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