Web Site Expert巻頭レポート(英語)

Three conversations about Japanese Graphic Design

Like its English-language counterpart, the Google Japan search page is a study in minimalism: a logo, a search box, a couple of buttons, and six spare links. These elements are centered in a ⁠sea⁠⁠ of blank white space, a design reminiscent of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji garden, where 15 boulders are surrounded by a sea of raked gravel. But over at Yahoo! Japan, the design is busier. There’s a box for news events, another for partner sites, a link to Shopping Yahoo! with pictures of cardigans and boots, another box on videos, a login for email, a calendar, and, on the left, 27 links to Yahoo! services, each with its own tiny logo. There are the usual assortment of kawaii cartoon characters. As with the streets of Tokyo, little space goes unused.

By American tastes, the Google site is clean; the Yahoo! site is cluttered―noticeably more so than the Yahoo! English-language landing page. But as website designer and consultant Brandon K. Hill points out, Yahoo! Japan is Japan’s top portal site, and he thinks the design contributes to that success. ⁠Cluttered⁠⁠ turns out to be a culturally relative term: what I might find crowded, you might find useful and efficient.

To better understand these difference in design sensibility, I spoke with three people who bridge the gap. Hill is a Japanese native now living in San Francisco. Julius Wiedemann has written about graphical styles around the world, including Japan, where he lived and worked for more than three years. MIT’s Ian Condry researches Japanese popular culture, and when I spoke with him he was an American living in Tokyo. Hill’s experience is hands-on. Widemann’s interest is journalistic. Condry’s is scholarly. The bridge to understanding stretches across all three.

Brandon K. Hill

The son of a Japanese mother and an American father, Brandon K. Hill grew up in Sapporo, then moved to San Francisco after high school. After earning an industrial arts degree from San Francisco State University, he formed btrax, a consulting firm that helps Asian companies market themselves online in the United States, and vice versa. The firm’s big break came when btrax landed a project to localize Expedia, the travel site. After our conversation, he introduced himself as a fellow contributor to Web Site Expert.

It seems like the aesthetics of Japanese graphics is different from those in the U.S.

They are very different. Japanese design layouts for magazines, Web and product design are very busy, very colorful. The design may even look chaotic to some eyes. Perhaps the reason is that Japan is a monocultural country?there aren’t too many different people with different backgrounds. Most people have very decent educational backgrounds so we, as designers, don’t have to make things too simple or too easy to understand. Rather, we can make things more playful and more busy or complicated.

Because everybody has the same cultural context?

Right. In the United States, by contrast, when we design a website, we need to be careful that it can serve a wide range of people―people from different countries and backgrounds―who may perceive things a little bit differently. So here, we have no choice but to be more conservative.

The stereotypical idea of Japanese design is simple, Zen-like.

That’s the ironic part. Many Japanese designers don’t realize the beauty of the traditional ⁠Wa⁠⁠ design, which you might find in a traditional Japanese restaurant or ryokan.When it comes to commercial or industrial design, designers do not take that aesthetic into consideration much. Instead, they create designs that are colorful and busy. The ironic part is that many Japanese people love Apple products from the United States―because the design is very simple, very Zen-like. Perhaps Japanese people have this Zen concept in their genes, so they subconsciously like simple Zen-like products without knowing it.

What has been the influence of manga and anime on Japanese graphics?

It has a huge impact. Comics are not only for kids but also for adults and have a big impact on their daily life. Manga contributes to the cute, kawaii sensibility. When you have a focus group to check out your product, many people respond to the same kind of design.

Hello Kitty is mystifying to many Americans, but of course has been very popular in Japan?

Hello Kitty is only popular in the United States for kids and teens, but in Japan many adult women are fine with Hello Kitty products. I suppose you would have to conclude that the Japanese tastes are not always mature.

How does the basic Japanese aesthetic carry through to Web design?

Most Japanese websites are influenced by magazine layouts, which have a lot of content on one page. Otherwise people think that it’s boring. You can see this, for example, in the how Yahoo! Japan looks compared to Google. Google is winning some traffic now, but Yahoo! Japan still is the number one portal site in Japan. I think this is in part because they provide more content on the page.

What about Craigslist? Websites don’t get more simple than that? How has it done in Japan?

Japanese people get tired hearing how successful Craigslist is. Many of them say the site looks really bad: it’s too simple, too plain. People are not very interested in using it and don’t understand why Americans like it. Craigslist has a presence in Japan, but the majority of people who use it are not Japanese: they’re expats.

When you talk to Japanese clients interested in having a Web presence in America, do you have to explain these differences in reverse?

Yes, and it is challenging. Explaining is one thing, but making them understand it is another. It’s very difficult because they are so used to approving designs with a lot of colors and content. If we present something that looks really simple, they say it looks boring. With American clients interested in attracting Japanese customers, it’s a bit easier. We explain things using examples and statistics, and that’s often what persuades them. When we present our ideas for the design, most of them say they don’t understand why it looks that way. But they’ll go with it anyway as long as they believe Japanese users will like it.

