Hello Kitty

Still fabulous at 40

by Manami Okazaki


To celebrate her 40th anniversary, The Japan Times looks at how a cute feline without a mouth became a global icon

Pretty in pink: Hello Kitty characters dance at Sanrio Puroland, a theme park in Tokyo's Tama New Town that attracts more than 1.5 million visitors per year. COURTESY OF SANRIO

Who is only five apples high and has no mouth — yet is one of the country’s biggest cultural ambassadors? None other than the reigning feline queen of kawaii (cute) herself, Hello Kitty.

With the creators of Hello Kitty celebrating the iconic cat’s 40th anniversary on Nov. 1, it seems an appropriate time to examine the evolution of a feline who started out life known only as “the white kitten with no name” (“namae no nai shiroi koneko“) and has since gone on to establish an international following that is as red-hot as the bow on her left ear.

Although the country’s pop culture is garnering interest worldwide through the increasing popularity of manga and cosplay, Hello Kitty is one icon that trumps all in terms of visibility.

Loved by a long list of celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Avril Lavigne (who has a single named “Hello Kitty”) and Lisa Loeb (who has an entire album called “Hello Lisa”), her fan base borders on the cultish.

A number of couples tie the knot in ceremonies held at Puroland, Sanrio’s Tokyo theme park, without fail every year. In January 2000, meanwhile, seven people were injured in Singapore as crowds jostled to procure a Hello Kitty promotional toy at a McDonald’s outlet.

Her recognition is such that Hello Kitty was appointed the children’s ambassador for UNICEF in the United States in 1983 and in Japan 10 years later.

In May 2008, Japan appointed the lovable feline its ambassador of tourism in China and Hong Kong, a move that was criticized by some in mainstream media for having little substance given the troubled state of relations between Beijing and Tokyo at the time.

Hello Kitty was first developed by Sanrio, a company that creates products focusing on pop culture.

Looking to add cute characters to its merchandise in an attempt to increase sales, Sanrio conducted a survey and found that dogs, cats and bears (in no particular order) were the most popular.

Hello Kitty first appeared on
this coin purse in 1975. ©SANRIO

As the company had already created a bear character called Koro-chan and had also signed a licensing agreement over the rights to use Charles M. Schulz’s Snoopy since 1969, it decided to focus on creating a cat, which was conceived by in-house designer Yuko Shimizu in 1974 and first appeared on a vinyl coin purse sitting between a bottle of milk and a goldfish bowl.

While Sanrio also has a number of successful product lines such as My Melody, Bad Badtz-Maru and Keroppi, their overall popularity pales by comparison to the mischievous feline.

Hello Kitty’s popularity is evidenced by the media storm that broke out in August after Sanrio responded to a request from Christine Yano, author of “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific,” and “very firmly” pointed out that Hello Kitty is not a cat, but a girl.

“She is not a cat,” Yano noted, repeating Sanrio’s correction to a script she was preparing for an exhibit currently on display in Los Angeles. “She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.”

Sanrio later stepped back from that position. “It’s going too far to say that Hello Kitty is not a cat,” the company told the blog Kotaku. “Hello Kitty is a personification of a cat.”

Pop icon: Hello Kitty Con 2104 attracted a sellout crowd, with fans dressed to the nines in the popular feline's attire. MANAMI OKAZAKI

Indeed, Hello Kitty can arguably be seen as a continuation of chōjū-giga (animal caricatures) depicted on scrolls by painters such as Toba Sojo (1053-1140), in which animals characters such as frogs and foxes are given anthropomorphisized qualities.

Even prominent Edo Period woodblock artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) included animal characters in their work, characters that are cute even by today’s standards.

Character goods as we know them today, however, began when Taisho Era illustrator Yumeji Takehisa (1884-1934) opened the first female-orientated sundries shop in 1914.

Takehisa sold items such as paper goods, dolls and kimono collars emblazoned with his romantic illustrations — items aimed at well-to-do, young Japanese high school girls. His customers’ growing consumer power reflected the rising social status of women at the time, who were increasingly staying in school to receive an education. Following Takehisa, illustrators such as Junichi Nakahara (1913-1988) and Rune Naito (1932-2007) continued to produce decorative knick-knacks based on cute characters and illustrations of girls. As the country’s economy improved after World War II and as the baby boomers of that generation grew up, so did the popularity of such goods.

