After a discussion with Paul last week, he forwarded me a great link about the fashion of traditional Japanese workclothes (I would like to get one of those wide blue pants, as the toed shoes 30cm long are beyond hope).
The manufacturers’ pages (Kaseyama, Toraichi) are a good example of the typical use of text and images for textual representation in Japanese web design. What do you want Google’s or Altavista’s translation engines to make out of text written in images?
This is one (small) reason to stick to a standards-based approach, making use of the technologies as they were meant to be used. Content re-purposing is possible only if the content is packaged in a semantically correct way, which makes it possible to access meaningful parts of the content automatically.
In the examples above, titles (elements that are particularly important to understand a page) and the navigation (particularly important to understand the site) are images, and therefore cannot be translated automatically. Obviously the translation issue is not very important: people who can’t read Japanese are not a target of those companies, and if they were, the company would actually provide English pages, as some do.
But it is a real hindrance when dealing with crucial issues such as a site’s findability in search engines, and the compliance with disability laws (rarely applicable to non-public-service sites, of course, and I don’t know if any exist yet in Japan).
Japanese screen typography is difficult. I see two main reasons to this: the characteristics of the glyphs used in Japanese (particularly their varying level of detail in a fixed sqare size), and the latin-centered technical solutions used on the web. (The focus on English-language parameters in computer issues is clear, and the efforts to deal with international parameters — Unicode for example — are still a long way from being universally available, because some English-centered vendors still ignore the issue, and also because alternative, region-specific solutions are still used by many vendors of those regions, in a severe case of fox-and-stork mutual disrespect.)
The difficulty posed by the inherent characteristics of the Japanese script is addressed by typographers and graphic designers. A visual vocabulary is developing that takes into account the properties of the web (available fonts, typical resolution and definition, typical context of use), and answers the demands of communication (general legibility, visual hierarchy, recognition of the function of various elements).
It is to be hoped that the available tools will be able to support such a visual vocabulary in a technically appropriate manner. If not, designers will continue to resort to images to achieve the desired effect, bearing the many adverse side effects of such a flawed choice in order to answer their core need of visual quality in the communication they design.