Focus

The truth about Japanese web design

Chirashi are still an important sales promotional tool in Japan

Based in Tokyo, Douglass McGowan helps global companies understand the Japanese market, and Japanese companies understand global markets. His perspective is based on 20+ years’ experience in transcreation and other in-market activities connecting Japan to the rest of the world, as well as a bicultural lifestyle born of a Japanese mother and Irish-American father.

Douglass McGowan

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hey say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the case of Western eyes beholding Japanese websites, the beauty is hard to find. Japanese websites often feature loud banners, dense text, multiple columns, lots of tiny images and an overall cluttered, crowded look — vastly different from the clean aesthetic of Western web design. Many factors contribute to these busy Japanese websites, but the underlying reasons are cultural and practical.

Looking at the data

To get a firsthand idea of the Japanese versus Western differences in website design, it helps to see some examples. In the interest of apples-to-apples comparisons, let’s look at both the English and Japanese sites for Rakuten, Honda and Starbucks.

Rakuten is Japan’s leading home-grown ecommerce site. If you compare their domestic Japanese site to their global English site, you will notice an entirely different user experience (UX). The English site features a clean look with bold images and sparse text, somewhat similar to Amazon. The Japanese site, on the other hand, shoehorns a lot more information onto the page. More photos, text and links. It’s almost like they want to show you everything on a single page — and this content density is a common theme throughout many Japanese sites.

Next, let’s look at a non-ecommerce comparison. If we observed www.honda.com and www.honda.co.jp, we would see lots of images on both, but a lot less text on the .com site.

Aesthetics aside, Honda’s Japanese site shows more details up front and doesn’t make you tap or click to access additional basic information. Honda is the number two automobile manufacturer in Japan in terms of sales and volume, but as you can see in Table 1, its website boasts the highest Alexa rank among automaker peers — the Alexa rank is a measure of how a website is doing compared to other sites on the web — via page views and unique visitors — over the past three months.

Now let’s look at the localized Japan site of a foreign brand: Starbucks. Despite some tough local competition, Starbucks is the most popular café chain in Japan.

Compared to their .com site, it’s no surprise to see that the .co.jp site is more cluttered, featuring lots of densely packed text. This is even true on their mobile-friendly sites (Figures 1 and 2). It’s not that the Japanese site is localized haphazardly; this look is spot-on for Japanese customers. Their website is also the highest ranked among café chains operating in Japan (Table 2), so we can assume that the Japanese audience likes Starbucks’ localized look.

Figures 1 and 2: Starbucks mobile sites.

In fact, we’re seeing across many industries that the Japan-specific websites of global brands tend to be more packed full of content than their corresponding global sites. And the Japanese audience eats it up.

Lastly, even in Japan, it’s the global powerhouse Amazon that gathers the most visitors. However, when you compare the data for www.amazon.co.jp and www.rakuten.co.jp (Table 3), you’ll find they deliver similar performance for average time on site, pages per visit and bounce rate, according to SimilarWeb.

Does all this prove that global design works just as well as localized design? If so, it’s an argument that most Japanese businesses aren’t buying when it comes to their own websites. Let’s look a bit deeper to explain the differences.

RankManufacturerUnits Sold
(Japan)
Sales (Japan/
JPY)
Alexa Rank
(Japan)
1Toyota2,030,00028.4 trillion1,768
2Honda660,00014.6 trillion628
3Korneda630,0003.2 trillion2,308
4Suzuki580,000(ind. in Toyota)3,135
5Nissan570,00012.2 trillion1,941

Table 1: Honda’s Alexa rank is highest among auto makers.

Rank: 1
Manufacturer: Toyota
Units Sold: 2,030,000
Sales (Japan/ Jpy): 28.4 trillion
Alexa Rank (Japan): 1,768

Rank: 2
Manufacturer: Honda
Units Sold: 660,000
Sales (Japan/ Jpy): 14.6 trillion
Alexa Rank (Japan): 628

Rank: 3
Manufacturer: Korneda
Units Sold: 630,000
Sales (Japan/ Jpy): 3.2 trillion
Alexa Rank (Japan): 2,308

Rank: 4
Manufacturer: Suzuki
Units Sold: 580,000
Sales (Japan/ Jpy): (ind. in Toyota)
Alexa Rank (Japan): 3,135

Rank: 5
Manufacturer: Nissan
Units Sold: 570,000
Sales (Japan/ Jpy): 12.2 trillion
Alexa Rank (Japan): 1,941

Table 1: Honda’s Alexa rank is highest among auto makers.

