I remember going into a Hello Kitty store when I was a young lad and looking at all of the various Hello Kitty crap and wondering if Hello Kitty was some sort of comic book character or television show hero. Turns out, she’s neither. After a good deal of research, I have arrived at the conclusion that Hello Kitty is just a brand that’s been slapped on a bunch of different products to make them cuter, kind of like how Strawberry Shortcake and Polly Pocket were back when I was forced to play dress-up with my sister. Hello Kitty (yes, that is her full name) was born in 1974 through the branding-work of Japan’s Sanrio company, and brought over to America a year later. Since then, HK has become a social and cultural phenomenon.
So what makes Hello Kitty so popular? I think it has something to do with how undeniably “kawaii” (cute) she is. When people look into those cold, vacant eyes of hers, they begin to project their own happiness and sadness onto the blank space where her mouth should be. Cute things are hard to be mad at; there’s usually very little animosity held towards an adorable cat, although certain people probably have good reason for their hatred.
Japan seems to love Hello Kitty way more than any country should love anything… except maybe South Korea’s love for Starcraft. But still, what is it about Hello Kitty that makes everyone from Japanese schoolgirls to CEOs of major corporations go wild? Well, that’s precisely it: in Japan, it’s not awkward or creepy for adults to adore really cute things.
Lolita is just the immediate example that comes to mind since I just read someone else’s blog post. But the idea is the same nonetheless; Japanese culture is a-ok with cute things that appeal to people of all ages. And appealing to all ages just so happens to be what Hello Kitty does best. Hello Kitty brand massagers, toothbrushes, pencils, television sets, clothing lines, cars, and even waffle makers sell out in Japan all the time.
So what does Hello Kitty say about the differences in culture between the United States and Japan? As previously stated, in Japan, it is perfectly normal for adults to be interested in what we in America would consider “childish” things, such as reading manga. In the United States, it is almost considered a social taboo for someone over the age of 30 to even look at a comic book in a public place. Additionally, Japanese households are often much smaller and tightly packed, often resulting in no room for pets. Compared to America, Japanese people see cats and dogs far less often. This fact in turn makes something as simple as a soulless, adorable, poorly-drawn kitty turn into a fascinating object of desire. Of course, Americans often do the same thing, although our icons are usually in the form of real people and not animated cats.
Hello Kitty seems to represent everything that America isn’t then; so why is it that Hello Kitty has succeeded even here in America? Is it the awe-inspiring and critically acclaimed MMORPG Hello Kitty game that attracts non-sarcastic Americans such as myself to the lovable cat? I would argue that Hello Kitty is successful here for the same reason why Pokémon revolutionized the childhood of millions of children in both Japan and America. Even though both products made the jump from Japan to America, the charm remained untouched. Take a static product with inherent charm and character, bring it to multiple cultures, and let the people there make of it what they will. I look at Hello Kitty and see a heartless demon slowly waiting to conquer the world. Someone in Japan can look at the exact same image or electric water heater with Hello Kitty on it and see mankind’s last hope to stop the threat of nuclear war. The true power of Hello Kitty lies in her ability to be anything and everything to someone in one country, and something entirely different to another. A 20 year-old boy in Japan may say “Hello Kitty!” but a 20 year-old Trinity University student in America might just as sincerely say “Goodbye Kitty.”