Big in Japan: Hello Kitty is Japan’s new tourism ambassador

If you thought that the political world of international diplomacy was dry and boring, then guess again….

This week in Japan, government leaders shocked the media by announcing that their latest ambassador to the world is a giant anime cat. Of course, we’re not just talking about any old cat, but none other than Hello Kitty ( ??????????????????; Har? Kiti), that lovable feline that has appeared on everything from bento boxes and chopsticks to cell phones and designer tennis shoes.

According to the Japanese government, Hello Kitty will soon begin serving as the tourism ambassador to China and Hong Kong in a bid to attract more foreign visitors. At a light-hearted public event, a kimono-clad Hello Kitty received a certificate to commemorate her appointment from Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba.

Hello Kitty is no stranger to politics. Since 1983, she’s served as the Children’s Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). However, her new appointment is much more monetary in focus, especially since Japan is hoping to raise its tourism revenue by attracting more than 10 million overseas visitors each year. At present, tourists from China and Hong Kong comprise more than 15 percent of foreign visitors to 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!

Interestingly enough, Hello Kitty is the second anime cat to receive an official government title. This past March, Japan’s foreign minister, namely Masahiko Komura, appointed a giant stuffed Doraemon as Japan’s first ‘anime ambassador,’ tasked with making friends by traveling around the world. According to Mr. Komura: “As an anime ambassador, Doraemon will deepen people’s understanding of Japan so they will become friends with Japan.”

On a serious note, the recent appointments of cartoon cats to government posts couldn’t come at a better time, especially since Japan’s international popularity has waned significantly following a number of controversies including various World War II denial scandals and increased whaling efforts. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Japanese government is extremely keen to promote the country’s strong cultural attributes, such as the weird and wonderful world of manga.

So, I’d like to join the chorus of well-wishers by congratulating Hello Kitty-san on her sexy new job as Japan’s tourism ambassador. 心から本とにおめでとうございます!!

(Special thanks to my sister for uncovering this amusing little news item!)

** Top photo taken by Koji Sasahara (AP)**