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) **

Big in Japan: The Beginning

I guess the question at hand is simply this: where to begin?

Should I kick off my first real column talking about the 151 rules of sushi etiquette? Or should I instead pontificate on the virtues of a perfectly brewed cup of green tea? Better yet, perhaps I should offer some sort of experiential wisdom for zen seekers the world over? Well, I shall touch on all of these issues at some point in my writings, but alas not today.

On the contrary, I’d like to offer some random musings on one simple question: why Japan?

Whether you’ve lived in Japan for years and are starting to forget your English, or you’re fresh off the plane and are fighting your jet-lag with vending machine coffee, ex-pats inevitably struggle with this simple question. To complicate the matter at hand, Japanese people are fascinated with foreigners in their country, and seem to revel in asking us why we abandoned our Western trappings for a life of bento boxes and Hello Kitty chopsticks.

Truth be told, most of us over here really don’t know why we’re here, and simply rebuff these inquiries with a simple ‘nantonaku‘ or ‘why not?’ Although most Westerners would view this answer as a cop out, the Japanese are far too polite to push the issue. Japan is a land of manners and grace, and people here are extremely adept at reading between the lines and avoiding unnecessary confrontation.

Of course, I guess after several years of on and off living in Japan, I should be able to answer this question. Indeed, if I had a yen for every time my friends and family asked me why I keep coming back here, I’d be able to eat my weight in toro (fatty tuna). Sadly, I’ve yet to come up with a simple and easy answer, though I’ll do my best to try.

One of the joys of traveling is pushing your comfort zone, dealing with culture shock and learning that the world is vastly more complicated that you could have ever managed. From witnessing grinding poverty for the first time to finding yourself on the open road, all of us have a place in our mind that touches us to the core. With that said, no matter how much time I spend over here, Japan never ceases to blow my mind.

Every time I walk down the streets of Tokyo, I feel like a hyperactive ‘kid in a candy shop’ who forgot to take his Ritalin. Japan is bursting at the seams with stimuli, and every time I think I’ve figured it out or seen it all, something inevitably floors me.

Indeed, what other country in the world could bring you consumer goods such as the ‘nipple scarf,’ which keeps you warm while compensating for certain inadequacies? Or, why spend another night alone in bed when you can snuggle up to the ‘hubby pillow,’ which never snores, never complains and always stays on its side of the bed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Japan is a weird, wacky and wonderful place. Keep tuning in to ‘Big in Japan‘ – there is plenty more to come.