From ‘samurai’ to ‘Hello Kitty,’ search data show how the world’s view of Japan has changed
Tourists look on as a maiko — an apprentice geisha —walks past in the Gion area of Kyoto. | BLOOMBERG
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.
|The Geisha in the minds of many Americans is nothing but a high-end hooker. The reality is quite different, and much more complicated.|
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 steady 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.”
|The great Musashi Miyamoto|
|Early photo of samurai|
|Still from Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai"|
|Hiroyuki Sanada in the American film "The Last Samurai"|
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 July 2015, “kawaii” is up to four relative to samurai’s 10 and Hello Kitty’s eight 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.
|The original "Hello Kitty" was a cartoon about a little girl in a kitten suit. But as the image spread over the globe, "Hello Kitty" became many things to many people...|
|...and some of it is a little scary...|
This 'Hello Kitty Dream Wedding,' held on Valentine's Day in 2007, began in Hong Kong's subway, where a specially-designed wedding train whisked the betrothed to Central Station for the recitation of their vows.
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.
This article, while interesting and enjoyable, brings up one of the things that so annoys me about the average non-Japanese person's ideas about Japan.
If you go to (American) e-bay and look at vintage photos of japan - or even contemporary products depicting traditional Japanese motifs, most of the men will be labeled "samurai" and most of the women "geisha," even if the image depicts a couple of farmers carrying hoes, and standing in a field.
This would be like labeling the all men in vintage American photos "cowboys" and all the women "Rockettess." It's ignorant, annoying and misleading. It's right up there with Donald Trump - an "Ugly American if there ever was one - calling the all Mexican immigrants "murderers, rapists and thieves."
Stereotypes are irritating - even when based in some fragment of reality.