Why are Japan’s Websites so Cluttered?

Natsuki Wada
4 min readAug 2, 2018

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I was talking with my husband, an American, once, and he commented to me, “It’s interesting how Japanese Yahoo looks so old fashioned. It looks like the American version looked over ten years ago.”

I had never thought about this, but I went and compared the American and Japanese versions of Yahoo’s main page:

The design is radically different! I never used the American version of Yahoo, but if what my husband says is right, and it used to look like the Japanese version looks now, that brings up the question, why hasn’t Yahoo Japan updated their site’s design in over a decade?

I actually found some blog articles in Japanese exploring this issue. In one blog (https://www.webcreatorbox.com/inspiration/world-web-design ) the author compares the designs of many different sites in different countries. It’s interesting to look through these designs, and if you do, you will soon realize on your own what the author argues in the article: Japanese website designers dislike empty space, and prefer to cram information into every centimeter of space available to them.

As you can see, “refrigerator” looks much more complicated when written in Japanese characters.

So why is this? The author of the above blog argues that Chinese and Japanese website designs are more similar than the designs seen in the other countries he compares, and that this is because both countries use Chinese characters. He argues that the complex design of every individual character encourages a tendency towards crowded design in other areas, such as website design. I think that this may, in fact, be a reason, however, I am more convinced by another, technologically-related reason he gives. Additionally, this argument is backed up by the author of another blog who explored the same issue: http://web.landgarage.co.jp/2018/02/02/japanwebdesign/

In Japan, the vast majority of computer users use PCs, and most of them use Internet Explorer. Additionally, Japan has an aging society, and many people (my parents included) use rather old computers running older versions of browsers. Older people who did not grow up with computers are often unwilling to upgrade their systems and adapt to change on a regular basis. As a result, Japanese website designers are forced to design their websites with older browsers in mind. They are also discouraged from changing websites to keep up with trends because of Japan’s elderly-dominated, risk-averse culture. Change can be frustrating for users who are used to doing things a certain way, and companies are not eager to frustrate their customer base.

One particular feature to note about the Japanese websites introduced in both blogs is that, because the information is all crowded into every available space, there is often no need to scroll when you’re on the main page. Everything you could want on the site is laid out on your screen. The authors of both blogs above argue, and I agree, that this is a design that appeals to older people who grew up in the pre-digital age, when machines typically had a “one-button-one-function” design.

I know that, for my parents, one of the most confusing things about using Skype (iPad version) to contact me is that fact that the functions available in the program are not all laid out across the screen for them to see. I have to constantly remind my mother that, if she wants to do something like turn on the camera, she has to first touch the screen once to make the buttons appear, and then look for the button she wants. This design seems to constantly bother her, and I can see why Japanese website catering to an elderly audience would avoid this.

So what can software engineers and web designers in Japan do? Well, as long as they are following the dictates of their bosses (usually older men who are part of the pre-digital generation mentioned above) there may not be much they can do. They may want to update their sites and create more appealing designs, but they cannot do this on their own. However, I would like to see more websites in Japan that offer a “new design!” button on the main page that would take users to a design that utilizes modern website design features. This is probably more work for the engineers since it requires running two websites instead of one, but it would probably be more rewarding. And who knows, if they kept statistics on which design more users chose, they might eventually be able to make an argument for shifting over to a new design and away from designs that look like they’re stuck in 2003.

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