Top cat: how 'Hello Kitty' conquered the world

When, in 1974, employees at the Japanese design company Sanrio created Hello Kitty, the small, rounded cartoon cat with a red bow between her ears and no mouth, they could never have dreamt that she would become the global megastar she is today. Sales of Hello Kitty merchandise now account for half of Saniro's $1bn (£500m) annual turnover and her face adorns 50,000 products, sold in more than 60 countries.

The little half-Japanese, half-English cat has become so globally recognisable that it is, perhaps, inevitable that the Japanese board of tourism has appointed her their official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong. This is not the first time the world has looked to Hello Kitty to perform an ambassadorial role; she has been United States children's ambassador for Unicef since 1983.

Dr Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer at Oxford University on Japanese sociology, thinks that Japan's choice of Hello Kitty as their representative is unsurprising.

"It seems predictable enough to have her adopted as a diplomatic envoy," she says. "That has been the way of the 'Cool Japan' bandwagon for a few years now, and relations with China are no healthier. It seems a bit farcical to select Hello Kitty, however: as if a dumbed-down cultural icon that was cool in her retro boom in the 1990s, and which Chinese teenagers dig, can somehow do something significant to alter the gnarly and difficult state of China-Japan relations."

Hello Kitty's creator started out as the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark cards. Sanrio was founded by Shintaro Tsuji in 1960; Tsuji, a qualified chemist, lost his mother when he was 13 and spent an unhappy childhood with reluctant relatives. He attended a kindergarten run by a Canadian missionary and saw for the first time the custom of birthdays, which were not traditionally celebrated in Japan. He decided he would use his company to foster the culture of gift-giving.

As an experiment in 1971, in the wake of student riots, the company began printing rounded, cutesy images on previously blank writing stationery and in 1974, Hello Kitty was drawn. She was drawn without a mouth, which later made her the perfect cross-cultural representative. She wasn't given a mouth, explains Sanrio, because she "speaks from the heart. She's Sanrio's ambassador to the world and isn't bound to any particular language".

She was made partly English because when she was first drawn, the Japanese rarely travelled abroad; foreign, especially English, associations, were particularly popular. The stationery and diaries were a hit with schoolgirls during the 1980s and the company soon branched out in to other fanshi guzzu (fancy goods).

In the 1990s, Hello Kitty had a second stab at fame as it was was re-marketed as a "retro" brand. Shops, run by the outlet label Vivitix, marketed Hello Kitty to teens and adults, appealing to their sense of nostalgia. As eight year-olds they would have used Hello Kitty pencils and pencil cases in the classroom; in their late teens and early twenties, they reached for Hello Kitty satchels and make-up mirrors.

"Hello Kitty stands for the innocence and sincerity of childhood and the simplicity of the world," says Helen McCarthy, an author and expert on Japanese animation and comics. "Women and girls all over the world are happy to buy in to the image of the trusting, loving childhood in a safe neighbourhood that Hello Kitty represents. They don't want to let go of that image, so as they grow up, they hang onto Hello Kitty out of nostalgic longing – as if by keeping a symbolic object, they can somehow keep hold of a fragment of their childhood self."

And so now, although originally conceived as a character that would appeal to pre-teen girls, Hello Kitty is no longer regarded as being for children only. Along with the likes of Coca-Cola and Nike, she has become a brand phenomenon.

Her wide, white, slightly questioning face first adorned a clear plastic coin purse, which retailed for 240 yen (£1.17). Now you can buy almost anything stamped with the Hello Kitty brand, including towels, pencils, clothing, stationery and mobile phone covers, selling in more than 60 countries. Hello Kitty's popularity with adults is reflected in the changing products available: you can buy Hello Kitty-branded laptops and adult-sized underwear – you can buy more merchandise and charge it to your Hello Kitty credit card, cannily supplied by the Bank of America; really dedicated fans can register for their own @hellokitty.com email address at the website, Sanriotown.com.

