For as far back as I can remember, cats and I have never gotten along. On my lip is a childhood scar from getting clawed while trying to get my neighbor’s cat out of a storm drain. As a teen, I let down my affectionate parrot Cuca by leaving her cage unsupervised, and a house cat proceeded to poke out her left eye – the bird never forgave me for that. On my first and final blind date in my twenties, I met a sweet Jersey girl named Shirley who preferred the company of her nine cats to a heartsick me. Now on the wrong side of thirty (and a little wiser), I usually run for cover at the first whiff or sight of a cat. And yet, there is one charming feline who transcends everything I know about cats. In fact, just the sight of her can lift your spirits. Her name is Hello Kitty.
Throughout the last sixty years, Japan has unleashed a wealth of iconic pop culture characters who’ve won over devoted audiences across the globe: Godzilla, Sailor Moon, Pokeman, Gatchaman, Speed Racer, Astro Boy and Mario, amongst others. But perhaps the top of the pops, character-wise, is Hello Kitty, a character created solely to endear and melt the hearts of good children and adults the world over. Her exuberant image is everywhere; you really can’t escape her. She’s a true advocate of joy to all. If you need an understanding friend, you can always count on her because she’s a modern day representation of devotion. Her celebrity shows us that popular culture is an amazing thing when it has the power to unify everybody.
Hello Kitty was developed in 1974 by Sanrio, a company founded by Shintaro Tsuji and the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark Cards. Sanrio’s celebrated specialty is creating adorable characters they can merchandise and license globally. According to the company, there are currently over 50,000 Sanrio-branded items sold in seventy countries. Hello Kitty’s iconic face alone generates five billion dollars a year on a bevy of items. Whatever products you can image, Hello Kitty and her Sanrio family of characters have probably already adorned them: plush, jewelry, candy, cars, stationary, guitars, housewares, decorative wares, designer clothing, smartphones, pancakes and theme parks Even the skies aren’t off limits – the exteriors of Taiwanese Eva Air airlines bear the famous kitten and her friends.
Ms. Janet Hsu, the president of Sanrio Inc., said, “Sanrio actually created the (Hello Kitty) character with the objective to make people smile and invoke happiness, and Hello Kitty really engaged the imagination of their consumers and their fans by letting them define who Hello Kitty is to them. She has a very Zen-like spirit and is like a blank canvas, in that she has really been able to inspire that imagination. We had always hoped that Hello Kitty would resonate with fans all around the world, and she really has, because of the fact that she can be identifiable to so many people.”
In the early 1970s, a pop cultural movement called kawaii started in Japan. Although it began as a form of cutesy handwriting in which young girls would write their words into playful shapes and graphics, kawaii grew and became an atmosphere where cuteness and positivity sunk into other aspects of the mainstream culture. It was in the spirit of that era that Sanrio created “Hello Kitty,” who proved an immediate hit in Japan and quickly spread her infectious good nature across the sea. Kawaii became such a national phenomenon that this brand of “cheeriness” is now an intergral part of Japan’s national identity.
Hsu explained, “I think because Hello Kitty has been (and is) rooted in Japanese culture, she contributed to the spread of kawaii and the other aspects of the culture into the American mainstream. Actually, to some she could actually be considered the first introduction to the kawaii culture, because she really is the definition, I think, of the cuteness which kawaii is. So she was very influential.”
Globalization is also a contributing factor to the worldwide impact of Hello Kitty and other Asian pop elements. Charles Park, a co-founder of Gaia Online (a leading anime-themed social network for teens and young adults), said, “Actually, not only just Hello Kitty, but a lot of the unique culture from particularly Japan has been slowly migrating to US culture for a while. Obviously, manga and anime were part of it, as well as Japanese video games.”
Park added, “In the US the thing that’s getting larger is actually now the Japanese fashion sense, and the pop sense. So pop arts are some of that. Hello Kitty represents, I guess, one large segment of that.”
Unlike, say, your typical comic book characters, the Sanrio characters have very little back story to them. They’re all quite accessible and inviting to the uninitiated. It’s really mostly up to the viewer to determine what these characters mean to them. The iconography creates a reactionary response within each individual. With Hello Kitty, the company’s ace character, she allows you to project a smile for her.
The story of this cat has slightly evolved as fans craved to know more details about the character’s personality from Sanrio. According to the company’s character profile of the beloved cat, “Hello Kitty was born on November 1 and she lives in London, England with her parents and her twin sister, Mimmy. She has the height of five apples, and the weight of three. Her hobbies include traveling, music, reading, eating yummy cookies and best of all making new friends.”
Charles Park theorizes that Hello Kitty’s popularity goes beyond a defined persona or storyline. Park stated, “It is because of fashion. When it is related to fashion, or stationery, for example – that’s another primary example. They aren’t really meant to tell a story or [be developed] characters. In fact, not too many people even know or care about Hello Kitty’s story. It really is about visual impact and how that design interacts with actual owners’ fashions. So that’s how the character design evolves within their design area.”
Expressing a similar opinion, Sanrio’s Tsu stated, “Because of the fact that she is part of pop culture, she really has always aligned really strongly with the art and fashion world, and it’s taking everything that’s relevant to the modern times and to the changing world, and her embracing the new world as it changes. So she stays the same, but things around her change, and she changes in the sense that she embraces different parts of what’s happening in the world.”
“I think it’s her simple design,” said Katie Cook, a comics artist from Michigan, about the character’s lasting appeal. “She’s timeless and charming! Any design with too much fuss tends to come and go. Hello Kitty is sticking around and her collectibility is crazier than ever!”
