Japanese vs. English Visual Processing Comparison

I had a revelation, of sorts, regarding a bit of psycholinguistics.  One of my first culture shocks in Japan was entering a store and feeling visually assaulted with information.  The signs were everywhere, hanging off of everything in terrible color contrast, everything striving for attention simultaneously.  I saw this same thing repeated over and over in other stores, down streets, in trains, and especially on TV advertisements.

In America, good designers pride themselves on the ability to make an impact with minimal resources (visually speaking).  Sometimes in America we see huge billboards that are almost completely blank, and have a small graphic or text logo.  These are effective in America because we are drawn to the information surrounded by “negative space”.  Negative space is a big fancy design word for area where there isn’t much or any information.  This could be the white/empty parts of a webpage, or even the individual spaces between words.

The last point is where I had my realization.  In English, our ability to quickly parse meaning out of text and written words is aided by the spaces between words, after punctuation, as well as indentation and line breaks.  WhenItypesomethinglikethisitsveryhardforyoutoreadquickly.  It’s possible, but its noticeably slower than reading a portion of text that has customary spacing.

Japanese text on the other hand, doesn’t rely on this technique much at all.  Instead it is quickly processed by reading of Kanji clusters which contain primary blocks of meaning.  These kanji clusters are interspersed with hiragana which are used for phonetic purposes as well as grammaticalizing the kanji as well as representing uncommon words and grammatical bits and pieces.  Japanese design doesn’t focus on negative space at all, instead it seems to get as much meaning to you in as little space as possible.  To that end it gets crammed into and onto anything and everything where ever space is available, and sometimes where it isn’t readily.

I havn’t done any academic studies on this, but it seems like a pretty direct correlation.  My knowledge of visual language processing is limited to one university course of Cognitive Psychology and a linguistics major, but I think it’s intuitively obvious that something’s going on here.  I’d be interested to know what you think.



Filed under musing

4 responses to “Japanese vs. English Visual Processing Comparison

  1. danielle

    Interesting thoughts, Mark~!

    I think you’re on to something regarding the lack of space in Japanese texts and the corresponding lack of space in their advertising.

    Traditionally, I had heard that the consideration for negative space was a big deal for Japanese artists – I wonder if this concern is decreasing? Painting and ikebana, especially, seem to be arts where intentional absences are especially appreciated. Perhaps as the philosophies and lifestyles that supported these arts recede, the care taken regarding negative space in other art forms recedes also? Not sure! Time for me to do some reading on this.

  2. Mjohnson

    Is this true in rural Japan as well as urban Japan? This is sort of way out there and may have absolutely no relevance but could the fact that much of Japan is compressed into small spaces have something to do with it?

  3. Jack

    I see two ideas here: one has to do with design and the use of space; the other has to do with how to make language processing easier by chunking information.

    With regard to the first idea, if you’re talking about visual art, then I’m with Danielle (see, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma_(negative_space) ). If you mean something like sparing use of text in ads (Nike’s Just Do It, etc.), though, then I’m not sure.

    I find myself thinking about the second idea more. Let’s assume that every spoken or written language will be processed more successfully if it separates running text into words or units somehow. How could it do this? In speech, this could be assisted by adding pauses between units or by use of stress on each word. In a written language, this could be done by adding spaces or dots between each word or, as you point out, by using kanji for the roots.

    I guess what I’m saying is that I think your observation about the use of kanji to place emphasis on the roots in Japanese is interesting, and I wonder if stress has the same function in speech: both are ways to punch out the content of the message.

  4. Coming back to this idea a long time later after my Japanese reading level is a lot higher, I stand by what I said before. I think that the idea of “ma” within a single advertisement is definitely an extant, tangible design principle in Japan. Rather, the thing that struck me was the lack of space between separate advertisements, signs, and things in general.

    What I realize now is that this is more likely a geographically related point. Japan’s cities are extremely dense, even the rural areas are relatively densely populated compared to America. The utilization of space is very different between these two countries, and I think that this plays true for stores too. The need to maximize usable space is greater than the aesthetic value of preserving negative space.

    Thus, I think that Jack’s probably right about them being separate, and likely unrelated things.

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