Why Japanese Web Design Is Soooo Different

In the mind’s eye of many people Japan is a land of tranquil Zen gardens, serene temples, and exquisite tea ceremonies. Both traditional and contemporary Japanese architecture, books and magazines are the envy of designers worldwide. Yet for some reason practically none of this mastery has been translated into digital products, in particular websites, most of which look like they hail from around 1998.

Exhibit A: Rakuten Ichiba
Exhibit A: Rakuten Ichiba

Go on a safari around some of Japan’s most popular sites and here’s what you can expect to find (see Goo, RakutenYomiuriNicoNicoOKWave, @cosme, and more):

  • Dense tightly packed text
  • Tiny low-quality images
  • More columns than you can count
  • Bright clashing colours and flashing banners
  • Overuse of outdated technologies like Flash

A beautiful haiku or minimal wabi-sabi they not. The theories for why this is are numerous and I’ve tried to expand on some of the most prevalent below:

Linguistic Differences

Sir, is that a middle finger ?
Photo by shootjapan.com

Character ComfortLogographic-based languages can contain a lot of meaning in just few characters. While these characters can look cluttered and confusing to the western eye, they actually allow Japanese speakers to become comfortable with processing a lot of information in short period of time / space (the same goes for Chinese).

Lacking Emphasis – Japanese doesn’t have italics or capital letters which limits the opportunities for adding visual punch that you get with latin alphabets. This makes it more difficult to create the hierarchical contrasts required to organise information with type alone although many designers get around this by adding decoration or using graphic text.

Language Barrier – The web and most of the programming languages which drive it were designed by English speakers or western corporations and hence the majority of documentation and educational resources are also in English. Although much gets translated this still causes a delay in new technologies and trends being adopted.

Cultural Differences

Salary Man Street

Risk Avoidance – In general Japanese culture does not encourage risk taking or standing out from the crowd. Once a precedent has been set for things looking or behaving a certain way then everybody follows it, regardless of whether there is a better solution. Even Japanese subcultures conform to their own fashions and rules.

Consumer Behaviour – People require a high degree of assurance, by means of lengthy descriptions and technical specifications, before making a purchasing decision – they are not going to be easily swayed by a catchy headline or a pretty image. The adage of “less is more” doesn’t really apply here.

Advertising – Rather than being seen as a tool to enable people Japanese companies often see the web as just another advertising platform to push their message across as loudly as possible. Websites ends up being about the maximal concentration of information into the smallest space akin to a pamphlet rather than an interactive tool.

Urban Landscape – Walk around one of Tokyo’s main hubs like Shibuya and you’re constantly bombarded with bright neon advertisements, noisy pachinko parlours (game arcades), and crowds of rambunctious salary men or school kids. The same chaotic busyness of the streets seems to have spilled over to the web. Added to this, because physical space comes at a premium in Japan, none of it is wasted and the same goes for negative/white space on a webpage.

Job Roles – Look on any job site in Japan and you’ll still see adverts for roles like “Web Master” and “Web Admin” which hark back to the day when a company would employ a single IT guy to hand-code and run their entire website – many still do. On the other side of the equation, creative people want creative freedom which they’re not likely to find in a large Japanese corporation so they go elsewhere.

Technical Differences

[Shibuya] Umbrella Bokeh
Photo by scion_cho

Mobile Legacy – Japan was using their version of the mobile web on advanced flip phones long before the iPhone came along and in even larger numbers than had personal computers. Back then the screens were tiny and the way sites had to be designed to cram content into this small space has continued to influence the way things are now.

Web Fonts – There is a lack of web fonts for non-latin languages (Chinese, Japanese…). This is because each font requires thousands of characters to be individually designed which is prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and would take longer to download. For these reasons designers tend to use graphics rather than plain text to display non-standard typefaces.

Windows XP & IE 6 – although the number of people using ancient Microsoft software is rapidly decreasing there are still a fair number of people using these dinosaurs, especially in corporate environments.  Enough said.

Japan - Back to the Future Poster

Walking around Tokyo, I often get the feeling of being stuck in a 1980’s vision of the future and in many ways it’s this contradiction which characterises the design landscape in Japan. On one side we have enormous conglomerates churning out uninspiring mass-produced conformity while on the other side we see master craftspeople making things of incredible beauty and functionality.

On a more positive note, smaller design firms and companies like UNIQLO, MUJICookPad andKinokuniya are proving that you can make aesthetically pleasing and functional websites in Japan. Let’s hope the rest learn from them and catch up soon.

More interesting discussion here: one, two, three, four, five.

Update 1: A lot of people have been commenting that much of the above also applies to websites in other regions of Asia so here are a few to look at for comparison –

Update 2: A big welcome to readers from RedditMetaFilter and Smashing Magazine! Unfortunately all the traffic knocked the site offline for most of Wednesday but things should be stable now. For future updates you can follow Randomwire on Twitter or Facebook. For any questions or enquiries feel free to get in touch.
Update 3: Some kind folks have translated the article into Japanese, ChineseRussian,VietnameseThaiGermanSpanishItalianArabic and Korean.
Source Credit: Randomwire

My Geeky Valentine -By Joanna Behar

My Geeky Valentine


Misconceptions About iOS Multitasking


There is one iOS “tip” that I keep hearing and it is wrong. Worse, I keep hearing it from supposedly authoritative sources. I have even heard it from the lips of Apple “Geniuses” in stores.

