Web Site Expert巻頭レポート(英語)

Three conversations about Japanese Graphic Design

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Julius Wiedemann

Julius Wiedemann is the executive editor of design and the director of digital publications for the Koln-based Taschen publishing house. Among the books he has edited, authored or co-authored are Japanese Graphics Now!, Manga Design, Tashen⁠s 1000 Favorite Websites, Website Navigation (Icons) and the newest, Asian Graphics Now!. His books have sold over a million copies worldwide. Julius Widemann was born in Brazil, and at age 23, moved to Japan, designing for newspapers, magazines and websites.

From your perspective, what is the state of Japanese graphics?

I think the Japanese have a polarized aesthetic. One is very clean and Zen-like. The other, from a Western perspective, seems like a big mess. These two aesthetics co-exist in Japan. So if you go, for example, to Akihabara, you⁠ll see one extreme. And if you go to Advertising Museum Tokyo, you⁠ll see the other. In general, the more commercial the communication, the “messier” it is. The more “artistic,” the cleaner. The clean aesthetic is of course a direct influence of the Zen culture―which you see reflected in the architecture and haiku.

Why do you think this is?

My take is that Japanese like to explain a lot. And in doing so, they try to use as much of the existing space―be it paper or a display screen―as they can. Also, because they can use three writing systems, hiragana, katakana, and kanji, as well as romanji, the layouts tend to be complicated in a way that a single alphabet wouldn⁠t. Also of course, Japanese can be written not only horizontally, but vertically. When I⁠d try to read a Japanese newspaper, my friends would always tell me: you have to be Japanese to know where things start and where they end.

How is this reflected in Web design?

That⁠s an interesting question. I think, these days, the Japanese treat the Internet almost as if it were television―which makes some sense because their network bandwidth is so high. There⁠s so much video streaming and animation, that, like television, you view some Japanese sites rather than read them. But on the flip side, Japanese Web designers also seem to be thinking of ways to put more textual information on the screen. That reflects back to the culture, itself: it⁠s information-intensive.

You seem to be suggesting something I hadn’t considered: that what we in the West call “messy” is also a form of efficiency.

Yes, in the sense that the design can deliver more information in less space. You see this as well in the whole manga scene. But “messiness” also says something about the Japanese, themselves. This whole idea of Japanese people being very calm―I think that image of Japan is rooted in the countryside. But if you go to Tokyo, the aesthetic starts to make sense.

Did living in Japan giving you a better understanding of the aesthetic?

In some sense. For example, I began to notice that my friends and colleagues were less formal when they were dealing with me, an outsider, than when they were dealing with each other. Similarly, they used romanji when they wanted to be less formal―when they wanted to play around with the language. You see this everywhere when you start looking for it. Japanese beer, for example, always comes with a funny English phrase. They would never do that in Japanese, but because it⁠s in English, I think they have a kind of permission to go a little bit crazy.

I never believed there was such a thing as culture shock―until I worked in Japan. My first day, I worked 12 hours, with another three hours for the commute. And when I finally got home, I just collapsed. By my last month in Japan, I was complaining to a friend how tired I was, and he told me something that has stayed with me since. He said: “We built Japan for the Japanese.” And that really hit home: the Japanese do these things, including Web design, in a way that they understand. And that⁠s the only understanding that counts. The Japanese have a long history of taking things from the outside and making them their own. As an outsider, it doesn⁠t quite makes sense to ask whether they⁠ve “improved” graphic design or made it worse. The point is: they⁠ve made it more meaningful for them. When you do something that outsiders don⁠t quite understand, you help protect your culture―because now, it is strictly yours.

Does that mean that Japanese graphics have been limited in their influence?

With the exception of manga culture, I think that⁠s true. What I⁠m calling “the messy aesthetic” is interesting, but it⁠s not by and large how people do design. The Zen part has traveled around the world. That style is mainly what the West appreciates about Japanese design. Its easy to understand, and you can see it⁠s influence in many places. It⁠s why a Japanese company like Plus Minus Zero can sell its designs in the West. But the messy aesthetic doesn⁠t translate so easily. It⁠s much more culturally specific. To experience that, you have to come to Japan.

Ian Condry

Cultural anthropologist Marget Mead studied the South Pacific. Ian Condry studies Japanese popular culture. An associate professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Condry has written on Japanese hip-hop (Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization 2006, Duke University Press), with a second book, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan⁠s Media Success Story, due this fall. Since 2006, he has organized the research project, Cool Japan: Media, Culture, Technology, a collaboration betweein MIT and Harvard. Condry studied Japanese in college, lived in the country for a year, and makes frequent visits. Last September, Condry and his family moved into a Shinjuku apartment to do field work on Japanese social media.

Is Japanese culture really a tale of two cities: the Zen aesthetic of Kyoto and the streets of Tokyo?