Has that design “gap” between West and East played out in your work?

Expedia is an extreme case. The very first version we made was in 2006 and looked fairly close to the main Expedia.com website, sharing most of the branding themes. But we’ve kept updating that design based on the results and statistics. Now, Expedia.com and Expedia.co.jp have come to look very different. Expedia.com looks stylish, cool and simple, per their branding guide. Expedia.co.jp site looks very cute and very busy.

What kinds of things did you add?

More promotional banners and more content on the home page. We also have the mascot, a bear. We were looking for a way to make the site more friendly to a Japanese audience, and then, working with the client, we came up with this idea of creating a mascot for their business.

Another example of our work is NEWPEOPLEWORLD.com, the website we designed for NEW PEOPLE, a 20,000 square foot shopping destination in San Francisco’s Japantown, which features Japanese popular culture: cinema, retail, and art. Although the website is for the US audience, the client wanted it to have a Japanese touch to it―so it has something of both aesthetics. NEWPEOPLEWORLD.com still looks very simple and clean, but we added some color combinations you wouldn’t expect on a strictly U.S. site: orange, pink, green, blue. Their president, Seiji Horibuchi, didn’t like the looks of it when we initially set up the site―he thought it looked a little bit too simple. But a lot of Americans like the site.

What about mobile sites in Japan?. In the U.S., perhaps because of the iPhone’s head start, Steve Job’s Zen-like sensibility is obvious. Has that influenced mobile sites in Japan?

Obviously, the same screen limitations of mobile devices are present in both countries. However, in Japan you will be surprised to see how decorated things are on the mobile screen. One of the reasons why Japanese people initially didn’t like using iPhones is that they cannot add icons and emoticons to email. Japanese have crazy variations of those icons, and many mobile sites in Japan are filled with icons, and, of course, a lot of colors. So even though the devices are limited in terms of what they can display, those sites still look very busy.

Looking forward, what kinds of design opportunities are you seeing for btrax?

We see an opportunity to help Japanese online services market their services in the United States. We’ve seen this trend a lot in the other direction: U.S. companies like Twitter, YouTube, Ustream have strong followings in Japan―and they developed those followings even when they weren’t localized for Japan. But the reverse is not true: there are some wonderful web services in Japan that could attract attention here. But they haven’t, in part, because they haven’t adapted to an American market. Since everything is in Japanese, the people outside of Japan do not know they even exist. It’s understandable: many are just struggling within the Japanese market―they may not realize they have huge potential outside of Japan.

What are some examples?

One is Pixiv, a social media site for sharing your manga artwork. There are so many good Japanese manga artists, even though they are not professional. Manga has a strong American following, but so far, the site has no English version. Another example: Lang-8.com. Here, you create an account, write something in Japanese or a foreign language, and a native speaker will correct your writing so it is perfect. In October, we hosted an event, SF Japan Night, in which six hot Japanese companies presented their services to a local audience of 300 in San Francisco. We are planning to our next one in spring 2011.

What should Japanese designers think about in making their sites more appealing to an American audience?

One is the usability: they need to make it easier for people to use outside of Japan. Maybe Japanese people are smart and they don’t realize how ⁠dumb⁠⁠ we are in the United States when it comes to site navigation. We need simplicity. Marketing outside of Japan is also really challenging for Japanese people. I’m talking about everything related to marketing?from doing presentations, to creating sales, to using social media to promote their services. Japan is such a small country that it’s easy to connect to people and spread the word. But when it comes to the United States, it’s not that easy, so they need to adopt a U.S. way of marketing, especially online.

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, Tashen’s 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, you’ll see one extreme. And if you go to Advertising Museum Tokyo, you’ll 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 wouldn’t. Also of course, Japanese can be written not only horizontally, but vertically. When I’d 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?

That’s 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. There’s 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: it’s 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 it’s 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 that’s 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 doesn’t quite makes sense to ask whether they’ve ⁠improved⁠⁠ graphic design or made it worse. The point is: they’ve made it more meaningful for them. When you do something that outsiders don’t 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 that’s true. What I’m calling ⁠the messy aesthetic⁠⁠ is interesting, but it’s 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 it’s influence in many places. It’s why a Japanese company like Plus Minus Zero can sell its designs in the West. But the messy aesthetic doesn’t translate so easily. It’s 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 Japan’s 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 there’s 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 someone’s 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 don’t 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, I’ve 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?

I’m doing field work―that’s 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. That’s 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. That’s 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 it’s got this cute cat character on it. And I’m thinking, ⁠What are you doing? This looks ridiculous!⁠⁠ But no, that’s their section’s character, and they’re 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 she’s a national phenomenon. What’s 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?

I’d 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 you’re not very good at school, you wind up being a lot better at it than most people in the world.