Differences in Japanese and Western website aesthetics

One of my New Year's resolutions is to create a Japanese-language website. Researching designs for the site, one thing that strikes me is the different design tastes of Japanese and Westerners. The current fashion for design on Western websites is a clean and clutter-free look, while Japanese sites tend to prefer the "energetic" look.

As an example, here are the sites of two very stylish companies: Apple and Sony.

Apple Website

Apple website

Sony Japan Website

Sony Japan website

Sony's site is still quite beautiful, but it's a lot busier than the Apple site. I think it points to different aesthetic tastes between Japanese and Westerners. Sony of course is full of smart people (and Westerners as well), and they seem to get it — their US site is a lot cleaner than the Japanese site.

Sony US Website

Sony US website

One of the best illustrations of this difference in aesthetics is the Google home page versus the home page of Goo, which is one of the most popular search engines in Japan.

Google Website

Google website

Goo Website

Goo website

When designing my Japanese-language website, my own preference would be to go for a clean design, but taking the tastes of my target audience into account, I think I should go for something a bit more genki. In fact, over the holidays I showed some popular Western sites to several Japanese people (great way to make yourself popular at parties, by the way…), and most of the reactions to sites I considered "clean" were along the lines of "drab," "lonely," "dreary," and "bleak." I've always found it fascinating that the culture that created wabi/sabi and haiku could prefer designs that most Westerners would consider garish, but there you have it.

15 comments to Differences in Japanese and Western website aesthetics

  • William Taylor

    There was a study done by a German company called Eye-square and a Japanese company called Mitsue-Links about this very topic:

    http://eye-square.com/documents/usability_pa_see_the_world.pdf

    I did some translation related to this study, it was pretty interesting stuff!

  • Hi Ryan,

    I had already noticed that and it just annoys me everytime I’m looking for information in Japanese. I’m always spending quite some time browsing through all those useless links before I can find what I’m looking for, if I eventually find it. Of course, being able to read the language instead of recognizing a few kanji would help, and I’m working on this, but I still can’t figure out how people find their way in such messy pages. I’m just glad I don’t have any Japanese audience to satisfy with my website!

    By the way, congratulations for this interesting blog.

  • @William

    Thanks for the link. Great read.

    @Julien

    Thanks for the kind words. I read Japanese, and I still get information overload from a lot of Japanese sites.

  • Ryan, this is a very interesting cultural difference that I have never considered. I haven’t had much exposure to the Japanese culture, so this post was definitely eye-opening! I have read numerous books on web design and usability (most notably the Non-Designer’s Web Book and Don’t Make Me Think) and the Japanese take on it goes against everything they teach. Thanks so much for pointing this out!

  • I do think there’s something to your point (and I think that Japanese newspapers are an even stronger example), but I also think you’ve cherry-picked your examples a bit. Apple’s website is especially spare, even for a US company. And Excite or Yahoo are pretty comparable to Goo in terms of busy-ness.

    For some reason, Japanese print advertising seems to be at least as restrained as in the USA. Odd that the thing that supposedly is trying the hardest to get your attention would be the most subtle.

  • @Adam

    I definitely cherry-picked the search engine comparison for effect. Since Goo is more of a portal site, it might have been better to compare it with Yahoo! — even Yahoo! is quite a bit cleaner than the Goo color splash.

    But I think the Apple and Sony sites are a good comparison. Both companies are well known for their style, and the Apple site displays a lot of the elements that modern web designers (in the Western world) tell us to use: ample white space, uncluttered look, clean design.

    I note that your blog at 8stars.org is also quite spare and beautiful. 🙂 That design is different from most of the Japanese blog designs out there. Not that I’m anyone to talk about blog design…

  • Judging from many of the Japanese sites I see and documents I am asked to translate, I’m pretty sure there must be a law in Japan against using ample white space and instead requiring that every available bit of space be crammed full of something—anything!—to make sure that no available space goes to waste. 🙂

  • @Sako

    I get it — it’s part of Japan’s resource-conservation movement. The Japanese don’t even waste white space on web pages 🙂

    That brings up another question, though: what do you do if you’re translating a document (loosely defined), and the design or style of the document itself just isn’t going to work for English speakers?

    I do some things automatically, like bolding headings and changing font faces, but a lot of times the client isn’t interested in being told that their design has problems, and I’m not a design expert anyway.

    What do you do in these situations as an in-house person?

  • I definitely cherry-picked the search engine comparison for effect. Since Goo is more of a portal site, it might have been better to compare it with Yahoo! — even Yahoo! is quite a bit cleaner than the Goo color splash.

    Yes, a more accurate comparison there would be portal-to-portal. Goo does have its considerably more minimalist search page, after all.

  • What do you do in these situations as an in-house person?

    Struggle? 🙂

  • On a more serious note, I find this is usually less of a problem with Web sites (although I don’t normally have to translate many of those in my work) than it is with documents that have a fixed amount of space on the page—or, as is most often the case, on the slide. Presentations are where I notice the difference in Japanese and Western aesthetics more than anywhere else.

    Whereas it is common in the West to adhere to a stylistic ideal of having only a few items on any given slide of a presentation, I will have Japanese clients send me presentations that have nearly no whitespace in them at all. This makes translation all but impossible, because the corresponding English will not fit in the same amount of space (not without losing all legibility, that is). In cases like this, client education is really the only way I know of to improve the situation.

    With Web pages, on the other hand, because there is no limit to how long the page can be, it does become relatively easier to take some liberties with the way the content is formatted.

  • @Sako

    I think that a lot of monstrosities are committed in English PowerPoint slides as well. It may have even had a role in the Columbia shuttle disaster. From the article:

    The loss of the Columbia, Tufte believes, was directly related to “a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism” in which a single slide contained six different levels of hierarchy (chapters and subheads), thereby obfuscating the conclusion that damage to the left wing might have been significant.

    However, in the case if Japanese it’s very easy to put a lot of information on the slide by using Kanji abbreviations, which invariable takes more space in English.

    But for example with website design, I once translated a website where headers were just in ordinary paragraphs (it was actually all one big paragraph block broken up by <br> tags), with no special formatting except those Japanese-style bullet markers (“●” etc.). I suggested that these be changed to use proper heading tags (h1 etc.), but the client didn’t want to hear that. I even pointed out that some of the symbols wouldn’t show up if the user didn’t have Japanese fonts installed on their computer (and why would they — this was an English website), but it was to no avail.

  • Julia

    Great observations! I work with a lot of big Japanese companies on expensive print projects. Sometimes when I have a new client I open their homepage and am horrified by the unorganized mess I see. It just looks unprofessional, especially to a Western reader. I can spend 15 minutes trying to locate their annual report among the various poorly labeled IR links…

    Any advice on convincing clients to rethink? Or, any good examples of Western sites with utterly inappropriate Japanese translations/designs that I could use to give them an idea of how they are coming off to the outside world?

    On another note, great blog in general. I’ve also just started working with Felix, and loving it 🙂

  • @Julia

    I feel your pain. 🙂
    In my experience, it’s really hard as a translator to give design advice. The clients may have paid as much for the design as they did for the translation, or even more. Also, it usually looks good to them.

    One trick is to show the clients Western sites in the same field, and point out differences. I have my own tactic I call WWMD — what would Microsoft do? Working in IT, saying “Microsoft does it this way” wins a surprisingly large number of arguments. 🙂

    And thanks for trying out Felix!

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