Hello Kitty at 40: How she conquered the world
As the feline turns 40 she’s more powerful than ever. But how did she become a brand worth $7bn?
After Japan, Singapore was the first to suffer an outbreak. The infection? Hello Kitty mania. In 2000, a shortage of toys displaying the beloved cat at one of the city’s McDonald’s restaurants led to the unleashing of darker, violent instincts when a riot ensued. Seven people were injured and three taken to hospital for treatment. That was just the beginning.
Now, what is left of our species, children and adults alike, have succumbed, making ‘Kitty chan’, as she is better known in Japan, one of the most recognisable graphics on Earth. Hello Kitty turns 40 this autumn, and we can now see that she was the Trojan Horse that led to the global domination of Japanese ‘cute culture’. From Marrakech to Honolulu, the ubiquitous red-ribboned cat now stands top-tier in any toy display. Googling Mickey Mouse reaps about 23 million results. Search Hello Kitty, however, and you’ll find the kitten, which is basically just a narrative-free, trademarked drawing, garners 10 million more.
Kitty-shaped guitars and even Hello Kitty tombstones abound. The famous feline, originally drawn by designer Yuko Shimizu to appeal to kindergarten children, has been adopted as a style icon by the likes of Lady Gaga. Remarkably, such world-domination has been achieved with little advertising; relying instead on word-of-mouth. Now Hello Kitty appears on over 50,000 products that are sold in more than 70 countries, and is a brand worth $7bn. The company that holds the copyright, Sanrio, makes around $759m in annual revenue off the cat alone. So, why have we all become such pushovers for the feline?
“Kitty's appeal is that she's an emotional blank slate. As one of her designers told me: ‘Kitty feels like you do,’” explains Roland Nozomu Kelts, the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. “We project upon that mouth-less, expressionless kitten, making her the perfectly interactive toy or doll or marketing tool in an age where interactivity is not only desired, it's expected.”
“Hello Kitty represents the deep desire among all people, regardless of nationality or race, to feel joy and happiness, without having to qualify it at any deep intellectual level,” Sanrio’s public relations manager Kazuo Tohmatsu tells BBC Culture. “Hello Kitty doesn't judge. She let's you feel how you feel without forcing you to question why.”
Sanrio made its fortune licensing the character to a slew of other businesses that produce merchandise. “Hello Kitty's many easily-accessible products make it easy to incorporate her into our daily lives and experience the ‘cute culture’ that her brand represents in different ways,” says Michelle Nguyen, who licenses the character for her Chubby Bunny Accessories. That’s why Forbes magazine has called Hello Kitty one of the best-selling licensed entertainment products ever.
So successful has Kitty been that she was chosen to be a Japanese diplomatic envoy, the official tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong, in 2008. All part of Japan’s drive to bolster its soft power globally through a state-backed campaign dubbed Cool Japan. Promoting manga, anime cartoons and other aspects of Japanese pop culture, it’s an initiative that came about when Japan’s perennially uncool bureaucrats had a vision that cultural exports could help plug the economic gap created by the near collapse of Japan Inc in the 1990s.
Out went promoting wabi sabi and tea ceremonies. In came the country’s pop culture as flagships of Japanese enterprise. Older, less cute merchandise, would only remind the Japanese of their hubris and their bubble economy that burst, taking macho hi-tech Japan with it. Since the ‘90s many in the nation have wanted their culture to get in touch with its feminine side, hence the new love of all things kawaii (rhymes with Hawaii and means cute). Cute is also an important social lubricant in cities where many desperately seek a comfort blanket, a buffer against exceedingly tough urban lifestyles. Japanese companies now take special care in projecting their kawaii image, says Yasuko Nakamura, president of Tokyo-based marketing company Boom Planning: “Japanese products are made to be kawaii so that they are liked by women. In Japan, women hold the spending power. Even for things that women don't purchase themselves, such as a car, they have a strong say in the final decision.”
