What Japanese Users Are Looking For in Website Design

Posted by Doug McGowan
on Mon, Feb 26, 2018 @ 08:16 AM

What Japanese Users Are Looking For in Website Design

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. Or at least, that’s the argument I made in a previous article. Now, please join me as I attempt to sniff out some more insights into Japanese website design and UX.

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the keyword 日本 ウェブデザイン (Japan web design), you’ll immediately get suggestions like 日本 ウェブデザイン 古い (Japan web design old/outdated) and 日本 海外 ウェブデザイン (Japan overseas web design).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 is essentially telling us that a good portion of Japanese folks Googling this subject are concerned about Japanese web design being behind the times, or how Japanese sites compare to non-Japanese websites. Not something you would expect if everybody was satisfied with the status quo.

Web search results for "Japan web design"

Looking for insight through foreign eyes

Interestingly, the internet searches mentioned above yield a number of, get this, Japanese blog posts talking about English blog posts that talk about Japanese website design. For example, the #2 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 (that you probably know) even though some of it is dated.

Ranking #5 on the Google SERP is another Japanese blog post called なぜ日本のWebデザインなダサいのか? (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? Also from 2013, some of the information is outdated, but what's amazing is that five years later, the key points still ring true.

The first-page ranking of these “outside perspective” articles implies that the Japanese internet community is looking for answers, and that includes taking a fresh look through the eyes of foreigners. To this point, my previous post "Why Japanese Web Design Is (Still) the Way It Is" got picked up and reviewed by INTERNET Watch in Japan as well.

The not-so-major impact of minimal design

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 it’s all the more ironic that minimal design is not a more dominant force in Japanese website design.

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 (欲張り); 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.

On the flip side, 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 soon after, they will become suspicious of the company’s capabilities. So, information cannot be too hidden.

Minimal design works well for the beauty and cosmetics industry since their message leans heavily towards image-building. 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.

POLA cosmetics and AIBO canine robot websites

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. Minimal design in Japan is not something that springs forth from native Japanese tradition.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to scan through a large collection of Japanese website designs, check out the Japan Web Design Gallery with its 1,480 registered sites. Look in the right-hand column for ミニマル (minimal). Click on it and you’ll filter on minimal design.

What Japan’s ecommerce top two tell us

Japan is the world’s third largest ecommerce market, accounting for about USD 1.35 trillion in retail sales (that’s 5.4% of the global market), and is still ahead of rapidly growing India.

The 6th and 7th ranking websites in Japan are the top two ecommerce sites: Amazon Japan and Rakuten Direct. The only sites outperforming them are Google Japan, Yahoo! Japan, Google.com, YouTube, and Twitter. So let’s take a look at how Amazon and its localized Japan site compare to the born-in-Japan Rakuten and its localized English rendition.

First, a side-by-side comparison of amazon.com and amazon.co.jp. As you can see, the sites feature a different product mix, but the design framework and UX of the .com and .co.jp sites are virtually identical. There is a clear family resemblance between the two.

Comparison of Amazon.com and Amazon.co.jp

A prime takeaway from Amazon’s success in Japan may be that global design works just as well in Japan as it does anywhere else in the world. But that’s not an argument that other ecommerce sites are necessarily agreeing with.

Take Rakuten, for example. By the time they began their push into overseas markets, rakuten.co.jp was already a well-established ecommerce site. So they decided to keep their existing UX for Japan while adopting a cleaner—more Amazonian, if you will—design for their global rollout including rakuten.com.

Comparison of Rakuten.com and Rakuten.co.jp

Of course, attributing Amazon’s enormous success in Japan solely to their website would be a gross oversimplification. Their annual sales, which leaves other ecommerce sites in the dust, is the result of a myriad of factors, with UX only being part of the equation. In fact, when you compare the KPIs for amazon.co.jp and rakuten.co.jp, you’ll find they deliver similar performance for average time on site, pages per visit, and bounce rate.

