9 Reasons Japanese Interactive Work Is Awesome

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In my continued judging of the One Show Interactive awards there’s one thing that’s really starting to stand out. Japanese agencies are doing some outstanding work right now.

Every year that I’ve been fortunate enough to judge international awards there’s always a couple of great examples of Japanese work. But the majority of the work that I’m painfully jealous of this year comes from Japan. Of course there’s great US, Swedish, British and Brazilian stuff – as usual. But there’s something noticeably special and standout about some of the Japanese stuff.

And here’s why I think that is…

Disclaimer: I’m making a bunch of assumptions and cultural generalisations here, sorry for any that are crude and inaccurate.

1. The work is polite

– Japanese stuff doesn’t shove itself on the Internet going: POW. LOOK AT ME. I AM THE BEST THING EVER! Culturally it’s subtle. It’s reserved. It’s aware of status and hierarchy. But at the same time it’s not all about the big ‘i am’.I’m sure I’ve whanged on about it before. But in a networked environment where we all have the same access to pixels and characters assuming that yours are somehow better than others’ is wrong wrong wrong. Your stuff has to earn its place in peoples eye-holes. It doesn’t have a god given right to be there. It feels like a lot of the Japanese work I love gets this.

2. The work isn’t driven by TV advertising

I’m not sure why. Hopefully someone can fill me in on this. But almost none of the great work feels like it’s tied in with TV campaigns. The awesome stuff has been considered digital-out. Rather than TV-in.That’s not to say that you can’t get awesome stuff starting with TV. It’s just that when the digital stuff feels like a follow-on rather than a lead there’s a quality about it you can really feel.

3. The work draws from a culture of games, comics and technology

Rather than drawing on cues from TV advertising it feels like Japanese designers are pulling from their really advanced cultures of:

  • Gaming – which gives the work a sense of fun, progressive engagement, hookiness, atmosphere, character development (and importantly not necessarily of human characters).
  • Comics – which drives oddness, playfulness and escape from reality.
  • Technology – obviously having a culture that’s proud of and excited by technology is going to put you in an interesting place when you’re developing for the digital space. Certainly it’s going to lead to more advanced stuff than a culture of basket-weavers. I think tied in with this is their ability to code amazing sites. Sites that are driven by technological wizardry but without feeling overly geeky. Or sometimes that do feel very geeky.

4. Advanced mobile and blogging cultures

It’s hard to pin down the exact numbers and percentages (I had a go but my researching skills are weak), but Japan undoubtedly has a hugely vibrant blogging scene with some surveys suggesting that there are more Japanese language blogs than English ones. And it’s always had a particularly strong mobile Internet for lots of reasons.

Both of these things have led to a particularly strong sense of personal media space. Something which I think a lot of agencies struggle with. They’re not thinking about peoples spaces they’re thinking about their sites, or media owners sites. And the rules are quite different.

5. Distribution

Probably connected to point 4. But the notion of widgets (or blog parts as they’re called in Japan) is really strong and central to lots of the work. Many of the campaigns don’t feel like they have a big heavy base, they exist in lots of places that all connect together in a logical way. Which makes things feel progressive and smart as the world stands today.

6. Craft

There’s an attention to detail and a crispness about the digital craft that shines through in a lot of the work. I think this might be massively linked into (2) – so rather than trying to make everything look like TV ads it can look like brilliant and interesting digital stuff instead. I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the incidence of bad green screen presenters is low…

7. Some of it is a bit strange

Often this makes it feel really fresh and it makes you work a bit harder, in a good way. The sense that there’s a little something that you don’t quite ‘get’ is something that I think has a peculiar attraction. A bit of Especially for geeks.

8. Japaneseness

this is just cheating really. But it is something that I think helps Japanese work to win awards. It’s a strange combo of being slightly culturally exotic and the fact that their character set looks slightly exotic (and to a lot of peoples’ eyes quite beautiful). But this is only a supporting factor in the whole picture – otherwise the Chinese / Korean / Malaysian work would be shining through in the same way. And this year it isn’t.

9. They’re having fun with it

Simple as that. It feels like there’s a love for the work that’s going on. Like people are enjoying doing awesome stuff. And there’s no way you can fake that.

What’s the downside?

Their stuff can take a very long time to load outside of Japan.

Here’s some links to some of my favourite campaigns (again not saying that any of this is going to win – it’s just some incredible Japanese stuff that I’ve liked along the way)…

Some Standout Work From Japan

Here’s some stuff that illustrates some of the points above. Most of these links are to awards entry pages where you’ll get a bit of an introduction to the campaigns (although some of them are very much in Engrish)…

Love Distance


An amazing campaign where 2 lovers from opposite ends of Japan run to each other. So many facets to it. Including a boy site and a girl site that keeps the audiences separate until the end. It almost made me cry. It’s for condoms by the way. That’s why they end up 0.02mm apart.

Gassaku for Intel


It’s a really deep and multi layered campaign that involves getting people creating things. I’m not sure I quite get all of it. But there’s something very cool about chunks of it.