Hello Kitty is technically just one character who inhabits an entire, fictional world dreamt up by Sanrio. She lives in cyberspace on the fondant-coloured Sanriotown website. Hello Kitty has her own birthday, 1 November, (which makes her a Scorpio) and, as her English heritage befits, she lives in London with her parents and twin sister, Mimmy. Her many hobbies include travelling, music, reading and "eating yummy cookies her sister Mimmy bakes".

Other characters who share Hello Kitty's world include Dear Daniel (Hello Kitty'son-off boyfriend), Kathy, Tippy and Thomas. Conveniently located to the right of Hello Kitty's biography on the Sanriotown website is a link to the online shop, where you can buy a silver and pearl Hello Kitty necklace for £60, a steering-wheel cover for £14 or a Hello Kitty digital camera for £80.

Sanrio's theme park, Puroland, opened in 1990; it features Sanrio's most popular characters, with Hello Kitty as its star draw, and with yearly figures of 1.5 million visitors, from around the world, it is one of Japan's most popular visitor attractions.

Hello Kitty even became an animated character. She first appeared on the American-animated Hello Kitty's Furry Tale Theatre, which was shown on US television throughout 1987. Another series ran in 1991. This year, Hello Kitty was seen for the first time in 3D in an animation made by Sanrio Digital, called The Adventures of Hello Kitty & Friends. The Hello Kitty craze reached fever pitch in the early to mid-1990s, when celebrity endorsement from fellow megastars such as Mariah Carey, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were photographed wearing assorted pieces of Hello Kitty branding. The American singer Lisa Loeb is a particular fan, dedicated an entire album to Hello Kitty, entitled Hello Lisa.

When Hello Kitty was first marketed to the US, the cultural differences meant that changes to the Japanese version had to be made. Sanrio's market research showed American consumers responded best to pink and purple kitties and worst to anything blue, yellow or red. The American audience also took against one of Hello Kitty's friends, a little snail, which had to be eliminated from the merchandise.

But Sanrio got it right in the end and now there are no differences in the American and Japanese lines of merchandise. Indeed, when Sanrio tried to customise Hello Kitty for itsTaiwanese and Hong Kong markets, putting her in local dress and in local surroundings, the products did not sell. Her mixed English-Japanese heritage was part of her charm.

Cultural commentators often see the invention of Hello Kitty as part of a wider cultural wave of kawaii (translatable as "cuteness") in Japan. Other popular characters in Japan, such as Pokemon, which adorns the side of Japan Airlines aircraft, are as cosily (or sinisterly, depending on how you see it) cute. The popularity of kawaii can be seen as either an example of Japan's harmonious and peace-loving culture or an example of Japan's culture of non-assertion.

Dr Kinsella describes the ingredients of a kawaii character in her essay Cuties in Japan: "The essential anatomy of a cute cartoon character is small, soft, infantile, mammalian, round, without bodily appendages (arms), without bodily orifices (mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered."

Hello Kitty's cuteness, says Dr Kinsella, was originally good at selling merchandise to schoolgirls because it lent something of a personality to an otherwise soulless piece of writing paper or a plain desk diary.

"Now, cute has become a new national style," she adds. "It is being used diplomatically and in fine-art circles to promote Japan. It has come a long way from its schoolgirl roots."

Other Sanrio creations

BADTZ-MARU

Badtz-Maru is the only Sanrio character aimed at both boys and girls; teenage boys often have tattoos of this bad-attitude penguin in his classic pose: one eye closed and tongue sticking out. He was the official mascot for the 2006 FIBA World Championship of basketball, which was held in Japan.

LITTLE TWIN STARS

Little Twin Stars are a brother and sister called Kiki and Lala; they live on a cloud. Kiki has blue hair and sometimes appears with a star-shaped halo, while Lala has pink hair and carries a wand. Launched by Sanrio in 1975, they became particularly popular in the 1980s.

MY MELODY

My Melody is the first rabbit character released by Sanrio. She was originally marketed as a Little Red Riding Hood character when she first appeared in 1976, hence the red hood. She was popular in the Seventies, but then fell out of fashion.

KEROPPI

Keroppi the frog was released in 1987 and rivalled Hello Kitty in terms of merchandising in the early 1990s, particularly in the UK. The Keroppi line of trinkets was discontinued when sales started to decline.

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