Ecommerce site Visits (6 months)* Avg. time on site Pages per visit Bounce rate % Japan rank Annual sales (Billion JPY)
Amazon Japan 619.85M 7:19 8.72 31.29 6 1176.8
Rakuten Direct 418.39M 6:53 8.20 36.15 7 60
ZOZOTOWN 57.32M 9:27 13.07 24.60 46 76.393**
UNIQLO 40.99M 4:51 6.79 33.26 157 42.167
Yodobashi Camera 36.02M 4:23 5.77 36.44 101 108
Bic Camera 12.97M 2:55 4.23 51.77 372 35
WEAR 11.31M 4:25 5.80 37.20 376 76.393**
Belle Maison 10.59M 6:42 8.67 33.69 309 73.782
LOHACO 7.01M 4:49 6.56 49.63 531  39.016
Joshin Denki 5.89M 3:59 5.14 42.66 761  55
Cecile 5.43M 3:42 5.42 56.92 770  58.26***
Nissen  4.15M 6:35 7.36 47.42 848  35.5
Dinos 3.96M 4:27 6.27 32.96 945   58.26***
Japanet Takata 3.81M  3:08 3.84 27.21 1236  49.84
Ito Yokado 2.73M 2:52 3.50 57.81 N/A  47.396
Mouse Computer  2.54M 4:43 4.17 43.61 1724  32.615
Shop Channel 2.50M 7:51  9.78 26.15 1260  38.73
QVC Japan 2.33M 7:25 10.04 24.40 1352  29.43
Kitamura 1.12M 2:35 4.26 29.14 3546  40.478
Premoa 0.89M 3:34 3.39 56.97 4841  28.935
Sources: Netto Hanbai Hakusho (Online Sales White Paper) released by Gekkan Netto Hanbai and featured in Tsuhan Shinbun article for sales figures; SimilarWeb for all other figures.
*From August 2017 to January 2018.
**For Start Today, operator of ZOZOTOWN and WEAR.
***For Dinos-Cecile, operator of Dinos and Cecile.

The demographic that makes a difference

In some parts of the world, appealing to millennials is what makes or breaks your business. Japan, as you might expect, is a little different. For one, Japanese millennials tend to be very non-materialistic, 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.

In Japan, the demographic that matters to many companies is senior citizens: they have disposable income and they have time. Take a look at this scary graphic that appeared in an article on Nippon.com showing the trend of shifting buying power over the years. Estimated from statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, it shows 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 an article by Senior Guide based on a survey also published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the preferred device for internet use is the smartphone (red line) for people in their teens up to their 40s, and as smartphones decline and feature phones (yellow line) increase, PCs (blue line) become the dominant device for folks in their 50s and up.

Preferred internet terminal by age group

And how to reach them

So, now that you’re considering developing a website targeting seniors in Japan—a country where almost 25% of the population is older than 65—it may do you good to consider these factors, compiled from various sources on the internet, regarding this age group’s online behavior.

  • They usually cannot navigate further than one level deep.
  • They frequently return to the top of the page.
  • They show little interest in bland main visuals and top pages.
  • They often follow a single visual point of interest and don’t comprehend the entire structure or message of the site.
  • They prefer kanji expressions over katakana expressions.
  • 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 visuals that move and have sound, so video is effective.
  • They are often unaware that there is more on the page that can be seen by scrolling.
  • They skim a lot.
  • They like lists.
  • They don’t like to open new windows.

Other tips that may help you develop a senior-friendly Japanese web presence are:

  • Provide breadcrumb navigation so they can easily find their way back.
  • Forms should always specify whether full- or half-width characters are required.
  • Simple radio buttons are preferable to other interactive elements such as drop-down menus.
  • Break down the message into simple, bite-sized chunks.

One size does not fit all

So what does the ultimate 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 most 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.

When Japanese people Google the keyword 日本 ウェブデザイン (Japan web design), they may find some titles enticing enough to gain their click. But for the most part, those Japanese articles offer generic advice such as “avoid simply translating Japanese websites into other languages for overseas markets.” Can’t argue with that.

By the same token, localizing your site for the Japan market needs to consist of more than just translating into Japanese. The key to success (in any market) is matching up the correct messaging and usability with your target audience. And in Japan, more often than not, the design and UX that people are comfortable with will look cluttered to the western eye.

If you have plans to do business in Japan or with Japan, or would like to see some examples of content localization into Japanese, please check out the Moravia Japan Blog here.

Topics: Localization Insider


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