To rule the world
But why has Hello Kitty made such a foothold in Europe and the United States? Perhaps it is because the western democracies in the past decade have encountered problems similar to those Japan has faced since the 90s: deflation, more work for less pay, an ageing demographic and an unhealthy obsession with youth. Even the once hard-bitten British are falling for Hello Kitty and Osaka-based musician and cultural commentator Nick Currie thinks he knows why. “Hello Kitty symbolises some essential Japanese virtues: agreeableness, harmony, commerce, cuteness, nature, fertility, affluence and the avoidance of aggression,” he says. “She [also] represents the irresistible idiocy of consumer culture, hardwired to our neurological system. We shop with almost the same reflexes that make us stretch out to stroke a big-eyed, fluffy kitten.” That may be a universal impulse.
But the West, and certain minorities in Japan, are not all about the ascendance of commerce. Pockets of resistance to Kitty tyranny do exist, while savvier cartoon characters from Japan are now poised to possibly eclipse the reign of this most babyish of icons.
Kitty Hell is one of a number of web sites that aims to thwart the ubiquitous feline. The blogger puts up examples of his Japanese wife’s – and others’obsession with the mouthless one . He posts items such as Kitty-shaped face tattoos and suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that “Sanrio has invented a Hello Kitty virus that makes people do things like this.”
“All I really do is point out the absurdity of the fans and all the products,” the anonymous blogger tells the BBC.
Meanwhile, the genius Japan has demonstrated for creating likeable characters has spawned another Pan-Asian hit in the form of a chat service called Line. Much of the app’s popularity rides on one area where Japan has an unassailable lead – the design and playful use of emoji (Japanese emoticons). On the Line app they have grown into fully delineated characters such as the enigmatic Moon.
Now the company behind Line is gunning for equal success worldwide – recently the Spanish have also fallen in love with Line’s impish and much more cynical, adult-oriented mascots. Could it be time to say “Hello Line” and “goodbye feline”?
