‘She was ours’: How Hello Kitty went from being popular with Asian Americans in the ’70s to being a global icon

‘She was ours’: How Hello Kitty went from being popular with Asian Americans in the ’70s to being a global icon‘She was ours’: How Hello Kitty went from being popular with Asian Americans in the ’70s to being a global icon
A wide-angle interior view shows the Hello Kitty boutique in the Hot Zone shopping area of the Edo Market Place above the main Departure Hall at Haneda Airport’s new TIAT (Tokyo International Air Terminal), located in Tokyo’s Ota Ward on Tokyo Bay just south of central Tokyo, Japan.
Her name is Kitty White. And she’s not a cat but a “happy girl with a heart of gold,” read the character’s official profile on Japanese company Sanrio.
Hello Kitty may be one of the most recognizable and enduring cartoon characters in the world, but even for her most ardent fans, there’s still a lot to learn about the adorable icon.

A British girl from the suburbs

According to the fictional biography that Sanrio established for Kitty White, she is a third-grader who is about five apples tall and weighs about three apples.
The character was born to Mary “Mama” White and George “Papa” White in the suburbs of London, England. She has a sister named Mimmy, a boyfriend named Dear Daniel and a pet cat named Charmmy Kitty.
Kitty, who celebrated her birthday on Nov. 1, loves collecting all things cute, just like most of her fans.

Birth of a cultural icon

The character was created in 1974 by Yuko Shimizu after Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji realized that adding cute emblems on their merchandise helped boost sales, according to The Culture Trip.
Shimizu depicted Kitty as a young female “gijinka,” which is an anthropomorphization of a cat. Originally designed to appeal to young children, Hello Kitty’s aesthetic was intentionally kept simple and drawn in primary colors. She is illustrated without a mouth, wearing a blue jumper over a red top and her signature red bow on her left ear.
Yuko Yamaguchi, Hello Kitty’s third designer, who eventually became the character’s main designer, explained in an interview with TIME magazine that Hello Kitty has no mouth so “people who look at her can project their own feelings onto her face.”
“Kitty looks happy when people are happy,” she said. “She looks sad when they are sad. For this psychological reason, we thought she shouldn’t be tied to any emotion.” 
Yamaguchi also revealed that at the time of Kitty’s creation, Japanese girls were fascinated with Britain. Having Kitty be born in London also differentiated her from other Sanrio characters, which were described as being from the U.S.

Commercial juggernaut

Hello Kitty first appeared on coin purses for young girls in 1975, according to The New Economy. With a design that perfectly captured the “kawaii” (Japanese cute culture) segment of Japan’s pop culture at the time, Hello Kitty became a local and international phenomenon by the mid-’80s.
“Throughout the 80s and 90s, Hello Kitty was very kawaii and played a huge part in the growth of kawaii in Japan,” Sanrio Senior Marketing Manager Martina Longueira was quoted as saying. “Hello Kitty was really able to resonate with the concept of cuteness and femininity”.
Sanrio then began selling handbags and other items marketed to adult women in the ’90s, further expanding its base, according to the Independent. By the end of the decade, Hello Kitty was the country’s top-grossing character.
University of Hawaii Anthropology Professor and Hello Kitty expert Christine Yano said Hello Kitty had an immediate impact on Asian Americans when the character was launched in the U.S.
“When Hello Kitty arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, it was a commodity mainly in Asian enclaves: Chinatowns, Japantowns, etc.,” Yano told the LA Times. “In talking to Japanese Americans who grew up in the 1970s, they say, ‘That figure means so much to us because she was ours.’ It’s something they saw as an identity marker.”
According to Yano, Sanrio eventually penetrated American popular culture after celebrities such as Mariah Carey and Cameron Diaz began associating themselves with the character.
“It went from an Asian-American niche market to a much broader market, so that by the 90s Hello Kitty was fairly widespread and distributed to department stores,” Yano told The New Economy.
Hello Kitty’s skyrocketing popularity resulted in officially licensed cartoons, books and video games about the character. Kitty also became the star attraction in theme parks Sanrio established in Japan in the early ‘90s.
The lasting appeal of the character’s simple yet adorable aesthetic has continued to help Sanrio earn billions of dollars in revenue.
Yano, who wrote the academic paper “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific,” shared in an earlier interview with The Harvard Gazette that Hello Kitty’s success can be attributed to its “very clever, aesthetically pleasing design, which a lot can be read into.”
Today, Hello Kitty’s likeness can be seen on thousands of products, ranging from mass market items like toys and plushies to high-end collectible products such as jewelry and household appliances. Last year alone, Sanrio is estimated to have made $273.5 million in global earnings.
At the young age of 47 years old, there seems to be no sign of slowing down for this 5-apple-tall girl from London.
Featured Image via Getty
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