Here is the advice – and remember it is wrong:

All those apps in the multitasking bar on your iOS device are currently active and slowing it down, filling the device’s memory or using up your battery. To maximise performance and battery life, you should kill them all manually.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There are caveats to this but anyone dispensing the advice above is clearly uninformed enough that they will certainly not be aware of these subtleties.

Let me be as clear as I can be: the iOS multitasking bar does not contain “a list of all running apps”. It contains “a list of recently used apps”. The user never has to manage background tasks on iOS.

Except in a few cases, which I’ll explain, the apps that appear in the multitasking bar are not currently running. When you press the home button, iOS will tell the app to quit. In almost all cases, it quits, it stops using CPU time (and hence battery) and the memory it was using is eventually recovered if required.

Let’s get technical: iOS apps have five states of execution. These are:

  • Not running – the app has been terminated or has not been launched.
  • Inactive – the app is in the foreground but not receiving events (for example, the user has locked the device with the app active)
  • Active – the normal state of “in use” for an app
  • Background – the app is no longer on-screen but is still executing code
  • Suspended – the app is still resident in memory but is not executing code

Active and Inactive are not interesting for this discussion. Most of the confusion is around what happens as an app goes from Active to Background to Suspended to Not Running.

When you press the home button, the app moves from Active to Background. Most apps usually then go from Background to Suspended in a matter of seconds.

The first technical caveat is that Suspended apps remain in the device’s memory. This is so they can resume more quickly when you go back to them. They’re not using processor time and they’re not sucking battery power.

You may think that, if an app is resident in memory, you have to somehow remove it to conserve memory. You don’t because iOS does it for you. If there are Suspended apps lying around and you launch a memory-intensive app such as a big game, iOS will start to purge Suspended apps and move them to the Not Running state. That is, they will be completely removed from memory and will launch afresh the next time you tap their icon.

Where some people get confused is this: all of the above has no impact on what you see in the multitasking bar. The multitasking bar always shows a list of recently used apps, regardless of whether they’re in the Background, Suspended or Not Running states. You may also have noticed that the app that is currently Active does not appear in the multitasking bar.


When an app is sent to the Background, it usually moves to the Suspended state in a few seconds. An app can request an extension to this by declaring that it’s starting a “background task”.

A good example is an app that downloads largish files from the web such as Instacast, my favourite podcast app. When Instacast is Active, it can start to download new podcasts. If I then hit the home button on my iPhone, Instacast gets five seconds to run in the Background state and then it’s Suspended. That interrupts the download of my podcasts, which might take 5 minutes or more.

iOS allows Instacast to declare that a download is a “background task”. This allows Instacast an extra period of background running after I hit the home button to complete the podcast download. While apps can request additional Background time, that time is not infinitely long. The app gets about 10 minutes of Background running time and then it is forcibly suspended by iOS. Again, you don’t have to worry about this yourself.


All apps get 5 seconds of Background running. Some apps can request a 10-minute extension. There are a small number of apps that genuinely need to run indefinitely in the background and iOS allows this.

There are exactly five kinds of apps allowed to run indefinitely in the Background state in iOS 5:

  • Apps that play audio while in the Background state. A good example is Instacast while it’s playing a podcast.
  • Apps that track your location in the Background. For example, you still want voice prompts from your TomTom navigation app, even if another app is Active.
  • Apps that listen for incoming VOIP calls. If you use Skype on iOS, you can receive incoming Skype calls while the app is in the Background.
  • Newsstand apps that are downloading new content.
  • Apps that receive continuous updates from an external accessory in the Background.

All well-written apps in the above categories should become Suspended when they are no longer performing the task in hand. When Instacast finishes playing a podcast, it should be Suspended. There are some built-in apps that also run continuously in the background on iOS – the most-used one is probably Mail.

As long as these apps are running in the Background state, they will consume memory, CPU time and power. In general, though, you would know that you were using such apps. The developer has to declare which category of Background running they require and part of the App Store review process is to check that these declarations are not being abused.

I said earlier that “the user never has to manage Background tasks on iOS”. The only exception to this is when one of these Background-running apps goes berserk and will not terminate properly. That, however, is an exceptional situation and not a normal part of being an iOS user.


Let me wrap this up by giving you a quick summary:

  1. If someone tells you that all the apps in the multitasking bar are running, using up memory or sucking power, they are wrong.
  2. When you hit the home button, an app moves from Active to Background and quickly to the Suspended state where it no longer uses CPU time or drains power.
  3. An app may request an additional 10 minutes of Background running to complete a big task before becoming Suspended.
  4. If memory is becoming scarce, iOS will automatically move Suspended apps into the Not Running state and reclaim their memory.
  5. Five classes of apps – audio, GPS, VOIP, Newsstand and accessory apps – and some built-in apps such as Mail may run indefinitely in the background until they complete their task.

Put simply: you do not have to manage background tasks on iOS. The system handles almost every case for you and well written audio, GPS, VOIP, Newsstand and accessory apps will handle the rest.