Hello Kitty最早流行于日本，随后在新加坡掀起热潮，出现大批Hello Kitty迷。2000年，因新加坡某家麦当劳餐厅Hello Kitty玩具供应不足，人群发生暴乱，造成7人受伤、3人入院，人性黑暗暴力面展露无遗。然而，这仅仅是开端。
如今，这只风靡日本的小猫咪（ Kitty chan）已成为世界最著名动画人物之一Hello Kitty，深受成年人与儿童喜爱。2014年秋季，Hello Kitty将迎来40岁生日。它已成为日本“可爱文化”（ cute culture）风靡世界的“特洛伊木马”。从马拉喀什（Marrakech）到火奴鲁鲁（Honolulu），这只头戴红色蝴蝶结的小猫在各种玩具展览中广受欢迎。假如你谷歌搜索“米奇老鼠”，将有230万个搜索结果；但如果搜索“Hello Kitty”，你将得到100万个搜索结果，尽管它只是个不会说话，商业图标以及有1000多万用户的游戏。
Hello Kitty形状的吉他，甚至Hello Kitty的墓碑都随处可见。设计师清水侑子（Yuko Shimizu）起初为吸引幼儿园小朋友而画出的Hello Kitty如今已成为Lady Gaga追捧的时尚标志。值得注意的是，Hello Kitty风靡世界的秘诀不在于广告宣传，而是口口相传。目前世界上有70多个国家出售5万多种Hello Kitty相关产品，Hello Kitty商标价值已达70亿美元。拥有Hello Kitty版权的三丽鸥会社（Sanrio）单凭Hello Kitty年收入已达7.59亿美元。Hello Kitty到底是如何俘获消费者芳心的？
“Hello Kitty的吸引力在于它是一块情绪诉求的白板。”正如其设计者之一所说：“Hello Kitty表达的是你的情绪。”日美著作家罗兰•佐佐木望•凯尔特斯（Roland Nozomu Kelts）解释日本流行文化如何风靡美国时说道：“我们计划推出一只没有嘴巴、面无表情的小猫咪，在互动不仅是唯一需求的时代，使其成为互动完美的玩具、玩偶或营销工具。”
“Hello Kitty代表所有人群渴望感受乐趣和幸福的深层需求，不分国籍种族，不限智力水平。”三丽鸥会社公关部经理等松和夫（Kazuo Tohmatsu）如是说道。“Hello Kitty不会评头论足，它让你感受当下，而非强迫你去追问原因。”
通过授权企业大量生产Hello Kitty相关商品，三丽鸥会社收益颇丰。“便于购买的Hello Kitty产品让它轻易融入我们日常生活，人们时常能感受到Hello Kitty商标以不同方式呈现的‘可爱文化’。”米歇尔•阮（Michelle Nguyen）说道。她的胖兔子配件公司（Chubby Bunny Accessories）已获得Hello Kitty授权。这便是《福布斯》杂志将Hello Kitty评为史上最畅销授权娱乐产品的原因。
由于Hello Kitty广受欢迎， 2008年，它成为日本外交使节，驻中国大陆与香港的日本官方旅游大使。日本以“酷日本”（Cool Japan）为驱动力，支持其文化软实力在国际社会发展。日本刻板的官员意识到，文化输出有助于缩小20世纪90年代日本企业衰落引起的经济差距，因此积极主动推广漫画、动漫卡通和其他方面日本流行文化。
侘寂之美（wabi sabi）和茶道已经过时，日本流行文化才是当今日本企业称霸世界的秘诀。老式土气的商品只会让日本人回想起骄傲自大的国民性格、惨遭破灭的泡沫经济和男性主导高新技术。20世纪90年代以来，许多日本人希望本国文化能够展现其女性化一面，因此涌现“卡哇伊”（与英文“夏威夷”韵脚相同，意为“可爱”）新风尚。可爱文化成为渴望在城市社会生活中寻找温暖的人们的润滑剂；同时，可爱文化更有助于缓冲节奏快而艰难的城市生活方式。如今，日本企业特别注意开发小巧可爱的卡通形象。日本东京营销公司繁荣计划（Boom Planning）总裁中村宁子（Yasuko Nakamura）说道：“为吸引女性消费者，日本产品制作小巧可爱。日本女性拥有消费能力，即便如轿车等非女性自己购买的东西，她们对最终决定都拥有强烈发言权。”
然而，Hello Kitty为何能在欧洲和美国取得如此稳固的地位？也许正是因为西方民主国家在过去十年中遭遇了与日本90年代以来相似的问题：通货紧缩、工作多薪资低、人口老龄化和青少年颓靡。即便是一度强硬的英国国民也为Hello Kitty倾心，驻大阪音乐家、文化评论员尼克•克里（Nick Currie）分析其中原因。“Hello Kitty象征着几项日本基本美德：亲善、和谐、商业、可爱、自然、多子、富足和避免侵略。”他说道。“同时，Hello Kitty也代表盲目冲动的消费文化，人们与生俱来就有这种冲动。几乎出于相同的反射作用，我们购物时都会去拿有着大眼睛、毛茸茸的Hello Kitty。”这也许是普遍的冲动消费。
但在部分西方国家和少数日本人眼中，Hello Kitty并不那么“可爱”。出现过抵制Kitty时尚袋子。另一方面，来自日本形象精明的卡通人物正瞄准稚气十足的Hello Kitty，准备抢夺其风头。
“凯蒂地狱”（Kitty Hell）是众多抵制无处不在的Hello Kitty的网站之一。博主列举他的日本妻子及其他人痴迷Hello Kitty的例子。他发布诸如Hello Kitty形状面部纹身的照片，半开玩笑道：“三丽鸥发明了一种名为Hello Kitty的病毒，感染者都会干这种傻事。”
（译者 李文艳 编辑 丹妮）