Big in Japan: Hello Kitty and the Culture of Cute

Let’s start today’s column with a warm-up exercise. Ready to waken up that brain?

Name the first five things that come to mind when you think about Japan.

Ready. Set. Go!


Need more time? Sorry – I’m working with a limited amount of space here! So, did you come up with sushi? Sumo wrestling? Cherry blossoms? Rock gardens?

How about Hello Kitty?

Easily one of the Japan’s most recognizable cartoon characters, Har? Kiti (Hello Kitty, ??????????????????) is known and loved the world over. From Hello Kitty bento boxes and chopsticks to cell phone straps and designer tennis shoes, Hello Kitty is a global trademark that appeals to virtually all age groups and both sexes. According to estimates, Hello Kitty adorns over 22,000 products worldwide, and earns almost a billion dollars a year in revenue for the Sanrio Company of Japan.

Hello Kitty was created in 1974 by Sanrio – the very first product was a clear vinyl coin purse bearing the face of Hello Kitty, which sold for 240 yen or approximately two dollars. Surprisingly, Hello Kitty was intended to be named ‘Kitty White’ after one of Alice’s cats in the Lewis Carroll classic Through the Looking-Glass. At the time, British culture was the height of fashion amongst Japanese girls, and Hello Kitty was never intended to have any appeal beyond the pre-adolescent female market.

Of course, the designers at Sanrio failed to fully appreciate the Japanese obsession with all things cute.

One of the first words foreigners learn upon arriving in Japan is the all-important catch phrase kawaii (cute, 可愛い). The favorite three syllables of most women in Japan, cuteness is a cultural obsession that few foreigners completely understand. While Western beauty and fashion stresses the importance of women looking sexy, a large percentage of Japanese females strive to attain the highest possible level of kawaisa (cuteness, 可愛さ). Incorporating everything from brightly colored hair-extensions and fluorescent eye make-up to knee-high socks and flowery dresses, Japanese fashion can simultaneously shock your senses and melt your heart.

With that said, cute culture extends far beyond the realms of beauty and fashion, and it’s by no means limited to the female segment of the population. If you look for it, kawaisa appears virtually everywhere in Japan, even in places that Westerners would consider juvenile. For instance, the Japanese think nothing of using cartoon characters and random bits of cuteness for public service announcements, office memos, government letters and even police notices.

So, it should come as no surprise that Hello Kitty is a marketing phenomenon unlike no other. Greying salarymen think nothing of dangling a hot pink Hello Kitty strap from their cell phone, while middle-aged housewives swear that the Hello Kitty toaster is the best on the market.

(And, truth be told, I’ve been known to rock out some Hello Kitty chopsticks from time to time).

Tune in tomorrow for Part II of Hello Kitty and Culture of Cute.

** Special thanks for Flickr users ♥ Cherie♥ (cute girl), ChaTox (Lolita Girl) and Seiya235 (Umbrella Girl) **