Axe Chocoman Hunter


Axe Chocoman hunter. Takes the chocoman that we know from the ads and ramps it up into a massive promotion involving a character that travels from phone to phone. With a contest where the winner gets 1% of all Axe profits. It’s bonkers.

Tokyu Hands Mushi Battle

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A kind of creative beetle battle for a craft / department store called Tokyu Hands. It’s not as crazily engaging as some of the other things it just feels very very cool.

Honda EditSCREEN

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Honda Edit Screen. This culminates in a screensaver – which I know is listed as one of my old 7 Deadly Sins of Digital. But I don’t care. This site is just super-cute and shows the extreme craft skills of some of the Japanese agencies. Even though most of the site is in a language I don’t understand the interface is straightforward, slick and amazing. It’s basically a massive multi-user artwork generator.

The Last Guy

It’s a campaign a bit like the Balloon Race we did for Orange, but it’s for a Playstation Game and it’s got Zombies in it roaming over the web. It’s kind of different because a lot of the interaction with the individual sites is done using screen grabs. But even so it knows how to lay out the game-space so the right bits of the page are walls, etc.

Click the switch below to turn Crackunit into a zombie game. Go on. Go on. I dare you…

Because of the big header graphic playing it here isn’t the best experience. But the game has had 6.6m plays. Which is totally insane.

Adidas Hello! Runners Map


And I think my favourite of all is this campaign for Adidas Running. They’ve got a tough challenge given the Nike+ thing that’s gone down. But they’ve pulled something amazing out of the bag. You create your running maps, so far so good. Then it uses Google Street View to show your run inside a widget which is FANTASTIC. Also what they’ve done with the whole mapping interface and Flash is a joy to behold.

So that’s some of the stuff that’s been making me excited about the scene in Japan. I hope you like some of it too.

55 thoughts on “9 Reasons Japanese Interactive Work Is Awesome”

  1. There were a few of these (and other) pieces in the ADC Awards this year and they do stand out. I’d like to experience some of them on Japan’s blazing bandwidth though because the long loads were a bit painful sometimes.

    I think you’re cheating with your list though! The first two define the rest.

    I just finished reading Kenya Hara’s Designing Design. It explains a lot of what you are responding to as well as why it is part of the Japanese culture. (I wrote a long review of it too if you want to look on the Designer’s Review of Books, I’ll refrain from plugging a link).

  2. Indeed, they are pumping out some amazing work. I’m just waiting to see when they will get off the pixel font kick, srsly….

  3. Thanks so much for sharing all of these in one (mega)post!
    I think their secret lies in your 9th point: they’re enthusiastic about what they do.
    Looking at these examples, you can almost imagine the development process – how many times they said, “yeah!… and we could do *this* too!”
    It feels like the people involved have moved beyond ‘doing a job’, to doing something they really believe in and enjoy.
    That’s probably the reason the craft bit (point 6) is so evident.

  4. yep great stuff for me the power is knowing the culture of the market you are operating in

  5. Thanks for this list. Need to properly spend some time with it all but the first one – Long Distance is superb. A great idea with a great story (i think thats key) brilliantly brought to life.

  6. Nice.

    I saw an exhibition at the Science Museum called Japan Car and they aligned the Japanese design ethic with the art of growing Bonsai trees. Which had been born out of their geographical situation.

    Tonally and creatively I guess it’s kind of like being ‘Supernormal’


  7. Have to agree. Somewhere deep in Google I’ve bookmarked the best online game I’ve ever come across. I don’t play online games or even really make the effort with consoles but that’s a bias I need to get a grip on however….this little online game is so simple and yet so great I keep coming back to it.

    I also think that the Uniqlo stuff is beyond comparison. Only the Japanese would really convey that ballet is an amazing telescopic view into European historic arts without coming across as contrived. It worked with the Uniqlo clock and yet I can’t imagine a European team somehow making our own culture shine so beautifully in a digital way. The Japanese did.

    Anyway I’ve found that game(Google bookmarks). It’s still online all these years later and I wish I could embed it on my blog. I believe any likeness between me and the European head butting protagonist is purely coincidental :)


  8. I’m really quite pleased with the Japanese work. It’s inspiring. I really think the BBH Chocolate Man App is below the mark though and found their win for Oasis at the Andy’s fairly suspicious and sad. How can an award show award the top level prize to a non-agency client that was only posted on MySpace? Crazy. I’m looking forward to more of your insights and perspectives on new trends.

  9. R U kidding me? The Axe works is just bad, hasn’t broken past the main stream and has contaminated what once a great ground breaking campaign. The USA work that is.

  10. Great to read this post Ian.
    I wrote a similar post about one month ago:

    I most of all appreciate the “distribution” approach of their work. The campaigns manage to live and grow outside of the website from which they have been generated, and this is a great example of the new meaning we should give to the word “viral”

  11. The Axe Chocoman work is good for its intended audience. Perhaps it wouldn’t work with Europeans or Americans, but it fits the Japanese context. I would actually go so far as to say this is a great piece of activity – the important thing is engaging your audience and achieving what you intend. The results seem to show that happened.

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