The Japanese are more interested in iTunes than in ring-tones, ramen rather than sushi, the economy more than sex, and dogs win out over cats (but only just). That’s what Google Trends, the keyword-tracking tool launched in Japan last month, would have us believe.

Google Trends measures the frequency keywords are entered into the popular Internet search engine. Available in English for a couple of years now, it has just been made compatible with the Japanese language. Dedicated to tracking the quirks and shifting tides of Japanese public opinion, Week 3 wasted no time in putting it to the test.

We started with something close to the heart: “beer” — biru in the vernacular. Google Trends displays as a graph the relative popularity of the term in searches made from 2004 to the present. Japan-residents will know how closely the beverage is associated with summer here, and, sure enough, the graph indicates a near doubling of beer searches during the warmer months.

You can also add terms for comparisons — such as “wine.” Google Trends plots them on the same graph, showing that since 2004 the two drinks have fought a seesawing battle for attention. Beer leads in summer while wine noses ahead in winter. “Nihonshu” (the usual term for Japanese sake) doesn’t get close to either — but the character for “sake” (which is also used in many compound nouns) trumps the lot.

A comparison of sports reveals similar seasonality. In July and August, “baseball” (yakyu) searches jump by up to three times. That lifts them way above searches for “soccer” (sakka), which tend to dominate in winter.

Sumo, the supposed national sport, trails both, but the most consistent performer is “golf” (gorufu), which beats both baseball and soccer except in the middle of their seasons. Don’t underestimate the power of the bored salaryman Googling away his lunch hour.

Of course, Google Trends is no precise science. You can’t differentiate between searches for McDonalds and Macintosh, for example, because both are generally shortened to makku.

Likewise, a comparison between countries is hindered by the fact that Chugoku (China) is also the name of a region in Japan.

Incidentally, a slapdown between Western nations reveals just one chink in the leader of the free world’s armor. Searches for “Amerika” (the term by which the United States is generally referred to here) dominate those of other countries, except when FIFA World Cups are being held. Then, interest in Germany and Brazil edge ahead. Perhaps international relations initiatives for America’s president-elect should include a review of his national soccer team.

Speaking of Barack Obama, it would be interesting to see a World Cup coincide with an American election, because that’s when searches for the U.S. tend to peak. Google Trends analysis of the election suggests the Japanese were won over by Obama — as opposed to Hillary — way back in February. The Sarah Palin phenomena managed only a tiny blip in September, and searches for Obama (the man, not the city, which is written in Chinese characters) increased 15-fold on Nov. 5 compared with the year to date. Searches for his foe, John McCain, increased by just seven-fold in the same time frame.

Google Trends’ ability to track the fastest-rising keywords by the day and even the hour — so-called “hot trends” — is perhaps it’s greatest strength. How else would we know that on the day the U.S. elected its first black president, the fastest rising search term in Japan was “Himeko Sakuragawa” — the name of a 22-year-old idol who happened to appear on TBS’s variety program “Lincoln” the night before? Of course, for the 44th president-to-be there’s hardly any shame in being bested by Lincoln.

Google Trends may have some practical applications, too. In the U.S., its ability to track search term popularity by region is allowing it to “predict” the spread of influenza. It seems flu-suffering Googlers search for advice online before heading to the doctor.

Linguists will appreciate the service’s ability to monitor changes in language use, too. The National Institute for Japanese Language has for years been trying to stem the influx of katakana-ized foreign loan words into Japanese, publishing periodical recommendations of kanji alternatives.

Google’s new service suggests they have a lot of work to do. Instead of saying “anarisuto” (analyst), for example, the Institute suggested in April 2005 that Japanese should say “bunseki-ka.” Three years later and the alternative term still doesn’t show up in searches.

That’s bad news for the Institute. Because, with Google Trends set to grow in popularity in Japan (it says searches for itself lept 40-fold last month), it won’t be long before it has made anarisuto of us all.

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