When, in 1974, employees at the Japanese design company Sanrio created Hello Kitty, the small, rounded cartoon cat with a red bow between her ears and no mouth, they could never have dreamt that she would become the global megastar she is today. Sales of Hello Kitty merchandise now account for half of Saniro’s $1bn (?500m) annual turnover and her face adorns 50,000 products, sold in more than 60 countries.
Top cat: how ‚Hello Kitty‘ conquered the world
The little half-Japanese, half-English cat has become so globally recognisable that it is, perhaps, inevitable that the Japanese board of tourism has appointed her their official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. This is not the first time the world has looked to Hello Kitty to perform an ambassadorial role; she has been United States children’s ambassador for Unicef since 1983.
„It seems predictable enough to have her adopted as a diplomatic envoy,“ she says. „That has been the way of the ‚Cool Japan‘ bandwagon for a few years now, and relations with China are no healthier. It seems a bit farcical to select Hello Kitty, however: as if a dumbed-down cultural icon that was cool in her retro boom in the 1990s, and which Chinese teenagers dig, can somehow do something significant to alter the gnarly and difficult state of China-Japan relations.“
Hello Kitty’s creator started out as the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark cards. Sanrio was founded by Shintaro Tsuji in 1960; Tsuji, a qualified chemist, lost his mother when he was 13 and spent an unhappy childhood with reluctant relatives. He attended a kindergarten run by a Canadian missionary and saw for the first time the custom of birthdays, which were not traditionally celebrated in Japan. He decided he would use his company to foster the culture of gift-giving.
As an experiment in 1971, in the wake of student riots, the company began printing rounded, cutesy images on previously blank writing stationery and in 1974, Hello Kitty was drawn. She was drawn without a mouth, which later made her the perfect cross-cultural representative. She wasn’t given a mouth, explains Sanrio, because she „speaks from the heart. She’s Sanrio’s ambassador to the world and isn’t bound to any particular language“.
She was made partly English because when she was first drawn, the Japanese rarely travelled abroad; foreign, especially English, associations, were particularly popular. The stationery and diaries were a hit with schoolgirls during the 1980s and the company soon branched out in to other fanshi guzzu (fancy goods).
In the 1990s, Hello Kitty had a second stab at fame as it was was re-marketed as a „retro“ brand. Shops, run by the outlet label Vivitix, marketed Hello Kitty to teens and adults, appealing to their sense of nostalgia. As eight year-olds they would have used Hello Kitty pencils and pencil cases in the classroom; in their late teens and early twenties, they reached for Hello Kitty satchels and make-up mirrors.
„Hello Kitty stands for the innocence and sincerity of childhood and the simplicity of the world,“ says Helen McCarthy, an author and expert on Japanese animation and comics. „Women and girls all over the world are happy to buy in to the image of the trusting, loving childhood in a safe neighbourhood that Hello Kitty represents. They don’t want to let go of that image, so as they grow up, they hang onto Hello Kitty out of nostalgic longing – as if by keeping a symbolic object, they can somehow keep hold of a fragment of their childhood self.“