There are few things on this earth that cause people of all ages to react in such a similar fashion. Tsy McKenzie, a ten-year-old school girl from New Jersey, also finds the look of Hello Kitty very appealing. Miss McKenzie commented, “I like the cute kitten face, how it looks. I have a set of earrings and a necklace, plus a large Hello Kitty plush toy and two Japanese Hello Kitty items.”
My friend and colleague, Jon B. Cooke, a graphic designer, chimed in saying, “As a person who has long appreciated popular art within popular culture. The one thing that has always impressed me about Hello Kitty (since really seeing her for the first time) was that incredible iconic power of having such a simple design yet being so universal and understanding. It’s cute. It’s super cute. It’s ultra cute. How unpretentious it is. It appeals to a seven-year-old as well as to a seventy-year-old. My mother is a collector of Hello Kitty – and if I had the money, I would be, too.”
Hello Kitty’s greatest strength is the pure simplicity in the form of the character. It all works from top to bottom: the always warm and wide-opened eyes, the trademark six whiskers, the [usually] red bow (on the left side of her face) and a simple expression that exudes positive vibes, confidence and friendship. The masterstroke of the entire concept is that she’s drawn without a mouth, because the lack of it allows the viewer to bestow and project whatever emotions they’re feeling. It magically allows you to imagine traits for her calm appearance. It is an ambient type of character that works well with one’s flow and different moods.
Describing the magic of Kitty, Ms. Tsu said, “Yeah. She changes. Even though she stays to how you define her personality, she’s always relevant in the world, and so she’ll keep on updating herself with her environment and things that are of interest to her. But Kitty’s a very Zen personality.”
Tsu continued, “Because of the fact that she’s kind of Zen-like in spirit and she is a blank canvas which the fans can really define who she is to them, it allows her to appeal to everyone. She doesn’t have a very defined personality. She actually doesn’t have a mouth, it doesn’t talk, but she really talks with the heart, and so this allows her to really appeal to everyone. There’s not a restriction. And that’s also why we have a very wide and expansive age demographic appeal, so we always say “four to forever” for our consumers.”
This year marks Sanrio’s 50th anniversary; the company was founded on August 10, 1960. Although Sanrio doesn’t over-market their products, this golden anniversary saw a cross-country mobile pop-up shop tour and anchor events in Los Angeles and Miami. So don’t be too surprised if you see Hello Kitty and her friends popping up in more places than usual. To produce many unique celebratory items to commemorate this worthwhile anniversary, Sanrio has partnered up with companies like Target, Dr. Martens and various others.
Word-of-mouth and sight is how the Hello Kitty revolution arrived in the United States from Japan in 1976. Although not conceived as a global phenomenon, it became one as children and adults sought out the character’s infection brand of happiness. By the 1990s, they were a billion dollar industry and the leader of the fanshi guzzu (fancy goods) market. The first products were likely imports; Sanrio would subsequently launch their own chain of stores in the United States as a touchpoint for their brand. Over the years, success has seen what was originally a handful of stores grow to what is presently about one hundred Sanrio stories in the United States. Across the world, Sanrio has close to five hundred shops.
For Katie Cook, an excursion at an official Sanrio store served as an impressionable experience. Cook recalled, “I went to one in Chicago. I walked out with a few too many things (it’s not quite as much fun spending your own money and not your parents’…), but it’s amazing seeing so many Sanrio products in one place. Their collection of products is so cohesive, even spanning all the characters. You can look at anything in that store and think, ‘This is Sanrio!’ It’s an amazingly strong brand and identity.”
There are still many goals left to accomplish within the United States for the famous cat and her company. Sanrio’s president, Janet Tsu, indicated, “We always strive to make sure she’s relevant, and we keep her relevant. We actually also started having consumer-focused events, so last year we had Hello Kitty’s 35th Anniversary event in Culver City, and it was where we had invited artists to interpret Hello Kitty, and so it was art, and it had a retrospective piece, also, that took you to the world of Hello Kitty for the 35 years of existence. It was really an event for our fans, and it was so well received. And this year we are actually doing an event in LA, as well as Santa Monica, in November, and for the consumer, that’s really important to us. So I think our number one focus is to always stay relevant, to always have products that are lifestyle-driven, because we know that she is the lifestyle girl.”
For those guys intimidated by Hello Kitty, Sanrio has a terrific roster of other colorful characters. Ms. Tsu said, “Yes, there are other characters for boys. Like, we have Badtz-Maru, who’s a little penguin that gets into trouble. And then we have Tuxedo Sam, who has 365 bow ties – one for every day of the year. We have Keroppi, who’s a frog. So we do have characters. And that’s one of our strategies going forward is to really focus on building more of the emerging characters within Sanrio’s portfolio.”
In asking Charles Park a question about Sanrio’s staying power, Park responded, laughing, “Sanrio? I will say Disney probably will go away before Sanrio.” Folks, don’t underestimate the power of Hello Kitty.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed seeing the chic sight of Hello Kitty since the first time I saw her mug on a pencil as a third-grader. I also like giving out Hello Kitty items as gifts because there isn’t anyone out there who couldn’t use a smile and some cheer. For a character that’s been in the spotlight for thirty-plus years, this global sensation is very relevant, cool and fashionable in whichever product Sanrio chooses to place her face on. As an ambassador of kawaii around the world, the omnipresent Hello Kitty has excelled at and succeeded in being a sign of eternal hope in a world that needs every ounce of optimism it can get.
Special thanks to Janet Hsu, Katie Cook, Lily Morrow, Tsy McKenzie, Charles Park, Jon B. Cooke, Marc McKenzie, John Morrow, Jessica Bardoulas, Marissa Barnett, Jason Hofius, Eric Nolen-Weathington, Steven Tice and Mina & Gina, the Korean twin sisters who introduced me to Hello Kitty over thirty years ago (wherever they are now).