RankChain# of Shops (Japan)Alexa Rank (Japan)
1Starbucks1,360746
2Doutor1,20510,204
3Komeda7789,224
4Tully's7134804
5St. Marc Café423

Table 2: Starbucks has the highest Alexa rank among café chains.

Rank: 1
Chain: Starbucks
# of Shops (Japan): 1,360
Alexa Rank (Japan): 746

Rank: 2
Chain: Doutor
# of Shops (Japan): 1,205
Alexa Rank (Japan): 10,204

Rank: 3
Chain: Korneda
# of Shops (Japan): 778
Alexa Rank (Japan): 9,224

Rank: 4
Chain: Tully’s
# of Shops (Japan): 71
Alexa Rank (Japan): 4,804

Rank: 5
Chain: St. Marc Café
# of Shops (Japan): 432

Table 2: Starbucks has the highest Alexa rank among café chains.

RankEcommerce
Site
Visits (6
months)
Avg. time
on site
Pages
per visit
Bounce
rate %
1Amazon Japan619.85 M7:198.7231.29
2Rakuten Direct418.39 M6:538.2036.15
3ZOZOTOWN57.32 M9:2713.0724.60
4UNIQLO40.99 M4:516.7933.26
5Yodobashi36.02 M4:235.7736.44

Table 3: Amazon and Rakuten perform comparably.

Rank: 1
Ecommerce site: Amazon Japan
Visits (6 months): 619.85 M
Avg. time on site: 7:19
Pages per visit: 8.72
Bounce rate %: 31.29

Rank: 2
Ecommerce site: Rakuten Direct
Visits (6 months): 418.39 M
Avg. time on site: 6:53
Pages per visit: 8.20
Bounce rate %: 36.15

Rank: 3
Ecommerce site: ZOZOTOWN
Visits (6 months): 57.32
Avg. time on site: 9:27
Pages per visit: 13.07
Bounce rate %: 24.60

Rank: 4
Ecommerce site: UNIQLO
Visits (6 months): 40.99 M
Avg. time on site: 4:51
Pages per visit: 6.79
Bounce rate %: 33.26

Rank: 5
Ecommerce site: Yodobashi
Visits (6 months): 36.02 M
Avg. time on site: 4:23
Pages per visit: 5.77
Bounce rate %: 36.44

Table 3: Amazon and Rakuten perform comparably.

A complicated language

First, there’s language. The Japanese language uses four different scripts — the syllabic hiragana and katakana, the logographic kanji and the alphanumeric character set — possibly within the same block of text or even within the same sentence. What’s more, hiragana, katakana and kanji can be laid out horizontally or vertically (such as in banners). These characteristics contribute to an overall chaotic impression for Westerners, but for Japanese people it’s only natural. So even just in terms of language — an obvious element in website design — we already see a world of difference between Japan and the West.

It’s all what you’re used to

Japanese website design doesn’t happen in a vacuum — there’s historical and cultural context. For example, that cluttered look isn’t something unique to websites; take the fliers that come with the morning paper. They’re called chirashi and Japanese consumers rely on them to find the best buys in town — from potatoes to pets, from cereal to cemetery plots.

In 2005, when Walmart acquired a majority interest in Japanese supermarket chain Seiyu, they sought to discontinue the chirashi, deeming them archaic, but reconsidered in the face of major resistance by local marketing staff. They were wise for listening to the locals and doing a 180-degree about-face before taking 100% ownership in 2008.

Now, not only does Seiyu continue to send out their chirashi, it’s even distributed through online chirashi sites like Shufoo.net. This allows younger consumers who don’t have newspaper subscriptions to browse through chirashi without the paper mess. So the Japanese consumer’s eye, young or old, is well trained to scan through copious amounts of visual information to find the items they need. In fact, it’s preferred.

More information please, we’re Japanese

Japanese people tend to require more information before reaching a purchasing decision. So for printed brochures, it is standard practice for Japanese companies to create one text-heavy version for the Japanese domestic market, and another “rest of the world” version that gets localized into multiple languages for markets worldwide.

Often the Japanese domestic version goes into more technical or product detail because that reflects the culture’s consideration and buying process. The non-Japan version focuses more on user benefits, perhaps not even mentioning the technology that makes those benefits possible. In the West, consumers are focused on how a product is going to make them feel or better their lives; the end result is more important than the how. In Japan, on the other hand, specifications play an important role in selling the experience.

In addition, research shows that males tend to base buying decisions more on utilitarian criteria than females. And whether a Japanese male is a traditional type that makes decisions on behalf of the whole family, or the modern type who needs to convince a partner first, technological talking points help his case. He doesn’t need to truly understand the tech, he just needs to think that he understands it, and Japanese sites try their best to provide that environment.

