May 11, 2012 The importance of localisation in Japan

Francis Fung
International Business Manager
User Experience Department

Juu nin to iro – old Japanese proverb

Literally translated it means "Ten people, ten colours" or as we would it is known in the West, "Different strokes for different folks". That couldn't be more true when it comes to UX and web design for the Japanese market.

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the UX Masterclass 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The UX Masterclass is a bi-annual event organised by the UXalliance (a global collective of 25 UX companies), in which people interested in UX can gather to attend presentations, meet fellow practitioners and exchange ideas. Key speakers attend from all around the globe, and the final presentation of the UX Masterclass is always the "Around the World Panel". This presentation is made up of smaller speeches given by various speakers representing the country they are based in. Topics covered include interesting customs, UX and design trends in each country. Seeing all the countries lined up one after another makes one realise that the way each country uses the internet and how websites are designed for each country varies; however none more so than Japan.

Having represented Japan in the Around the World Panel, I was surprised by the amount of people who approached me afterwards to ask questions about UX web design in Japan. Most people simply assumed the Japanese market was simply like any other market; that it was just a case of translating or porting their existing international site in Japanese text. However, that is the mentality which trips up and hinders many international companies wishing to break into Japan. Here I will highlight a few of the key differences and points between UX web design in Japanese websites and Western (American / European) sites. From these points, hopefully one can see the importance of user testing and localisation of an international site in Japan before releasing a website in the Japanese market.

Clean is boring?

As a generalisation, Japanese websites are full of banners, information and pictures; and by comparison many Western sites tend to aim for a style like the Apple website; clean and simple. However, many Japanese people may consider this style of website as boring, dull and bland. The feeling is that it lacks energy, vibrancy and excitement. The user isn't stimulated enough to want to use the site. An example of a hugely successful Japanese site is Rakuten. Rakuten is one of the biggest portal sites in Japan, providing many services across different industries. On their food and eating out site, the page is absolutely packed with graphics and information. It simply overwhelms the eyes with colourful flashing banners and adverts and everything is fighting for your attention all at once. Although it may appear that there is too much information, and some UX practitioners may not consider it the best in terms of usability; most likely this style and layout is strategic as Rakuten is indeed popular and successful with Japanese users.

Icons and animals

Japan has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world, with roughly 78% of the population connected via pc's or mobile devices. It is this fact that places Japan as third in the list of countries with most internet users, and is one of the most desirable markets to break into. Many global companies with standardised and templated sites recognise this point and have adjusted their sites accordingly to suit Japanese tastes. The examples I will refer to include the portal site of Yahoo and also the travel site Expedia. Both are huge international companies with template sites that simply convert the text language when for most other countries. However, for Japan, not only does the language change, but also the images, layout and even finer details such as the icons. Yahoo in the West has clean and flat 2D icons similar to what one might expect from App icons. In Japan, Yahoo has 3D pixel art reminiscent of old video game graphics, which gives the site a friendly, cute and playful feeling. This is what interests Japanese users and also it's this love of cute and pretty things that leads the design trend of big Japanese sites. Apart from playful icons, most sites or brands for that matter will also incorporate cute symbols or mascots. More often than not, these symbols and mascots come in the form of cute animals. The example shown at the UX Masterclass was of the Expedia website. This example if perfect for highlighting the rigid fixed template it uses for nearly all other countries; clean, clear, simple and structured. Then suddenly upon entering the localised Japanese site, the user is again met with a barrage of colourful banners and advertisements, and most obviously a huge dancing bear. The bear has become the main flag bearer for Expedia Japan and even has its own televisions and Expedia credit card.

Making such bold changes to their usually template global site somewhat goes to highlight the importance of the Japanese market and also how sometimes you do need to follow market trends and be aware of cultural and localisation issues, even if it means breaking traditional and simple usability rules. Again, some may consider it less usable or well designed, but it works and is successful in Japan.

How should I input my name?

A very common and yet critical issue which many directly translated international sites face is in the form fields page. Usually the user has reached a page where important information is required, such as a payment page; only to be confused and frustrated by unclear form fields and leave.

To explain it simply, in Japan there are at least 4 main ways to input information. 3 Japanese character systems (Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji) and also the English alphabet. If a user is not clearly prompted on how to enter the information, they may face error messages over and over again and then if they still cannot figure out the correct format, will simply switch to another site that does clearly explain how to input information. Such fine yet obvious differences can only be found through testing in the local country, and one cannot simply assume all users globally will input in English characters, especially if the rest of the site is translated into Japanese.

Likewise, one cannot simply assume that the order of writing and inputting information is the same throughout the world. In most countries, especially in the West, addresses are written with the door or building number first, branching out to the street, city and then postcode. In Japan, it's the exact opposite, going from general to detailed, from postcode to prefecture, to city, town and then building and door number. To make matters even more interesting, in Japan there are no street names inputted into websites. Japan in general rarely uses street names, instead opting for a numbered area system.


In short, this probably applies to most countries that a company would like their international site or business to break into; the site needs to be tested locally, and especially if the target market is Japan. There are so many cultural and localisation issues in addition to the main points above. Without testing and blindly launching a translated site may not only cost the business in terms of lost revenue, but also in user loyalty and brand trust, which has even more weight in Japan than most other countries. So as the old Japanese proverb says, "Ten people, ten colours", although you'll find that Japanese users may need colours than expected.

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