overload?

Japanese is a very visual language with thousands of kanjis, pictographic letters, used everyday. The benefit of having to learn few thousand kanjis is that one or two kanjis can easily express an idea. As a result, Japanese is a very scannable language. A Japanese person can look at the chaotic cityscape and both quickly read the text and get a feel for the information being provided. The drawback is that you have to learn thousands of characters…

Getting back to the original point, Japanese web design aesthetics isn’t 2003, isn’t the past, isn’t the future. Japanese web design aesthetics is just the present, and it developed for its audience: Japanese people.

Recently Japan has started calling itself, in a very humble Japanese way, Galapagos, to signify how differently and uniquely the country has developed. Japan has come to accept that they are an island in the Pacific with distinct culture and sensibility that won’t necessarily be accepted or replicated in other parts of the world. The West needs to realize that because they drove much of the change in the last few centuries doesn’t mean the world will keep changing in their image.

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3 Responses to “Sense of beauty and information density, East v.s. West”

  1. May 29th, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Jake says:

    Hey Sushi, this is Jake Friedman. We played ultimate together at Cite U in Paris a couple summers ago. This is a really cool post. It reminds me of a book I read in France, which I still dig- Roland Barthes’ The Empire of Signs, on Japanese culture and language vs. the West. I’ve never been to Japan, so I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it’s a kick-ass read.

    Hope all is well.

  2. May 29th, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Imran says:

    Hi Sushi,

    This is another beautiful, well thought out example of why cultural relativism can be so important. As a westerner (side note, is California as far west as you can get, or do you think that someplace like London, or New York (or maybe even Aspen Colorado), physically east of California, is the true holder of that title) I find the Japanese places and websites mentioned to be visually intense – so much so that I can don’t know if I could function in them – however I know that most of that is because I see no information being conveyed. To my untrained eye it is just a jumble of shapes. I feel like if I did understand I’d be able to ‘surf’ visually through all that ‘clutter’ and come away with a feeling, very quickly, ov where I was and where I needed to go.

    In short – damn, wish I knew some Kanji.

    Also, I love that all white CD player.

  3. June 1st, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Michael C says:

    Very well reasoned article with excellent example pics. However, I am not convinced that the city-scape of such chaos is actually an optimal solution. Navigating to something in urban Tokyo, even if you know almost exactly where it is, can be a complete mind fuck. I think the reason signage is so busy (garish, bright, putatively non-Japanese) is that one cannot systematically locate something as easily as in other locations because Japan does not use sequential numbers on well-defined streets as its system. You get in the general area and then wander until you find the sign (or if your directions are helpful, they will mention a particularly conspicuous sign nearby). With so many things crammed into so little space, it is a signage arms race. To compare, Singel 38 (an address in Amsterdam) is on the even side of the canal (the far side from the city center) and located between 36 and 40. Any sign I see (say, Singel 63) tells me how close I am (25 doors down) and helps me navigate (its on the other side of the canal, if I see Singel 28, I’ve gone too far). My uncle’s Japanese GPS primarily uses phone numbers or latitude/longitude coordinates due to the generally inconvenient postal address system. And though the informational density of Kanji would seem to help mitigate the amount of reading of signage, in practice the vast majority of signs use English or Katakana/Hiragana. The Akihabara example has but one sign that is only Kanji, and 5 of the 7 kanji communicate information that is common to every store in the area (denkiekimaemise – an electronics store by the train station). Even though there are Kanji for numbers and floors, most signage uses 0-9 and capital F because you can read it farther away.

    On the other hand, Japanese menus are clearly optimal. The number of items that can be ordered is typically less than the average US restaurant, which leaves room for more visually oriented presentation. Choices like what food to eat tend to be more visceral and emotional, so a page of abstract text is doing nothing to help me decide what I want. The Japanese menu is making me hungry RIGHT NOW, even though I logically realize it is a picture. I saw an 8 year old American child order in a Japanese restaurant in Tokyo by looking at the plastic food in a window and saying the number associated with it. The menu at Yard House was 15 pages long and barely has a photo in the whole thing. To ironically challenge the other author, why is America so far behind when it comes to menus?

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