All told, these differences in browsing and buying behaviors become a problem when trying to create a unified web design for all markets. One Tokyo-based global corporation implemented modules with strict character limitations to counteract the tendency of Japanese text to become bloated with technical references. This forced the Japanese copy to become shorter, but it also led to modules with character limits that were adequate for Japanese text, but unrealistic for Western languages.

Just like window shopping

As we all know, getting someone to click on your website is a challenge. Some sites only offer minimal information on the homepage, thereby compelling visitors to click for more information. Many successful Japanese websites take another approach: showing visitors what they need up front. When visitors do click and go in, they are looking for something specific.

As a tactic, this is just like the food replicas you’ll find in restaurant window cases throughout Japan. Before committing oneself to walking into a restaurant, Japanese customers get a really good idea of what the cuisine there looks like thanks to shokuhin sanpuru (literally, food samples). These taste-bud-arousing replicas are expertly made of plastic and wax, so they’re also able to defy the laws of gravity and fluid dynamics in those showcases (Figure 3). Their purpose is to inform and reassure — which is what those cluttered Japanese websites do, too.

Figure 3: Shokuhin sanpuru show would-be patrons what they can expect.

A different kind of example highlighting the Japanese unwillingness to commit without knowing the details was offered by Tim Romero, entrepreneur and host of the Disrupting Japan podcast, who led the Japan market entry for a San Francisco startup.

“We had this sign-up wizard, where it would walk you through every step of the sign-up, and it was about six pages long that everyone around the world really liked. But, we also had this kind of diagnostic tool, which was a single page with probably 60 different fields you had to input. It looked horrible. We found that the Japanese actually preferred the single page to the well-designed, hand-holding wizard. I think it was just a sense that the Japanese like to know what they’re getting into before they commit to a process.”

Visit www.globallyspeakingradio.com, Podcast 050: Localization in Japan, for the whole discussion.

Seeking inspiration through foreign eyes

When you google the keyword 日本 ウェブデザイン (Japan web design), you’ll immediately get suggestions like 日本 ウェブデザイン 古い (Japan web design old/outdated) and 日本 海外 ウェブデザイン (Japan overseas web design). This tells us that a good portion of Japanese folks googling this subject are concerned that Japanese web design is behind the times, or are interested in how Japanese sites compare to non-Japanese websites.

Interestingly, the internet searches just mentioned yield a number of, get this, Japanese blog posts talking about English blog posts that talk about Japanese website design. For example, the number-two search result for the keyword 日本 ウェブデザイン (Japan web design) is a Japanese article in THE BRIDGE with 7,722 shares that turns out to be a translated version of “Why Japanese Web Design Is So…Different” published on Randomwire back in 2013. That article outlines just about every imaginable factor contributing to the cluttered state of Japanese website design, and it’s a great source of info even though some of it is dated.

Ranking #5 on the Google search engine page results is another Japanese blog post called なぜ日本のWebデザインはダサいのか? (Why is Japanese website design so lame?) that introduces a Quora discussion erupting from the question, “Why does the design of Japanese websites tend to differ from those in the US? What accounts for the difference in aesthetics?” Even though it’s from 2013 the key points still ring true. To this point, one of my blog posts — Why Japanese Web Design Is (Still) the Way It Is — from earlier this year also got picked up by INTERNET Watch in Japan.

The first-page ranking of these “outside perspective” articles implies that the Japanese internet community is concerned about their design aesthetic and seeking a fresh look through the eyes of non-Japanese viewers. The status quo works, but people are looking for alternative solutions, perhaps either to sell outside of Japan to other markets, or to try to bring the Western look to Japan.

The contradiction of minimal design

Minimalism, ironically, is part of the Japanese aesthetic. When you look at the Wikipedia entry for “Minimalism,” there’s a whole section on “Influences from Japanese tradition” that talks about the aesthetic principles of Ma (negative space) and Wabi-sabi. So why is minimal design not a more dominant force in Japanese websites?

The problem with minimal design is that it requires graphical elements and text to be limited to the bare essentials, which in turn requires messaging to be laser-focused — and there’s the problem. In Japanese, there’s a nice term called yokubari; the closest English word is “greed,” but yokubari is neutral so there’s no stigma attached. Japanese clients are more than willing to yokubaru (verb form of yokubari) and add more information to kill minimal design.

So, Japanese customers may be impressed at first sight by the aesthetic beauty of a minimally designed website, but if the information they want is not available, they will become suspicious of the company’s capabilities and product quality. In this culture, information cannot be tucked away.

Minimal design does work in some cases, such as for the beauty and cosmetics industry, since their message is built heavily on image. Japanese cosmetics brand POLA adopted a minimal design for their corporate website in 2017, and their bold use of photos does seem to work well.

