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From ‘samurai’ to ‘Hello Kitty,’ search data show how the world’s view of Japan has changed

by

Special To The Japan Times

Has the image of Japan as the land of Hello Kitty upstaged its perception as a country full of swaggering samurai and mincing geisha in the Western mind? That’s what the latest Web analytics data would seem to indicate.

Japan apparently first entered the Western psyche in the 15th century as European traders expanded eastward. Cartographers called the country Cipangu in its first depiction on a Western map in 1453; the first recorded use of Giapan in English came in 1577.

Today, Web analytics tools provide data visualizations of a radically more powerful kind to understand shifting views of Japan. “Cipangu,” a word used by merchant explorer Marco Polo, was apparently adopted by Portuguese traders from Chinese dialects to indicate Japan. Google’s Ngram Viewer, a tool that searches Google’s digital book library, draws a graph that shows “Japan” had already vastly eclipsed “Cipangu” in the English corpus by the earliest date in Ngram’s library of 1800.

Some of the first literary references to provide a sense of how Westerners in the 19th century viewed Japanese culture appear soon thereafter. The words samurai and geisha enter Ngram almost as soon as data begins in 1800. “Samurai” starts to take off from the 1820s, while “geisha” comes into more common use from the 1840s. “Samurai” continues its rise almost to the new millennium, but “geisha” plateaus from around 1940.

For a more granular view of the past decade since Google’s search engine took off, Google Trends measures the frequency of Web search terms relative to total search volume from 2004 through the present. The term “samurai” continues to reign over “geisha” in the new millennium, but “geisha” has a brief moment of glory in 2006, when it eclipses the term “samurai” soon after the release of the film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which was sold here as “Sayuri.”

Then, in 2007, something notable happens: Hello Kitty overtakes “samurai” as a popular search term. It retains its dominance for several years, a time that produced headlines like “Hello Kitty products target young males,” before subsiding into rough parity with “samurai” at the present.

Google Trends searches are “black boxes” into which one can read only so much without understanding Google’s “secret sauce” algorithms. But given how much perceptions of Japan have changed in recent decades, it’s perhaps not pushing things too far to take the triumph of “Hello Kitty” over “samurai” as a proxy for the shifting view of Japan from one of a warlike nation to that of the nonthreatening (notwithstanding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for remilitarization), ineffably cute land of “Cool Japan.”

Taking this trend to its logical conclusion, the Japanese word for “cute,” kawaii, barely registers a blip until 2010. But by November 2015, “kawaii” is up to nine relative to samurai and Hello Kitty’s 20 on Google Trends’ scale of 0-100.

A sign of a continuing softening of Japan’s image in the English-speaking mind to come? Hard to say, but it should be noted that aside from a brief spike after the release of the latest Godzilla film in 2014, Hello Kitty also maintains her dominance over the iconic Japanese monster for the entire decade covered by Google Trends.

A more macro view presented by going back to 1990 in Ngram also shows more neutral cultural indicators of Cool Japan, anime and sushi trending steadily upward, while “samurai” just manages to hold steady.

At the moment, both “Hello Kitty” and “kawaii” have also eclipsed “geisha” in the world’s imagination. Once again, it’s dangerous to draw conclusions with nontransparent data, but one could speculate that the image of Japan as the land of cute has overtaken its image as a country of exotic sexuality.

Eclipsing all cultural indicators, however, are keywords that represent Japan’s continuing reputation for manufacturing prowess. Toyota registers close to the top of the 0-100 scale throughout the Google Search decade from 2004 to 2015, while “Godzilla,” “Hello Kitty” and “samurai” generally remain at 10 or under.

Sony can take some comfort in the fact that, despite its recent woes, the electronics giant still maintains a lead over all major Japanese companies in search queries in the English-speaking world surveyed by Google Trends. No doubt this is due not only to iconic products like the Walkman but also to the international nature of Sony, with its Sony Pictures and Sony Music arms. “Sony” beats not only “Toyota,” but also “samurai,” “anime,” and even that most popular of Japanese delights, “sushi.”

Google Trends also offers insights into the regional popularity of search terms. Unsurprisingly, Southeast Asia remains the area most under Japan’s cultural spell. The Philippines ranks at the top for both “samurai” and “Hello Kitty,” as well as a term symbolic of contemporary Japan like “anime.”

Compared to its rivals worldwide, Japan can also find some relief in the fact that even as its economy slips behind that of China, the country remains a close third to China’s second in terms of worldwide search queries, with both countries trailing America.

Japan does top the graph of searches on Google Trends for one brief sad period. As you might imagine, that was in 2011, the year of the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake.

  • ltlee1

    Well, Japan had worked hard in protraying itself as a victim since the end of WWII. First as the only people that had been nucleared bombed, and then as the servant of its US master because it had been defeated. Natural diasaters also help.

    In addition, Japanese as a people also mellow with time. It has outgrown its aggressive and expansionist phase. So, Japanese are indeed better people. The same could be said about the German people. Neverthelss, as long as Japan is not learning its lesson in history, it is likely to become aggressive again when manipulated or dominated by external force or forces.

