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The Gulf Between Japanese and English Google Image Search

By Anri Asagumo, Oxford Uehiro/St Cross Scholar, (with input from Dr Tom Douglas and Dr Carissa Veliz)


Trigger Warning: This article deals with sexual violence, which could be potentially upsetting for some people.

Although Google claims in its policy that it restricts promotion of adult-oriented content, there is a district in the online world where their policy implementation seems loose: Google image search in the Japanese language. If one looks up ‘reipu’, a Japanese word for rape on Google, the screen fills up with a heap of explicit thumbnails of porn movies, manga, and pictures of women being raped by men. The short descriptions of the thumbnails are repugnant: ‘Raping a girl at my first workplace’, ‘Raping a junior high-school girl’, ’Raping cute girls’, ‘Raping a female lawyer’, ‘Raping a girl in a toilet’. As if rape in itself were not repulsive enough, many descriptions go even further, implying child rape. Similar results show up with ‘reipu sareta; I was raped’. It is strikingly different from the world of English Google image search, in which the top images usually send strong messages of support for victims and zero-tolerance for sexual offenders. Another example of how the Japanese Google world is different from that of English is ‘Roshia-jin; Russian people’. Searching in Japanese yields 17 pictures of young, beautiful Russian women, while searching in English returns pictures of people of different age and sex.

What is the cause of these differences? There are several plausible explanations. One reason could be that there are far fewer websites and articles written in Japanese about offering help for rape victims or shedding light on rape crime, compared to those in English, so Google inevitably suggests the hideous images, lacking alternatives. Another reason could be that Japanese people prefer to click on these websites, and the algorithm learns and perpetuates their preferences. Yet another explanation could be that Google’s safe search filter is just far less effective in Japanese.

Either way, Google should be taking steps to ensure more ethical results. To do so, it could use search preferences from one language to improve their search result ranking for another. Google might say that they are giving each language group what, taken collectively, they want. Moreover, they might point to difficulties in finding equivalent search terms across languages, perhaps raising the examples of ‘false friends’, words in two languages that look or sound similar but differ significantly in meaning. ‘Mansion’ in English refers to a large, impressive house, while the exact translation of it into Japanese, ‘manshon’, means ‘apartment building’. In such a case, Google might claim that extrapolating preferences from one language group to the other would skew search results.

However, I still argue that Google should take a more paternalistic approach when the images concern harm to people. We should not let the victims of sexual offences hurt again when they need help and are looking for support. We should not send the wrong messages to potential sexual offenders that what they look for online is something normal, or socially acceptable, as the availability and easy access suggest.

If the Japanese image results for ‘reipu’ are due to a shortage of Japanese websites that offer supportive content for rape victims, Google might claim that it is not their fault that the extremely repellent images come on top. In such a case, I would go so far as to argue that they should try to show the images that would be found when searching in a different language. Google has an obligation to improve auto-translation so that these websites with right messages reach people who need them.

A somewhat related problem is the difficulty Japanese people experience when they look for trustworthy information on diseases and medical treatments. When searching in English on, the NHS’s official website and other trustworthy sources tend to show up first. However, in Japanese, the top results generally come from blogs or the websites of individual hospitals. To find information from more authoritative sources, one generally needs to specify a particular medical society in one’s search.

The divide between the Japanese online world and the English online world is enormous. It is so immense that it gives parents a reason to bring up children to be fluent in other languages just to help them navigate the digital world more safely. Parents nowadays try many methods to protect their children from the dangers of the Internet — limitations on screen time, monitoring social media accounts, filtering harmful websites and so on. Perhaps as part of this ‘digital education’, we should encourage children to learn new languages so that they are better equipped to find trustworthy information.

There is much that can and should be done to improve Google search in Japanese. Google could ensure more ethical results with its cutting-edge technologies. The Japanese government could create a trustworthy standard list of symptoms, diseases, and treatments. Parents could encourage their children to learn other languages to navigate the digital world better. All parties should work hand in hand to improve the online world.

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10 Comment on this post

  1. There are several words for “rape” in Japanese, including the native word 強姦 (gōkan), the loanword レイプ (reipu) and the more general 暴行 (bōkō). The three are used about equally often on WWW pages. While レイプ is simply described as a synonym of 強姦 in all the dictionaries, it is clear from WWW page usage that it is often used in pornographic and fetish contexts, whereas 強姦 is used more in the context of rape as a crime. Any analysis and discussion of Japanese websites dealing with rape needs to take into account these lexical issues and differences. A site offering “supportive content for rape victims” would more likely be using 強姦 instead of レイプ.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Jim!

      I see your point, but let me emphasise the fact that 強姦 and 暴行 are not the words we use in an everyday conversation (they appear almost exclusively on news and legal context) and レイプ is by far the most common word used by ordinary people to refer to sexual assault. You would find that Ms Shiori Ito, the first person who accused an authority of rape in Japan, uses the word レイプ in her book and interviews, as many other followers of #metoo movement do.

