Japan's Pop Culture Exports: It All Started with Hello Kitty

Article excerpt

For an expressionless little white fur ball, Japan's Hello Kitty puts up a mean fight in the cultural jungle.

Once the defining measure of girls' craze for cuteness within Japan, the pop feline today can be found staring out from the handbags, sweat shirts, notebooks, and now debit cards of children and night-clubbing art students alike around the globe. And as she marks her 30th anniversary, Hello Kitty's combination of Mona Lisa mystery and saccharine sweetness has become an unlikely symbol of the shift in Japan's global reach from cars to culture.

Hello Kitty - which earns $1 billion a year for its owner, Sanrio Co. - isn't alone among Japanese cultural creations in finding an audience in the West. In recent years, Japanese characters such as Pokemon and the fantasy series Yu-Gi-Oh! have become staples of children's entertainment. Japanese horror films - think "The Ring" - are international hits. Anime - animated flicks - and "manga" comics have made inroads, appealing to global audiences with their Dickensian plots and appealing style.

Nobuyoshi Kurita, a professor of sociology and pop media at Musashi University in Tokyo, says the newfound yen for all things Japanese underscores a global move from a materialistic to an information culture. "Stereos and cars used to be considered symbolic of modern Japanese culture," he says. "But now it's animation."

According to Mr. Kurita, the next stage will be "expressive" culture, where fashion and cosmetics lead the way - and where Japan already exerts a powerful influence in Taiwan and China. Though pop culture trends in the Asia and the West remain fairly distinct today, he says, "in 10 or 20 years' time, I expect East Asia to become the full-blown opinion leader."

For now, Hello Kitty is on the vanguard of the Japanese cultural image abroad. Part of her charm, says Yo Kato, producer of the 30th anniversary Kitty Exhibition in Tokyo, is her malleability. "She has no mouth and no expression, which enables people to assign their own interpretation - be it as a cute item or as something cool," he says.

The exhibition, which features works by everyone from fashion model Ai Tominaga to Lisa Marie Presley, is a tribute to that flexibility, with installations including a Hello Kitty UFO, a Kafkaesque Kitty de Milo statue, and a Kitty tattoo gallery. Mr. Kato estimates the number of visitors at 100,000 visitors so far and says he been approached to take the show to New York, London, and Paris.

Susan Napier, an expert on Japanese culture at the University of Texas in Austin, agrees that part of Kitty's appeal is the fact that "she's just so amorphous." Because the Japanese origins of the character have been obscured, Hello Kitty has been able to transcend cultural differences and become universal.

Beyond Hello Kitty, a literary culture in Japanese anime and manga offers an alternative to the homogenized - and predominant - Hollywood fare, she says. And children who grew up with video games are said to identify with the animated characters of a nonrepresentational world. …