I just got back from a two week long trip to Japan, which was beyond fantastic (can I go back please?). Whilst I was out there, I noticed a few interesting things about the state of Japanese technology and website design that I thought I’d share…

When you think of Japan, do you think of tranquil, calming environments or busy, hectic spaces? The cities in Japan are both of these things simultaneously; you can be walking through the grounds of a serene temple one minute – turn a corner and you are bombarded with brightly lit neon advertisements, all equally competing for your attention. It is an assault to the senses to say the least.

I always think of Japan as being highly efficient and technically advanced above and beyond anything we have going on here in the UK, so it would be quite fitting that their website aesthetics and ease of use would also follow this trend… right?

Website comparisons

Well, let’s just do a comparison of the UK and Japanese versions of a few well known websites to see how they differ…

Yahoo

Yahoo website UK and Japanese versions

Comparing the two, the UK version of the Yahoo website is a lot less cluttered, and the Japanese version looks how the UK version appeared quite a few years back; it contains a lot of information in a small space, and still uses the old branding.

Nissan

Nissan is of course a Japanese make of car known very well worldwide. You would perhaps expect the website to be on top of the latest design trends.

Japanese Nissan website

Whilst the Japanese version does have a modern feel to it, the width is still fixed and isn’t responsive when viewed on smaller screen sizes.

UK Nissan website

Meanwhile, the UK version uses the full screen width and the pages are responsive. Why are the UK versions of these websites more “up to date”; especially in the case of the Japanese brand?

Other Japanese websites

There does seem to be a trend that Japanese websites are very busy, packed with textual information and tiny images, and look like they were made in the early 2000s. The following websites illustrate this observation quite well:

Japanese website designs Japanese website designs

So what’s the deal?

Indeed, what is the reason for this seeming regression in website design and technology? Heavy use of Flash is still seen quite frequently on Japanese websites, and not many of them seem to be able to respond down to smaller screen sizes which does puzzle me, as while I was in Japan everyone seemed to have the most recent mobile phone; I saw a lot of iPhone 6s and felt very out of date with my humble iPhone 5!

People seemed to be on their phone, all of the time. The minute you step onto a train, everyone immediately gets out their mobile phone and stares at it for the duration of the journey. Being a bit nosy, I saw that most people were playing games or messaging others, not using websites. So are mobile friendly websites not seen as being very important? Pressing questions!

Possible explanations

From reading around the topic, it seemed like there are a few possible explanations as to why the style and technologies of Japanese websites is so different:

  • Technology: Japanese phone technology was always beyond ours and website design aesthetics grew up catering to flip phones rather than desktop computer browsers (so small images and mostly text was required for web pages to load quickly);
  • Internet Explorer 6: IE6 is still used widely – I don’t think I need to elaborate any further on this point! Use of Flash could be due to IE6 usage too, as it negates any odd rendering issues which undoubtably occur with this browser;
  • Cultural: Japanese people seem to go with the grain rather than against it so if everything looks a certain way, that is the precedent to follow. Websites are for information rather than to look at pretty pictures, hence the packed in text, and as in the cities, I think space is seen as something of a premium. No space is to be wasted and so information is all packed together, with everything vying for your attention;
  • Character set: It’s a lot harder and more expensive to make web fonts for a language which has thousands of characters rather than just 26 as in the English language, so images seem to be used for any stand out titles. This is exactly what we used to do in the UK before web fonts were widely available.

Do you live or work in Japan and have any insight to the web industry there? We’d love to know your thoughts on the matter so please comment below!

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8 Jul, 2015
Michelle Dinan

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Michelle is a designer and front end dev at Createful, producing creative and UI concept design for web and mobile devices, before bringing it to life using HTML, (S)CSS and jQuery. She has a turbulent love/hate relationship with cake and quite a serious peanut butter problem.