Japanese packages are beautiful. One after another. Old-fashioned Japanese buildings, Japanese posters, and so on, are also gorgeous. Even the Japanese flag is better-looking than other flags. The look of the IBM Thinkpad came from bento boxes. Why is Japanese visual design so great?
The usual answer is that Japan is an island, with scarce resources, therefore the Japanese learned to do much with little. This might explain a certain minimalism but there are plenty of island countries with undistinguished visual aesthetics.
My answer is different. It starts with the fact that Japan has a very large coastline/area ratio. It isn’t just an island, it’s a skinny island. That’s why the Japanese eat so much seafood. Seafood has a mild flavor. To preserve variety, you cannot spice it much otherwise everything ends up tasting like the spice. The differences between different fish are lost. This is why Japanese cuisine is weakly-flavored.
This created a problem for cooks. If the main food is weakly-flavored, everything else must also be. You want to show you care but you cannot do it with time-consuming complex sauces (such as harisa or mole, which takes a whole afternoon to make) or complex spice mixtures (such as curries) or complex cooking methods (French, Chinese). You are basically serving raw or lightly-cooked food with almost no spices. The solution — the way to show you cared — was presentation. The emotional energy of Japanese cooks went into making their food beautiful. Japanese food isn’t just the least-flavored of all major cuisines, it is also by quite a bit the best-looking. That’s how it started. Japanese cooks figured out how to make food beautiful. The lessons they learned and taught (at every meal!) spread to other design. When you grow up surrounded by beautiful things, as Japanese designers do, it helps you make beautiful things.
A friend of mine is a Chinese design student. She has met Japanese design students. How do they explain it? I asked her. They didn’t talk about it, she said. “We communicated in English. Their English is even worse than mine.”