All images of Hello Kitty © Sanrio

 

 

 

The invasion began just as the United States celebrated its 200th birthday. As our nation's merchandisers were distracted by fulfilling the ravenous public demand for Liberty Bell paperweights and Uncle Sam beer mugs, a new character brand slipped in over the border. Even if they had noticed this innocuous-looking creature, it's doubtful whether patriotic toymakers, publishers, or studios would have felt the slightest bit of alarm. What possible hope could this albino cat from Japan have to compete with such All-American titans of product licensing as Snoopy or (by God!) Mickey Mouse?

But today, nearly 30 years later, the "Hello Kitty" logo of a mouthless white cat can be found on, well, everything: toaster ovens, computer keyboards, coffee makers, purses, telephones, vibrators, and around 22,000 other products currently on the market. Owned by Sanrio Company, Ltd., the Hello Kitty brand is a global, billion-dollar enterprise with entrenched roots in the American market. From its first U.S. boutique opened in 1976 at San Jose, Calif.'s Eastridge Mall, Sanrio has expanded its reach into 4,000 stores, including 200 Sanrio-specific shops.

But what is Sanrio selling, exactly?

Founded in 1960 by Shintaro Tsuji, the Tokyo-based company specializes in creating character-branded merchandise. (Other Sanrio characters include Chococat, Cinnamoroll, and, of course, Dokidoki Yummychums–though Hello Kitty is by far the biggest seller.) All of these lil' critters are ridiculously cute. But unlike most of their American counterparts in the character-branded product world, Sanrio's characters exist only as logos. They do not begin life by starring in cartoon shows or comic strips, and they lack the fully formed personalities and backstories that, say, the Powerpuff Girls or SpongeBob SquarePants bring to the marketing table. Nevertheless, both children and adult consumers here dutifully buy up damn near any product bearing the logo of this distinctly Japanese creation. Why?

For answers, we turned to the men who wrote the book on Hello Kitty–that is, Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon. Co-author Ken Belson is a New York Times reporter covering Japanese business, economics, and government, while Brian Bremner is the Asia Economics Editor for Business Week magazine. Both journalists live in Tokyo where they receive daily exposure to Japanese pop culture and its many permutations, such as "kawaii" (cute) culture, of which Hello Kitty is the wellspring. With their steely business-reporter nerves, the authors calmly dissect the economics of mass-produced innocence in this interview, writing their answers together.

 

What is Hello Kitty?

A simple answer is that she is a well-crafted, well-proportioned kid’s doll. Pure and simple, she was designed to amuse little girls, and in that she’s been a wild success. For those of us in the business of analyzing all that, she’s a Zen character that just IS, Buddha-like in her demeanor, a Mona Lisa in her romantic appeal to some, a symbol of crass, saccharine-sweet consumerism to others. Oh, yeah–she also generates billions of dollars in sales every year.

Does it relate to any other Japanese cultural icons?

So far as we know, she was invented pure and simple. Her original designer, however, took inspiration from the cats in Through the Looking Glass. Some say she also looks disturbingly like Miffy, a two-dimensional long-earned rabbit that lives on tissue packets and lunch boxes. More broadly, she was designed during an era when animals were all the rage with kids: Snoopy, Mickey, Lassie, unicorns, and giraffes, whatever.

How was it created?

In the early '70s, Sanrio was trying to develop its own in-house design department. The president, Shintaro Tsuji told his group to draw animals. In 1974, a young designer named Yuko Shimizu came up with the design for Kitty, which Tsuji said left him with a "not too bad" impression. The product quickly caught on and dwarfed the rest of the company’s sales with in a year or two. So much for gut instinct. Shimizu left Sanrio to get married and start her own family two years later. In some small way, you could compare her to Pete Best, the Beatles’ drummer who left the band just before Ringo Starr joined and the Fab Four rocketed to fame.

What was the first Hello Kitty product?

Product #1 was a small clear vinyl coin purse. Kitty’s image is on the side. Her body faces to the right and her head is turned 90 degrees to the front. Above her head, just below the metals snaps, is the word "Hello!" in red letters. The keepsake was designed for kids and cost 240 yen (less than $1 at the time, but about $2 today).

Has the design of the logo evolved, or is it unchanged?

Unlike most American characters, whose use and design is tightly controlled, Kitty changes constantly. Each year, the designers come up with a new theme for Kitty–plaid one year, in pink another, a princess with a tiara in other years. These designs establish broader themes like her basic colors. But she’s plastered on so many things in so many poses that it’s hard to pin down an exact number. My favorite design is Robo Kitty. Kitty wears a helmet just like Robo Cop and has a robot body. It’s completely out of control.

How does Hello Kitty fit into the Japanese pop culture landscape?

In some ways, Sanrio is the creator of a major strain in modern Japanese pop culture, though this was largely unintentional. The company, driven by its founder Shintaro Tsuji, was one of the first in Japan to turn cute as a commodity. Tsuji combined Japan’s gift-giving culture with simple designs and packaged it affordably.

Tsuji also recognized early on that cute could be sold to adults, too. As early as the 1970s, he was already creating lines of products for young women who wanted in some small way to hang on to their childhood. Japan was ripe for this, as we discuss in the book, but Sanrio developed it into a unique and profitable market.

Why does so much of Japanese pop culture revolve around cuteness?

Japanese cute, or kawaii culture, isnt just a passing fad. It is something close to an aesthetic value in Japan. You can see it in all forms of pop culture, and marketing and the sheer visual landscape of modern, urban Japan. In J-Pop, you have girl groups such as Morning Musume affecting high-pitched voices, cute mannerisms, and a child-like quality. Character goods, especially ultra-cute ones, are pitchmen for banks, Ministry of Finance, and all sorts of consumer products. Even in Japanese pornography, young girls often sporting school uniforms are something of a sexual ideal.

Where did this come from? Well, first you didnt see young girls acting like this in the Edo era. It really came to life in the mid-1970s when Japan really emerged as a rich, consumer-driven culture and Japanese youth started to have a disposable income. Cute handwriting trends and even a baby talk phase took hold during this period. It wasnt long before Sanrio and other companies geared to the youth market recognized this and tried to commercially exploit this. Some commentators think that Hello Kitty, at the symbolic level at least, represents a sort of weird girl power movement focused on whimsy and consumption. Cultural conservatives think this is rather dangerous and that such values contribute to weak submissive women who purposely act clueless and never want to grow up. Feminists also deplore Hello Kitty and the values she represents. Whatever side of the debate you fall on in Japan, though, you have to admit this is one deep cat.

 
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