I recently returned from a trip to Osaka, Japan. This was my fourth trip to the country, and I truly love spending time there. This time around, I realized that while Japan is viewed as a highly-innovative country (I admit, I would pay massive amounts of money for a fancy Japanese toilet), they seem to be a bit behind the times when it comes to the Internet.
While I was visiting, I spent plenty of time browsing Japanese websites for a variety of reasons. Whether it was checking reviews for one of the hundreds of different restaurants in the area (食べログ is Japan's equivalent to Yelp here in the United States, focused solely on restaurants and cafes), finding my way through Osaka's subways or doing some online shopping at Rakuten to take advantage of quick and cheap shipping of Japanese products, I was browsing Japanese-based sites a lot more than American-based sites every single day during my trip.
If you clicked on any of those links above, you'll probably notice that those websites follow very different web design principals than the typical website made from companies based in the United States. Where American websites are - for the most part - cleaner with more liberal uses of whitespace and sensible typography, Japanese websites are visually busy with a lot of color and tons of information scattered all over the place.
It's a very noticeable difference in styles. In reality, the Japanese style of websites doesn't surprise me. This colorfulness is evident on almost all Japanese television shows. For example, here's an episode of my favorite Japanese TV show from Osaka (unsurprisingly, the show's website follows the trend of lots of color and information everywhere):
In the U.S., what's considered to be good web design principles (highly subjective, but that's another topic for another day) seem to change on a yearly basis. It got me thinking why websites like this exist in Japan with little change in the past couple of years, and outside of the obvious cultural differences between our countries, I have a few other ideas about it.
Most of my theory is based on the age of the general population in Japan. About 39% of the Japanese population is 55 years of age or older (compared to about 27% in the U.S.). I'm not saying that the people in this group are Luddites who oppose all new advances in technology, but I believe it plays a huge role since a large part of that 39% of the population has no knowledge or any interest in the Internet, leading to a lot less development in this area of technology.
This thinking might not be entirely true, but I can relate to it based on a conversation during my trip. My girlfriend's parents were pretty worried about me because they can't figure out what I do for a living despite my girlfriend and I trying to explain as simply as possible. They have been running a successful company for decades and don't have any sort of presence on the Internet because they don't have any idea about how or why they would need something like the Internet when they've been doing things well for so long. I'm sure a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses in Japan have similar thoughts about the whole Internet thing.
I think the average age of population plays a big part when it comes to Japan being very risk-averse in general. Places like San Francisco's Bay Area are built on tech companies taking huge gambles with people investing large sums of money in unproven commodities. This mentality doesn't exist in Japan, where stability and certainty are highly valued - as evidenced by my girlfriend's parents. This, in turn, promotes stagnation. You can see this having negative effects in the long run like it's been happening with large companies like Sony and Panasonic, who have faltered in recent years due to fewer innovations as compared to their heyday 30 years ago.
Additionally, the startup scene seems to be very tiny, especially outside of Tokyo. From what I've seen, it's a combination of the aforementioned risk aversion that prevents people from daring to build something new, and the fact that it's very difficult to get any significant funding to get things rolling. According to a 2012 New York Times article, total VC investments in 2011 for Japanese companies were less than 3% of total investments made in Silicon Valley alone. That's pretty crazy, considering that Japan is the third largest economy in the world.
In recent years, there have been positive developments in this area for Japan. The government is taking more initiatives like creating a funded incubator that will send Japanese companies to Silicon Valley. There are new events being created like Slush Asia that can help promote and inspire the startup scene. Also, I believe the younger generation is seeing that the antiquated way of thinking about lifetime employment in the same company is not the way to go anymore. But it seems like there's a lot more work to be done, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it all shapes up for them and their future.