Designing for Japanese Audiences – Part 2

Some tissue advertising I've received in and around Tokyo!

Posted By Nathan Hoernig


One more time!

Thanks for coming back and I hope you got something valuable from the first part in this series. There, we talked about typography and mobile access as two key areas to focus on when designing in Japan.

This time, we’ll be talking about some differences related to content and marketing to the right demographic.


I’d like to take the content angle from an advertising perspective.

In Japan, advertising design can usually be placed into one of two categories: service or product. From there, it’s common to focus your advertisements on either facts or feelings.

Think of it this way:

Feeling-based advertising creates a subliminal spark from the moment the ad is looked upon. The customer sees the image, has an emotional reaction, decides that they want it and then looks for more details to in lieu of getting it. This is what I like to call the “heart-to-head” method of selling.

Fact-based advertising does the exact opposite. Flashy visuals and aesthetic are sacrificed for information. A customer sees an advertisement for a product or service they are interested in. There’s nothing flashy, just the facts. Once the customer looks over the information and realizes that this product is for them, they’ve then established a “want” inside of them, therein the emotional reaction. This is the “head-to-heart” method.

On a Japanese billboard or in a train station where your audience is mainly commuters or people meeting up with friends, the latter method may lose effectivity. However, if you’re advertising in a magazine or on the train itself, you have a better chance of that potential customer giving your ad some real face time.

Coming back to what we were saying about product and service design, let’s see how most Japanese companies handle it:

Product Design

beauty ad in tokyo

When advertising products in Japan, it’s common to hit on people’s emotions and feelings first. This concept isn’t too unheard of for most foreigners as the majority of western companies advertise in the same way. Take a look at the beauty image above. It captures the essence of emotional stimulation and simplicity for people on the move.

Make a camera look cool, sleek and modern to appeal to a male audience.
Use light, bright colors to appeal to female audiences in a makeup ad. You get the picture…

Coming back to one of the most common places to find advertising in Japan, on the train, you’ll most likely see these spacious, clean, low-text advertisements of products all around you. Some of the most common advertisements, aside from the makeup and cameras, are cell phones、canned coffee and alcohol. Sometimes, as I mentioned above, you’ll even see more detailed product advertisements as the people checking em out have time to smell the “metaphorical” roses.

Here are a few examples of advertising to the heart:

Suntory beer ad in Japan

Service Design

Advertising a service, event or other information-heavy product can be quite the opposite of what we just talked about. Often times, you’ll see advertisements so laden with information, you don’t even know where to start!

Remember, when you’re on a train, there’s more time to take in the advertisements. I mentioned it in part one of this series, but people spend a lot of time on a train. If you can find someone in the market for the service you provide, you can blast them with information to get them even closer to that sale. Again, a lot of in-train service advertising is less focused on emotional connection and more-so on getting a person that much closer to making a commitment to buy.

When selling services, it’s common to put all the small details at the bottom: dates, deadlines, contact information, basic rules, guidelines, stipulations, warnings. Really, everything!

Here are some ads that utilize that mentality:

If you’re trying to advertise a service, as with any project, keep in mind your audience and the context that your potential customers will be viewing that advertisement in—especially in Japan!

If they’re on the move (and they usually are in this country), keep it simple. Save the long, drawn-out versions for spaces where you can engage your customer for longer periods.

The Silver Generation

The Japan Health Ministry estimates that the total population of Japan will decrease by 25% by 2050. What does that mean? It means that Japan’s population over the next 40 years will primarily be senior citizens. It’d be foolish not to consider them when building your designs. Even if they’re not in your target market, with a number like that, it may be worthwhile to double check and make sure you can’t hit upon them as well.

In a time when technology and the digital world are evolving, it’s natural to assume that your audiences can roll with the advances. However, as with all design, it’s important to consider your audience when you’re promoting a service or product. Unfortunately, especially in Japan’s current state, older generations are not so hard-wired to the digital platforms of today. Because of that, you have to connect to them in a way that lays out all the details in an easy to understand “newbie” manner.

Spelling it Out

Let’s say we’re talking about a poster or banner. Always include obvious information. Even if it’s obvious and any average person can get it, odds are good that the elderly may not. Especially if it’s related to the internet or modern technology. If you want your customer to go to a web page, don’t just show the web address. Allow your users another technique for accessing your content on the web.

One of the big things you often see in lieu of stating the digitally “obvious” is a rendering of an internet search engine with the companies search keyword and an arrow over the search button. Something like this:

metropolitan hotels ad in japan

A younger generation user (who’s understanding and use of the web is second nature) may not need such guidance. However, for older generations who weren’t raised with computer technology in their homes and on their devices, this may be beneficial.

To Summarize

Through the two parts of this series, we’ve looked at 5 points regarding graphic design in Japan. Of course, these are all general and your projects will differ depending on their nature—that’s just how most graphic design is. However, as a base, take the following things into consideration.

  1. Typography – are you doing all you can to ensure that your message is communicated clearly and with aesthetically pleasing text?
  2. Mobility – Japan is just too mobile. If you’re designing digitally, make sure you know whether your audience will be accessing your project/campaign on the move and on small screens.
  3. Heart or Head? – Are you selling to the emotional or logical side of your customer? Figure it out and sculpt your work accordingly.
  4. Audience – Have you taken into account all the people looking at your piece? Good!
  5. Older Generations – They’re the dominant population of modern Japan. Be dominant in your field by acknowledging and respecting it in your materials.

If you’re looking for more information about designing for Japanese audiences, or would like some help starting off a project of your own, please contact us. We’d love to hear what you’re working on!

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