She’s an internationally acclaimed superstar who accessorizes with a colorful bow clipped near her left ear. Her image appears on more than 10,000 items.
She and her equally darling companions are responsible for taking down the samurai, ninja and Godzilla-era movie monsters that ruled Japanese popular culture for decades.
She’s Hello Kitty.
First introduced in 1974 by the Japanese company Sanrio, Hello Kitty is one of global pop’s most successful brands. The outpouring of cute-cat merchandise rakes in billions of dollars in revenue, and is primarily consumed by girls ranging from age six up to females in their 30s.
Rachel DiNitto, co-director of the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Program at William & Mary, studies the influence of Hello Kitty and other avatars of Japanese popular culture. She explains that over the past three decades, Japan’s cultural, economic and political dynamics have shifted. Those changes have made Japanese pop culture a global phenomenon, influencing markets, entrepreneurs and other cultures.
Traditional American popular culture celebrates the cowboy, athletes and real-life drama, while contemporary Japanese pop culture embraces a youthfulness and playfulness.
“There’s a cuteness aesthetic in Japan that is very appealing to people globally,” said DiNitto, associate professor of Japanese studies. The Japanese term is kawaii, literally meaning cute and lovable. In societal terms, cuteness is accepted and desired by Japanese adults of all ages and genders, she added.
DiNitto says the rise of cuteness in Japanese culture began in the 1970s, when Hello Kitty was launched. Cute Japanese pop stars were heavily marketed, and a magazine culture emerged, targeting young girls as consumers. Hello Kitty and her associated girl culture fueled popular culture in the 1980s, harnessing the economic power of the nation’s young females.
It’s all about the kawaii
Kawaii permeates Japanese anime, manga (comics), fashion and advertising. For example, Pikachu, a character from Pokémon, decorates the side of Japanese trains and airplanes. Even Japanese police departments employ lovable mascots.
According to DiNitto, the cute factor has become such an enormous corporate success that non-Japanese companies are attempting to cash in on the craze. Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Funimation and Warner Bros. are a few of the many American corporations emulating the Japanese.
But when other cultures incorporate the Japanese-cute aesthetic, there’s an evident trade off, said DiNitto.
She cites Italian artist Simone Legno’s Japan-influenced lifestyle brand Tokidoki. Legno’s designs have been incorporated into lines of toys, cosmetics, clothing and accessories—even cell phones.
A student working on a project in DiNitto’s Japan’s Gross National Cool course, conducted research on Tokidoki designs. She found that the women in Legno’s illustrations were leggier, bustier, more likely to be at least partially nude—altogether more sexualized—than the innocent kawaii images found in Japanese comics and anime, said DiNitto.
More sex may sell globally, DiNitto says, “but it’s more of an innocent cuteness that defines the Japanese culture.” Which is not to say that there is no overtly sexual imagery in Japan, she adds.
The influence of Japanese pop culture can be found everywhere in America—from manga comics filling the racks of mainstream bookstores to skyrocketing sales of the Wii video game. Japanese anime-style cartoons play on Nickelodeon. Sushi is even challenging burgers as the go-to U.S. convenience food.
These Japanese-origin products may be all the rage, but scholars continue to debate the reasons for their wide popularity, says DiNitto. Pop-culture scholars have coined the term “culturally odorless,” or mukokuseki, to identify this singular aspect of Japanese popular culture, she said.
“‘Culturally odorless’ means these products are not marketed as Japanese; they’re not marketed as anything,” explained DiNitto. “By eliminating a level of exoticism and national branding, the products become easy to consume because they’re not targeted toward any specific culture, gender or age group.”
Some critics feel the “culturally odorless” phenomenon is responsible for the global popularity of Japanese culture. Legno’s overtly sexual
Tokidoki women are also very Asian in appearance—the antithesis of culturally odorless. Hello Kitty, by comparison, was created with no origin or background story, says DiNitto. Unlike Godzilla, who was born in Japan of nuclear testing and spawned a succession of Japanese monster movies, Hello Kitty technically has no national ties to Japan. It was only later, DiNitto says, that Sanrio gave Hello Kitty a character profile and a British nationality.
A kitty for everyone
Hello Kitty’s simplistic and malleable facial features also make her appealing to everyone. Her white cartoonish face, button eyes and absent mouth make her visage as versatile as it is enigmatic, says DiNitto.
“There’s nothing foreign about Kitty. She can become kind of anything,” said DiNitto, adding, “There’s no real national identity to her.” You can find Hello Kitty speaking Spanish or Chinese. There is even a Hello Kitty dressed as the revolutionary Che Guevara.
The second argument for Japan’s cultural globalization is a bit more subjective: For many, Japanese pop culture is just more interesting than American popular culture.
“Students tell me all the time they feel American popular culture is kind of tired and worn,” says DiNitto. “Japanese popular culture is offering them possibilities and alternatives that they find more appealing. It’s a way for them to reject or resist American popular culture they feel really isn’t speaking to them anymore.”
One example is video games, says DiNitto. She explained that American video games tend to be very masculine and often military-oriented. By comparison, Japanese video games have more intricate plot lines that incorporate more fully developed characters, attracting more female gamers.
Working on a new book
DiNitto is currently working on a new book project. Tentatively titled Consuming Cultural Politics, the book examines political expression found in the culture of contemporary Japan from the 1990s to 2000s.
Inspiration to write the book came from student class projects, says DiNitto. She challenges students to think beyond their blind consumption of these cultural products to consider deeper issues. Students in the Japan’s Gross National Cool class analyze scholarly articles on Japan’s music, movies, anime, video games and cuisine. Those in her Popular Culture and Nationalism in Millennial Japan: 1980s-2000s, study popular culture alongside the rise of nationalism in contemporary Japan.
DiNitto says Hello Kitty’s reign over Japanese popular culture may be coming to an end. She cites one piece of evidence, a recent exhibit in New York titled, Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art.
The real question is not what will happen to Hello Kitty, but what will emerge from Japan in the upcoming decade as it recovers from the Fukushima disaster. DiNitto hopes to look at this question in the epilogue to her new book.