There are at least two sides to Japanese aesthetics, and probably more sides, as well. The first is influenced by Zen and the Buddhist temples, minimalism, the tea ceremony, the presentation of food―all of which tend to be elegent. And then there⁠s a Tokyo, Harijuku style that is clearly over the top―excessive and remarkable. It does seem paradoxical. People ask me how there can be such a thing as rap music in Japan when the Japanese way of being is to not speak your mind―to communicate silently, to not be yelling in someone⁠s face about who you are and what you believe in. But I actually believe the opposite. The social pressures to conform, the emphasis on self discipline, actually heightens the impact of rap music―and makes it even more necessary. The same could be said for the Japanese visual style, as well.

Maybe, we think of culture in the wrong way―as shared approaches to the meanings that guide our lives. It might be better to think of culture as a crucible in which all kinds of things are mixed together, and you don⁠t necessarily know what will come out.

Japanese graphics are famously “crowded.” Are they influenced by the crowded streets of Tokyo?

That could well be. Living in Tokyo again, I⁠ve been struck not only by the crowds, but by the pace. When I first got here, I found myself walking too slowly: people kept bumping into me from behind and roaring around me in the train station. I had to speed up, just to keep up. And it does seem a particularly Tokyo pace: Kyoto seems slightly slower, and of course the countryside, even more so.

What are you doing in Tokyo?

I⁠m doing field work―that⁠s a key part of what cultural anthropologists do. In order to theorize about culture and society, you begin with the viewpoint of the people in that community. One of my teachers got us thinking about how culture and the ways we think about the world are guided by our language. That⁠s true for us in the West, as well. My goal is not to find some truth about Japan, but to use things I find in Japan to get a deeper understanding of ourselves, as Westerners. I like to look at things that have a cross-cultural resonance―like hip-hop―but move in divergent directions.

How does that map to Japanese graphics? That is, can you chart the flow of influence?

If you look, say, at Japanese manga, the answer is quite complicated . Many people mark the emergence of manga in Japan with American newspaper comics. Disney, in particular, and American comics in general, had a huge influence on the early manga artists. And yet, once you have a Tezuka Osamu, who created Astro Boy and many other famous manga, the genre becomes distincively Japanese. That⁠s true even though Osamu-san saw Bambi maybe a hundred times, and created his own unauthorized versions of the story. He had soaked up and reworked the influence of Disney so thoroughly that Western artists started looking at his work as a “manga style.” And now this has come full circle, with contests in the U.S. for English language manga. This back-and-forth communication is part of the broader Japanese graphic look, as well.

What about Japanese website design and its influence in the West?

What strikes me as an American is the role mobile phones play in accessing the Web. When it comes to designing mobile phone sites, Japan has a jump start. I went a to sushi bar the other day, and there was a sticker on the counter that invited me to take a picture of a barcode, which would take me to a website where I could register and get a 10 percent discount on the very meal I was about to eat. These kinds of things are all over the place in Japan. As smartphones continue to take off in the U.S., it will be interesting to see if some of that comes our way.

Another difference in Japanese graphic design in general is the use of characters, which have a ubiquity and a power that is not always appreciated in the U.S―though maybe that will change as the Pokemon generation around the world grows up. These characters are everywhere in Japan. I get a business card from a serious government minister―and it⁠s got this cute cat character on it. And I⁠m thinking, “What are you doing? This looks ridiculous!” But no, that⁠s their section⁠s character, and they⁠re proud and happy about it.

I think the answer is found in the manga/anime culture. Hatsune Miku is a good example. The character started out as a synthesized voice: there was no story attached to her. And then people made manga and movies and music videos―and now she⁠s a national phenomenon. What⁠s interesting is that this progression came out of the cloud of fan interest. A character in Japan can take on this larger role, somewhere between a brand and a celebrity, with some of the characteristics of both.

Does that suggest that the otaku sensibility is also a driving force for Japanese graphic design?

I⁠d say that the otaku sensibility is at one end of a spectrum of attentiveness to fine detail and information. And that, in turn, comes from the intense Japanese educational experience, including the emphasis on entrance exams, which require this attention to information detail. That filters through the entire culture―though otaku, by definition, take it the furthest. Even if you⁠re not very good at school, you wind up being a lot better at it than most people in the world.


Bart Eisenberg

Bart Eisenberg's articles on the trends and technologies of the American computer industry have appeared in Gijutsu-Hyoron publications since the late 1980s. He has covered and consulted for both startups and the major corporations that make up the Silicon Valley. A native of Los Angeles and a self-confessed gadget freak, he lives with his wife Susan in Marin County, north of San Francisco. When not there, he can sometimes be found hiking with a GPS in the Sierra, traveling in India, driving his Toyota subcompact down the California coast, or on the streets of New York and Tokyo.


1980年代後半より,『Software Design』や『Web Site Expert』などの雑誌に,アメリカのコンピュータ業界のトレンドと技術に関するレポートを執筆しています。シリコンバレーで,スタートアップ企業から大企業まで幅広い分野でコンサルタントを務めました。

ロサンゼルス生まれで,自称ガジェットフリークです.現在,妻のSusanとともに,サンフランシスコ北部のMarin County在住。また,SierraのGPSを携えてハイキングしたり,インドを旅したり,カリフォルニア海岸をドライブしたり,NYや東京の街中を歩いたりしています。