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Insights from the Far East - Western Web Design vs Japanese Web Design

2013.12.04 by 

Inspirationen aus Fernost - Westliches vs Japanisches Webdesign

This time, the article was written by Madeleine, who joined smooster this year as a marketing trainee. Madeleine is fluent in Japanese and has even resided in Tokyo and Osaka for two years. 

When I came across the article, WHY JAPANESE WEB DESIGN IS SO … DIFFERENT , in my Twitter feed a few days ago, I read it with interest, nodded in agreement with some of the points, and brooded a bit over the others.

David from RANDOMWIRE shows examples of the design of the most visited Japanese websites and gives linguistic, cultural, and technical reasons why the design of these sites is so different and appears a bit like you are travelling back in time to the 1990s.

The article mentions many reasons why Japanese web design is partly structured differently and why it can seem old-fashioned to Western observers. But I believe that this observation applies especially to the big, popular sites, which David examined.

These websites cover, in my opinion, only a portion of the design on the Japanese-speaking web. One of the comments, in which the reader describes the intransigent structures in large companies that can, for instance, hinder decisions to carry out a redesign, makes reference to this fact.

After I had read the article and some of the comments, I could no longer get some questions out of my head, which I would like to investigate using some sample sites.

  • Are Japanese websites really that old-fashioned?
  • What does modern Japanese web design look like?
  • What ideas or insights can we, in Europe or the US, gain from that?


Many answers will only arise from a comparison. Therefore, I did not take a look at only Japanese websites, but also viewed German and American websites and compared them to one another.

You can click on the images to enlarge them.

Cell phone companies

Die Website des deutschen Mobilfunkanbieters ist eher schlicht


genau wie die Website des amerikanischen Mobilfunkanbieters


Die Website des japanischen Mobilfunkanbieters ist im Vergleich popiger gestaltet


All three websites belong to big cell phone companies in Germany, the USA, and Japan. Although both T-Mobile and docomo have a pink logo, the German website turns out simpler, while the Japanese site appears rather colorful. Apart from this, however, the websites are not as different as the Randomwire article leads you to believe. All three pages, already present much content on the homepage and, thus, have several navigation options and many small images.

National TV Stations

Die Website des ARD verwendet im Vergleich zu NHK große Schrift und ein klar strukturiertes Raster


auch die amerikanische Website hat einen klaren Aufbau


Die Website von NHK wirkt für das westliche Auge unaufgeräumt.


If you compare the websites of the three state-owned TV stations to each other, you will immediately see what the Randomwire article meant by saying it “could have come straight from the 1990s.” The NHK website seems overloaded to Western eyes. David cites the urban landscapes of Japan, which are covered with flashing adverts in all sizes and colors. However, I think that even people in rural areas become accustomed to reading information packed tightly into the smallest of spaces very early on. You only have to take a look at a supermarket flier or a Japanese newspaper to realize the truth of this assertion.

eine japanische Tageszeitung rhosoi/flickr

In this way, a Japanese reader becomes accustomed, from an early age, to finding what he is looking for within an apparent mess of information, without becoming visually distracted the way western readers would be.

Real Estate Websites

die deutsche Website hat einen klaren, schlichten Aufbau


auch die amerikanische Seite hat keine verspielten Elemente


auf japanischen Websites wird oft Text in Bilder eingebunden

oder auch niedliche Maskottchen verwendet


Two of the differences between Japanese and Western design, which I have noticed on many sites, can be seen on real estate websites.

While pictures in Germany and the USA either stand alone or have short text attached, in Japan, the picture is not left ‘unused’. Search engines cannot read text within pictures. Therefore, it is understandable, from an SEO standpoint, that we clearly write the relevant text in HTML for the search engines. However, the Japanese websites add alt descriptions to most of their pictures, which compensates somewhat for the resulting SEO-disadvantage.

In addition, you will notice that even a fairly mundane subject like apartment-hunting is presented using a pretty illustration.


All sites, which we have examined to this point, belong to medium- or large-scale enterprises. Even in Japan, there is a growing startup scene and, consequently, companies, which do not suffer as much from established processes and the traditional principle of seniority.

At this point, I would like to present the websites of some Japanese startups. Apart from the characters, you can find many websites similar to these on the German web.

Clicking on the pictures will take you to the respective websites.

Japanese Startups

e-shop startup stores


Geschenkservice giftee


Flohmarktapp Coconala


Flohmarktapp für Mädchen fril



On these pages, you will see web design trends that are also very popular in this country at the moment. Whether it is flat design, parallax scrolling, responsive design or large header images, these trends are also discussed extensively on Japanese web design blogs and implemented by agencies.

Parallax Scrolling

Tokioter Sehenswürdigkeit Tokyo Skytree mit Parallax Scrolling

Tokyo Skytree

Hochzeitsfotografin Hiromi Sekiguchi mit Parallax Scrolling

Marriage Photographer Hiromi Sekiguchi

Responsive Design

Friseursalon Vagu Hair mit Responsive Design

Vagu Hair

Schreibwaren Kamiya mit Responsive Design

Stationary Shop Kamiya

Große Headerbilder

Tourismuswebsite von Kirishima mit großem Headerbild

Tourism Website of Kirishima

Design Agentur Gear8 Design

Design Agency Gear8 Design

Flat Design

Punktesammelkarte T-Point im Flat Design

Point Card T-Point

Towada Oirase Kunst Festival im Flat Design

Towada Oirase Art Festival


If you look beyond the large web portals and company sites, you will also find websites in the Japanese-speaking web, which fall back on the same web trends that are also popular on German and American websites.

In addition to the language and the unfamiliar characters, there are a couple of elements, which can be found more often on Japanese websites than on Western ones.


Since the Japanese foreign ministry named a group of cute fashionistas as kawaii ambassadors in 2009, the word kawaii (=sweet, cute) has appeared on many sites in the English-speaking web. Cuteness ambassadors are hardly strange in a country, where each prefecture has its own cute little tourism mascot. Whether as icons or illustrations, kawaii can be found on many Japanese websites. Many Western websites appear really plain compared to this.  

Die Jobseite eines Kindergartens

The  career site of a kindergarten

Website einer japanischen Metzgerei

The website of a german-style bucher


Typography in web design is certainly a subject in web design blogs all over the world. On Japanese websites, one thing particularly stands out: handwritten typography. At this point, making a direct reference to Japanese calligraphy would be going too far in my opinion. However, you can certainly say that the popularity of handwritten elements is related to the writing system. In a language with over 2000 characters and an average of 35 different strokes within a single character, beautiful handwriting has an even greater effect.

Eine Website über Eventreisen für junge Frauen

A travel website targeted at young women

Die Website eines traditionellen Restaurants

The website of a traditional restaurant

This of course only a selection of Japanese web design. You will find more examples on the pages, which are the sources for this article: THE BRIDGE (Eng.), a blog containing a database of Japanese startups as well as  RWD JP  (Jap.) and MUUUUU_CHANG (Jap.), two portals for Japanese web design.

What do you think of Japanese web design?

Tell me which elements have particularly come to your attention.


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