    In comparison, Han Chinese had stopped being an aggressive expansionist force since Han Wudi’s time 2000 years ago. But China was still expansionist in Tang and Qing dynasty.

    • Aiden

      I think there’s a distinct different between the foreign policy of national governments, and the search results of cultural artifacts. Be careful when you compare them. This article points to nothing about international conflict except immaturely using the word “rivals” at the last paragraph.

      When you use language that promotes conflict, conflict will be promoted.

      • ltlee1

        Your point being …
        I explicitly wrote: “Japanese are indeed better people.” With or without “Hello Kitty.” But it still could be misled.

  • DA

    And Sony Playstation, obviously.

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    ‘Hello Kitty’, not ‘War crime denials’ and ‘Whaling’?

  • Red Chairman Toad

    Stereotypes and ethnocentrism always persist. Neither samurai or Hello Kitty represent the whole Japanese culture.

    • tisho

      Actually they do, they represent the copy-cat culture of Japan, Hello Kitty is a copycat stolen from another much earlier character called Musti, and Samurai originated in China, later Japan decided to reinvent it in their own country.

      • Red Chairman Toad

        It seems to me Japanese don’t care where certain cultural things are originally from. But “Japanese” curry, kimchi, ramen, cherry blossoms, etc. are mostly better than the original ones.

        Koreans are rather obsessed with originality. Chinese don’t care about copyrights violations. … of course they are only my stereotypes…

      • tisho

        Oh really, try asking any random Japanese – why do Japanese people always copy Europe and America? See what happens. If you tell someone – Toyota copied European car models, Godzilla is a copy cat, hello kitty is copied.. you will find yourself in a very unpleasant situation, trust me. Their first reaction will be – really? i think you misunderstand something, we Japanese never copy, Koreans only copy us! On the other hand they are completely obsessed with others, in particular Koreans copying them. I’ve seen something like dozens of youtube videos and actual tv shows where they would compare Korean things to Japanese ones and talk trash about them how they would always copy Japan, yet at the same time they are utterly blind and unaware that everything they have is copied from others too. This is the delusional syndrome that i was not able to endure anymore.

      • Red Chairman Toad

        I don’t know, don’t care specific cases, but they have usually copied each other over time, about which I don’t think it is a serious problem.

        In my view, many “copied” Japanese cases turn out to be better in quality, become popular than the original ones. By contrast Chinese have copied Disney characters (copyrights infringements, though), their quality is terrible and visibly identifiable. Many Korean snacks in Japanese disguise have bad taste.

      • tisho

        Yes, and i have no problem with copying others and trying to improve the product in general. Many Japanese copies are much better than the original ones, i agree with that. My problem is when you blatantly steal something, change few things to make it better and then sell it to the world as your own original idea, and refuse to acknowledge you have copied it, or give any credit to the original creator. I would have no problem if they at least give credit to the original creator and admit they did not invent any of these things, instead they believe from the bottom of their hearts that they have created everything, from hello kitty, their auto industry, godzilla, manga, pop culture.. traditional culture, religion, clothing.. everything, they believe it’s theirs, they truly believe they are this great creative country that comes up with these things and Korea only wants to copy them. That is my problem. At least they should have the common sense to keep a low profile when they literally copy cat the whole world, instead their audacity have no boundaries, they go off their way to constantly criticize Korea for copying every little thing from Japan, while being brutally ignorant and unaware of their own history of copy cat stealing others. At first it didn’t bother me this much, but this delusional mentality applies to everything, they do things to you that they hate you doing to them, and when you call them on it they refuse to admit their fault and reject everything, it just drives me to insanity.

      • Gertrude Pecker

        Wow, all you do is spend all day bashing Japan, looks like you have an inferiority complex.

      • Gertrude Pecker

        Wow, all you do is spend all day bashing Japan, looks like you have an inferiority complex.

      • 大千釜 創雷

        Bashing Japan on the Internet on a daily basis, yet still live in Japan? Haven’t saved enough money to move to another country yet, I suppose?

  • thedudeabidez

    If we’re measuring Japan’s popularity through Google searches, I’d bet “Aoi Sora” tops them all.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      LOLZ! For sure!

  • tisho

    Nothing from this list originates from Japan. Neither Godzilla – copied from ”The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, neither Hello Kitty – copied from much earlier character called ”Musti”, neither Toyota – copied from European car models, neither Geisha – originates in China, neither Samurai – originates in China, neither Anime, abbreviated from ”Animation” – originates in the United States, Manga introduced in Japan during the brief Japanese occupation after WW2.

  • tisho

    Nothing from this list originates from Japan. Neither Godzilla – copied from ”The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, neither Hello Kitty – copied from much earlier character called ”Musti”, neither Toyota – copied from European car models, neither Geisha – originates in China, neither Samurai – originates in China, neither Anime, abbreviated from ”Animation” – originates in the United States, Manga introduced in Japan during the brief Japanese occupation after WW2.

  • 大千釜 創雷

    Cultural influence is not a “copy”. The very alphabet that you are using right now is also a result of cultural influence from another country, Greece. I have never seen anyone call the English, German, Spanish and other Western alphabets “copies” of the ancient Greek. Thus, to call Samurai a “copy” is ridiculous and absurd.