Keiko Nakamura, curator of the Takehisa Yumeji Museum of Art & Yayoi Museum of Art in Tokyo, specifically attributes the proliferation of kawaii products in the 1970s (when Hello Kitty was conceived) to the oil crisis that was sparked by the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

Clockwork Orange Hello Kitty.

“Until then, the manufacturing industry had been aimed at exports to the United States but they had to focus on the domestic market instead because of the economic climate of the time,” Nakamura says. “The success of Hello Kitty made people realize that you could sell something cute. As a result, various companies jumped on the goods-manufacturing bandwagon.”

Nakamura notes that the number of ¥100 shops spiked after the Japanese economic bubble burst in the late ’90s. As a result, more character products were produced and came to be seen as kitsch, whereas such goods were previously aimed at the upper class.

Sanrio says the age demographic of Hello Kitty fans has also changed over the years.

Kazuo Tohmatsu, public relations manager at Sanrio Japan, says the original fans in the ’70s were either primary school children or young teenage girls.

Start Trek Hello Kitty.

By the late ’80s, however, Hello Kitty had become increasingly popular with children in kindergartens. While some of the original fans remained loyal through high school, the younger fan base represented a significant proportion of the children’s consumer market.

“Still,” Tohmatsu says, “(there was a notion that) it was childish for an adult to own character goods.”

Tohmatsu says this perspective changed around 1996, as high school students increasingly purchased Hello Kitty items. In the mid-’90s, Sanrio had shifted tack and started to manufacture goods that were specifically aimed at adults (cellphone charms, keyrings, etc.). These caught on and it wasn’t long before salarymen could even be seen carrying mobile phones with cute Hello Kitty accessories dangling from them.

KISS meets Hello Kitty. ©SANRIO CO. LTD.

Meanwhile, adult fans in Asia started to show an interest in Sanrio’s regional targeted marketing strategy as well. Since the early 2000s, the number of adult fans worldwide has increased exponentially now that Hello Kitty is a household name in the West.

“Hello Kitty has become a beloved character and brand that connects with people of all ages (since its introduction to the U.S. in 1976),” says Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s director of brand management and marketing, even going so far as to suggest that Hello Kitty serves as a “bridge between U.S. and Japanese culture.”

Aki Matsuyama, office manager of Sanrio Milan, says that devotees in European countries and North America now hold the highest ratio of Hello Kitty fans worldwide.

“If you compare (Europe and North America) to Asia and Japan, they are very similar markets,” Matsuyama says.

Hello Kitty was introduced to Europe more than 30 years ago, Matsuyama says.

“The recognition has gradually risen,” she says, “and we have hardly spent anything on television series or movie promotion costs.”

Darth Vader Hello Kitty.

Maria Fleischman, who runs a blog called hellokittyjunkie.com that is followed by fans in the United States, the Philippines, Singapore, Canada and the United Kingdom, among others, says the love is directly related to a broader admiration of Japanese culture.

“Chances are, if you are a huge Hello Kitty fan, you probably love kawaii culture as well,” says Fleischman, who also designs products for the Los Angeles-based brand tokidoki. “In the past, I have attended Anime Expo and I own a couple of cute anime books. I also like other character brands and, since I work at tokidoki, I need to know about all things cute.”

Simone Legno, co-founder and creative director of tokidoki, goes even further.

“Kawaii culture is becoming more and more part of people’s lives globally,” Legno says. “I think it’s because it’s a simple aesthetic: It’s extremely expressive, but also because it brings a positive, genuine feeling into it. Kawaii seems to touch the romantic core that’s within us and connects with the inner child most of us keep alive inside.

“Hello Kitty is that perfect combination of simple, adorable and perfectly cute, with universal design. Independently from this, there’s an extremely intelligent, passionate and innovative company behind her that works to keep Kitty-chan walking parallel with the present, while watching the future. Sanrio understands that kawaii can be accepted and loved not just in Japan but by the entire world.”

Sanrio Europe, however, does not attribute the success of Hello Kitty to a broader interest in Japanese pop culture in the West. Matsuyama insists that many customers don’t even know that Hello Kitty was conceived in Japan. “(It is the) universal design and its charm that has made Hello Kitty one of the few globally popular characters,” she says.

A model shows of a Mikimoto x Hello Kitty necklace in Tokyo's Gizna district in January. YOSHIAKI MIURA

More than 50,000 Sanrio-branded items are sold in over 70 countries and territories worldwide, and the company’s goods are sold in more than 15,000 retail locations in the United States. However, Hello Kitty is by far the most recognized of all their characters.

