Aesthetics of a Japanese website

If you were to do a quick survey of non-native Japanese speakers into what their first impressions when looking at a Japanese website are, the majority of them will probably use words like ‘chaotic’, ‘confusing’, ‘shocking’, etc. If, on the other hand, you were to question Japanese Internet users about their reaction towards non-Japanese sites, most of them will consider these to be too barren and uninteresting.

Japanese websites – feeling dizzy?

I personally feel there are examples of outstanding design with international appeal everywhere. But I’m also a staunch believer in localising User Interface and copy appropriately. There is no denying that Japanese websites seem to prefer a specific type of format that includes:

• What may seem like excessive amounts of jammed up text
• At least two but usually three columns
• Smallish sized images
• Poor use of white real estate in the site
• URL colouring
• Use of icons and animated characters
• Use of boxes to contain text
• A general feel of what may seem like chaos to the untrained eye

The result, then, is something like this:

At first glance, it may look like a nonsensical composition that takes you back to the clumsy design of western websites in the late nineties. But if you think about it, the lack of familiarity with the structure and format of the language probably does contribute to feeling overwhelmed.

On the one hand, even describing the Japanese script is problematic for us because if I were to say that it’s composed of three different alphabets, I would be lying. An alphabet is composed of letters that represent a sound. The Japanese language is composed of two syllabaries (each with 46 “letters” or syllables) that combine with Chinese imported logographs. When these extremely different writing systems are presented in a website they appear to be lacking in the consistency and homogeneity of, say, for instance, the Latin alphabet we are used to. The Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries are generally smaller sized than the Chinese characters which, in many websites, appear in fonts that are too small and cause them to look  like a scramble of strokes with no rhyme or reason.

On the other hand, the Japanese written language can be read in a number of directions; from right to left, from left to right and from top to bottom. Combine all these possibilities in a website interface and there is no wonder non-Japanese readers feel dizzy!

Japanese websites – now, let’s flip the coin

Japanese site design currently finds itself in an exciting process of evolution. There are still, a number of issues to confront, mainly the use by the majority of Japanese people of a very outdated Internet Explorer 6. And yet, if you make the best of what you are given (and that’s usually an excessive amount of flash throughout the page), follow the advice of a professional native Japanese person and take a number of cultural and formatting guidelines into consideration, you might come achieve a successful site that conforms to Japanese expectations.

The Japanese love for beauty and aesthetics is captured in two words, Shibui ^( (the quality of the concept of beauty in Japan which is simple, subtle and unobtrusive) and Kawaii  ^( Cuteness is a highly valued aesthetic quality in Japanese society which is said to have taken over the former more refined concept of beauty.

Further, while Japanese consumers are very appreciative of western products, western lifestyle and western celebrities, they are also very sensitive to their own culture (Shih) and want western brands, ideas, and products, but presented on a Japanese platter.

The following are some examples of these two qualities of the Japanese aesthetic:

Kabusan ^(

Shunkawakami ^(

Subtonic ^( ^( ^(


They are all well worth a visit. And if you were previously confused by the somewhat intimidating design of many Japanese sites, these art pieces will surely show you the other side of the coin.