      1. Thanks, Anri. Your comment is much appreciated, and is in line with others have told me on this issue. As a JSL person I confess that レイプ/強姦 is something I have rarely if ever encountered in conversation.
        The different results one gets from Google images for レイプ and 強姦 are quite striking. I now suspect it’s not so much that the words are being used in different contexts, but a case that 強姦 and 暴行 are NOT used with salacious images whereas レイプ is, which results in a significant skewing of image-search results.
        If I can add a remark on the different results from searches for “trustworthy information on diseases and medical treatments”, I think what you are possibly seeing is an outcome of a little-known practice of Google to give precedence to authoritative sources. It is possible that Google in the UK is doing this with the NHS sites, etc. just as they do with authoritative medical sources for US-based searches. Quite likely Google Japan is not doing the same. I don’t have any contacts in Google Japan at the moment, or I would pass on your blog. (It is difficult to bring these sorts of matters to their attention.)

  2. Am I the only one who thinks on a site about ethics, you should actually make a case for your western censorship and rigging of the world’s internet search results rather than just flatly state that a western company whose main job is to provide accurate search results should paternalistically subvert its own search results. What makes that ethical?

    What makes your western standards of acceptable search results worthy of being imposed onto entirely different cultures? Do your standards even represent those of the majority of the western world or those of the bubble you live in that doesn’t question itself and seeks to impose its views on everyone else?

    Would Japanese search results be allowed to be imposed on Americans and Europeans if Japanese ethicists deemed them more ethical than the western search results for guns or whatever else?

    Why your western values? Why not impose strict Christian inspired paternal censorship of search results to protect sinners from being further tempted into sin. Or Saudi ethical paternal adjustment of gay search results to gay conversion therapy or Koran verses about homosexuality being a sin? What gives you position any ethical standing over these other alternatives which would seek to help people in paternalistic way by controlling what information they access?

    If Google’s job is to provide accurate results and it does not do so to please you, it will be failing at its stated purpose. Is it ethical to corrupt the core value provided to the public by a private company to willing users to please your paternal inclinations?

    If as is likely Google loses its position as search engine of choice because users can’t find the results that they want, only the ones you decided they should be allowed to see, and users move to bing or a Japanese search engine, from a consequentialist standpoint you have achieved nothing. the growth of Bing in many markets is in large part been because it is so far less censorious than Google.

    There is a very real parallel with Google helping the Chinese government develop a search engine that it can manage search results on in a paternal way to protect Chinese citizens from looking up Tianamen or looking at porn etc. You are not only advocating for such a system but worse, one that imposes one culture’s values onto everyone in the world, not just locally. The worst thing about colonial and imperial urges is they always dress themselves up as paternalistic ethical attempts to do what is best for us dumb savages who don’t know what is best for us, often dressed up as concern for some marginalized group which makes dominion over the entire foreign culture/nation ethical.

    Silicon Valley has taught us the danger of having the citizens a few ideologically homogenous towns control the technology platforms the entire world uses. They look around them, see people who agree with them and do not think critically about their positions, their implications or the validity of opposing viewpoints. With a push of a button, people in Palo Alto decide what the rest of the world is allowed to read, watch, say and play. Congrats on blindly pushing for more digital imperialism without any sensible arguments for a ethical basis for this indefensible nonsense you yourself admit of paternalistic without any justification as why you get to be the authority on what is right for everyone, you’re just born better than the rest of us backward sexist cretins I guess?

    1. Thank you for your comment. I did not intend to talk about censorship in general. Google claims, in the first place, that they demote adult images, and it seems that they are failing to live up to this policy. I chose to focus on images depicting sexual offences as an example precisely because it seems to me clear that this is a case where moral imperialism and moral relativism are not the issue. There have to be limits in how far we go to accommodate cultural differences, and serving images of rape to rape victims seeking support seems to me to be a clear case of crossing those limits.

      Both the law and public opinion are extremely lenient on rapists in Japan, perhaps because talking about rape has long been taboo. Though I could not defend this view in this short blog post, I believe that there are flaws in Japan’s judicial, medical, and social system and that these isolate rape victims and suppress their voices. It happens to be the case that western countries have found a better approach to rape, including in their approach to image search results, so I mentioned it. But it does not matter where image search is well-implemented. I could equally have held up a small Asian country with little political/ economic muscle as an example, had I been able to find one given my language knowledge. My critique is not coming from a specifically western perspective and indeed is primarily informed by my experience of living as a woman in Japan.

    1. Thank for your reply. You have however posted global market share stats which whilst informative do not reflect the fact that there are specific markets when Google isn’t number one, like Russia and China and even in markets where they are number one, there are alternatives with significant enough market share to stop Google from having a total monopoly, be it Bing with 14% in Canada or Yahoo with a bit more than that in Japan.

      The Google monopoly is not so clear cut on a country by country basis and we are talking about specific countries and the differences between them. If switching Google’s search results in Japan or Canada makes users rely more on the existing Bing or Yahoo alternatives or increases the gap by which they are behind in Russia or China, why should a private for profit company do that? Is it ethical for you to impose your personal morality on a company that gives hundreds of millions of people in those countries results they prefer?

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