Various experts around the world have outlined a number of reasons for her success. “You could say that (Hello Kitty’s) relative blankness allows for a broad appeal,” Yano says. “But that’s not all. I think it’s partly the creativity with which Sanrio has handled the character, as well.”

That “blankness” has plenty to do with Hello Kitty’s lack of a mouth. Some fans have speculated that by not having any facial expression, people of all emotional ranges can feel an affinity with the feline.

Sanrio Japan, however, are quick to point out that she does have a mouth — it’s just not drawn in. And while Hello Kitty is the most famous character to be created without a mouth, a number of characters produced by other companies have similar brazenly expressionless faces, including the popular Tarepanda and Rilakkuma characters.

Another reason is the narrative given to Hello Kitty, where small snippets of information are given about her background — and yet not enough to satiate curiosity. Tohmatsu suggests that the creation of a background is necessary for any character to thrive in, but to what degree they establish this differs. Hello Kitty — aka Kitty White, as we are to learn over time — weighs the same as three apples, loves to bake and lives with her parents, George and Mary, and her sister, Mimmy in a London suburb. A Scorpio by birth, she also has a boyfriend called Dear Daniel.

Additionally, she has remained fresh by working in conjunction with an ever-expanding repertoire of companies. Demand is exceeding manufacturing output in some markets, forcing Sanrio Europe to focus its attention on licensing production work to subsidiaries over the past six years.

The production squeeze, along with the pop culture boom and fashion collaborations — for example, Takashi Murakami X Louis Vuitton, etc. — has led to Hello Kitty teaming up with the likes of Stussy, Swarovski, MAC cosmetics, tokidoki, EVA airlines and Vans sneakers, to name but a few. The 40th anniversary celebrations have also seen numerous collaborations, including a signature collection by U.S. makeup chain Sephora and partnerships with brands such as Mikimoto and Major League Baseball.

Alongside these tie-ups are numerous artistic homages. Italian artist Anna Utopia Giordano used Hello Kitty on her “pop bottles” project.

“(Hello Kitty) is a viral phenomena that can be found everywhere,” Giordano says, adding that the feline is as iconic as Disney and Nintendo characters.

Joseph Senior, an art director who pays homage to Hello Kitty with his computer-graphic figurines, says he “appreciates the simplicity of the design, with clean lines and instant recognizability.”

“I think the universal love of cats has made Hello Kitty the popular character and global icon she has become,” he says.

Whatever the reason for her popularity, Hello Kitty is a branding success story and soft-power tour-de-force.

Whether her success will make it to a century remains to be seen, but the first 40 years have, most definitely, been something to celebrate.

Although Hello Kitty is easily one of the most recognizable pop-culture characters in the world, her design has changed slightly over the years to reflect the consumers, trends and values of the time.

1974: Yuko Shimizu unveils the original Hello Kitty.

1975: Sanrio unveils the first Hello Kitty product, a vinyl purse that cost ¥220 (less than $1 at the time).

1981: Sanrio releases a Hello Kitty design without a black outline.

1982: Sanrio designs a Hello Kitty that is hugging a teddy bear. Teddy bears were popular in the United States at the time.

1987: Sanrio unveils a monotone design of Hello Kitty, which was targeted at high school students for the first time. The monotone design reflected the fashion trends of the late ’80s.

1993: Sanrio releases baby Hello Kitty designs to adorn baby products.

1994: Hello Kitty’s trademark ribbon hair ornament is turned into a flower.

1995: Sanrio places Hello Kitty’s face on a pink background, which was aimed at young adults. Pink was a popular color in the fashion of the mid-’90s.

1996: The development of computer graphics allows Sanrio to redesign Hello Kitty by only using CG art.

1999: Sanrio introduces Hello Kitty’s boyfriend Dear Daniel, describing him as fashionable, sensitive and good at dancing. Dear Daniel’s introduction followed news that it was no longer necessary for celebrities in the country to hide the fact they were dating.

2004: Sanrio gives Hello Kitty a white Persian cat called Charmmy Kitty during a reported pet boom in the country.

2008: Sanrio releases a side profile of Hello Kitty for the first time.

2009: Sanrio unveils a design of Hello Kitty wearing sunglasses. The appearance of sunglasses reflected the increasing number of celebrities who would wear sunglasses to avoid being recognized.

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