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
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
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
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. …