Occasionally you’ll see a company adopt a minimal design for a special site (often with its own domain) separate from the main business — like what Sony does for their robot canine Aibo. All in all, while minimal design is regarded as a trend in Japan too, the examples and rationale for it often come from Western sources.

Demographics and UX

It’s well known that good UX differs for different generations: they each have unique internet browsing and purchasing behaviors. But who is the top demographic for Japanese brands? In some parts of the world, appealing to millennials is what makes or breaks your business. But in Japan, brands don’t cater to millennials as much as you’d think. Japanese millennials tend to be very nonmaterialistic, and financially they are not a powerful buying force. That’s why flea market apps like Mercari and Jmty are among the most popular in that age group.

Instead, many Japanese brands woo senior citizens: they have disposable income and they have time. Statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications show that, as of 2014, people aged 60 and over accounted for 48% of all consumer spending in Japan — and are poised to overtake the under-60s if they haven’t done so already.

And how do these seniors interact with the internet? According to the same ministry’s survey on the devices that Japanese people use to access the internet, the dominant device for folks in their 50s and higher is the personal computer. On the other hand, the most preferred device for those up to their 40s is the smartphone. Thus, depending on your target demographic, your UX may have to address different user needs (Table 4).

Just remember that, depending on your product or service, seniors may require more attention in Japan than elsewhere.

Age
Group
SmartphonePCTabletFeature
phone
13-1979.5%61.7%31.3%6.1%
20-2992.4%78.9%25.5%7.1%
30-3987.4%72.1%33.4%9.7%
40-4978.1%73.0%31.4%14.8%
50-5964.3%69.6%25.6%17.2%
60-6931.1%50.0%14.6%20.7%

Table 4: Your UX may need to consider different user behavior.

Age Group: 13-19
Smartphone: 79.5%
PC: 61.7%
Tablet: 31.3%
Feature phone: 6.1%

Age Group: 20-29
Smartphone: 92.4%
PC: 78.9%
Tablet: 25.5%
Feature phone: 7.1%

Age Group: 30-39
Smartphone: 87.4%
PC: 72.1%
Tablet: 33.4%
Feature phone: 9.7%

Age Group: 40-49
Smartphone: 78.1%
PC: 73.0%
Tablet: 31.4%
Feature phone: 14.8%

Age Group: 50-59
Smartphone: 64.3%
PC: 69.6%
Tablet: 25.6%
Feature phone: 17.2%

Age Group: 60-69
Smartphone: 31.1%
PC: 50.0%
Tablet: 14.6%
Feature phone: 20.7%

Table 4: Your UX may need to consider different user behavior.

No easy answers for your Japanese site

So what does the ideal website UX for Japan look like? Of course, there is no such thing as one “ultimate answer” because there are so many variables involved. Is your website for ecommerce or brand promotion? Will visitors be viewing it in a browser or on a mobile device? What’s the target demographic? And the list goes on. You’ll need to understand the situation inside and out before taking that first step.

In cases where you are mainly reinforcing your brand image and not trying to convince someone to buy, a Japanese-market-adapted site separate from your global site may not be necessary. That’s why major fashion brands like Dior, Chanel and Gucci all have websites with a universal design that’s shared across markets globally, including Japan.

But if you want visitors to do something more than feel emotionally fulfilled, you need to design the page with the data and images they want, Japan-style. That may include providing additional information if necessary.

If you’re developing a Japanese website targeting seniors in particular, it may do you good to consider the factors that characterize that age group’s online behavior: they usually don’t navigate further than one level deep, they often don’t bother to read text that is smaller than 16px, they find it difficult to read light text on dark backgrounds, they like video and they are often unaware that there is more on the page that can be seen by scrolling.

Japanese website design is “cluttered” because that’s what the Japanese market calls for. It’s driven by the need to have information readily available up front; a need that’s hard-wired into the consumer culture of Japan.

So when it comes time to develop your online presence for Japan, it’s important not to assume that great Western UX equals great Japanese UX. Leave any presumptions you may have at home. Japanese UX has deep roots in linguistics, culture and history. When you look at factors such as language, what Japanese buyers are used to, the way they seek information, and demographic preferences, a clear picture will start to form for your website design. Even if you get it mostly right on the first try (and very few brands do), tweaking your design over time will serve you best.

When getting started, choose a couple different designs then do A/B testing. Make changes once you know what works. What’s clear is that Japanese buyers’ needs are very different from Western ones — and customization is key. It’s not likely that just translating your site into Japanese will give you the level of success you’re counting on.