Language | BILINGUAL

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

by Dan Grunebaum

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.