Fun Fact: Kitty White (キティ・ホワイト Kiti Howaito) is a British school child who bears striking resemblance to a feline yet wears human clothes and walks on two legs.
Created by in-house designer Yuko Shimizu in 1974, the human-cat hybrid is better known across the world as Hello Kitty, one of the most well-known Japanese characters whose international stardom has earned her a net-worth of $8 billion.
She may only be exactly 5 apples tall and seemingly unable to pass the 3rd Grade, but in the 45 years since her creation, Hello Kitty has become Japan’s biggest cultural ambassador. The Queen of Kawaii, Hello Kitty has evolved from a cartoon cat printed on a vinyl coin purse to a media franchise that includes a product line, clothing apparel, a toy-line, manga comics, an anime series and even really, really awful pop music (the last two of which verge on bad acid trip-level of weird due to the fact Hello Kitty has no mouth).
Originally aimed at preadolescent females, Hello Kitty started out life as “the white kitten with no name” (“namae no nai shiroi koneko“). For any creation to go from a literal no-name to a global industry is impressive.
At this point, it’s fair to say she has far surpassed the success of even her biggest rivals: Garfield, Top Cat and Felix to name a few. Today, the cult status of the white kitten with no name has spawned a themed maternity hospital in Taiwan, a jewellery collaboration with Kimora Lee-Simmons, a suite of wines, and illustrated commercial passenger jets. Kitty White even has an indoor theme park built in her honour in Tama New Town, Tokyo which attracts over 1.5 million visitors every year.
In her book titled Pink Globalization, anthropologist Christine R. Yano sought to identify the reasons behind the explosion of the Hello Kitty brand into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. She argued that the international success of the character is one aspect of what she dubs ‘pink globalisation’- the spread of goods and images labelled cute (kawaii) from Japan to other parts of the industrial world and the rise of Japan’s national “cool”.
Keiko Nakamura, curator of the Takehisa Yumeji Museum of Art & Yayoi Museum of Art in Tokyo, attributes the explosion of kawaii products in the ‘70s to the oil crisis that was sparked by the 1973 Arab oil ban.
“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.”
According to creators Sanrio, the age demographic of Hello Kitty has also shifted over the years, moving from pre-schoolers to high-schoolers and soon finding her way onto the catwalk before appearing in the wardrobes of Katy Perry (no surprises there), Lady Gaga (again, not so surprising) and Jeremy Renner (okay, that one’s been Photoshopped but the point still stands.)
Kazuo Tohmatsu, public relations manager at Sanrio Japan, says the perspective began to change in the mid-nineties, as Hello Kitty began to garner interest from an increasing number of teenagers. In response to the unprecedented demand from young adults for kawaii products, Sanrio started to manufacture goods that were specifically aimed at adults such as keyrings and phone charms (remember them?!)
Since the rise of Hello Kitty as a fashion statement in the 90s and early 2000s, the number of adults who proudly sport the white kitten with no name / British schoolgirl with no mouth has increased exponentially.
“Hello Kitty has become a beloved character and brand that connects with people of all ages,” says Dave Marchi, Sanrio’s director of brand management and marketing, further suggesting that Hello Kitty serves as a “bridge between U.S. and Japanese culture.”
Perhaps it is the inner child that Hello Kitty represents that sees adults across the globe buying into Kawaii culture. Perhaps it’s the timeless nature of her design and the potential this gives for customisation amidst a fast-changing fashion landscape. In any case, it’s unlikely we’ll be saying Goodbye Kitty any time soon.