Below you can read through my dissertation, please be aware I will need to add all my references (once I’ve found them). The finished article was slightly different, but I need to dig out the files from my old uni usb and computer.Pictures also accompanied the dissertation which I will upload soon.
*Please don’t use my dissertation without my permission*
Kitty White, or as she’s best known Hello Kitty, was born in 1974 in London to George and Mary White. She weighs the same as 3 shiny apples and is the height of 5 shiny apples. Her blood type is A, and her hobbies range from baking cookies with her sister Mimmy to making new friends. “After all” she says “you can never have too many friends”. (Sanrio.com)
This is the billion dollar world of one of the most recognised characters in the world today. “Each year, the Japanese buy 2.1bn comics, consume 1.3kg of green tea per household and spend 2.7bn yen (£27m) on Hello Kitty merchandise” (O’Connell, 2001)
Sanrio the company behind Hello Kitty first made a name for itself designing cute decorated stationery and dairies featuring strawberries in 1971. The 60’s and 70’s saw a movement with Language and Literature. “In 1974 large numbers of teenagers especially women began to write using a new style of childish characters. By 1978 the phenomenon had become nation-wide and in 1985 it was estimated that upwards of about 5 million young people were using the new script” (Kinsella, 1995)
Shintaro Tsuji the President of Sanrio realised the cute market could be mass marketed. He started to buy into the character market by purchasing the licensing rights to sell characters such as Snoopy in Japan. Cute characters sold well, and as long as the products weren’t overemphasized then the product life cycle of a Star as would be seen in the BCG Matrix.; could be extremely profitable to the company. Sanrio’s designers also started to produce their own characters to be licensed.
“The year she was released, 1974, Sanrio’s sales grew almost threefold from the year before. Between 1974 and 1977, sales grew sevenfold and profits grew tenfold. Tsuji realized the fleeting nature of the success. He shifted resources within Sanrio to capitalize on his hit, expanding the product line in Japan and taking Kitty overseas, decades before Super Mario and Pokemon become world wide phenomena” (Belson P64).
“Unlike American cartoons, which tend to be bold , full of aggressive colours and sharp lines, Sanrio’s characters are more subtle, with rounder features, more pastel colours and a kind of cosiness that strike a chord in Japan” (Bremmer P64)
Yuko Shimizu’s design of Hello Kitty wasn’t liked by Tsuji at first; however the product was produced and become an instant hit. In 1974 Sanrio introduced the design and in 1975 the first product; a coin purse featuring Kitty and the word “Hello” was launched.
The big problem with the character goods market is the fact that people don’t solely buy into on thing. Various characters can be freely purchased to be put together to create a look.
Tsuji positioned Hello Kitty to appeal to young girls and women:
“Long, mind-numbing commutes took the fun out of work and, increasingly, women became servants to their salary men husbands who brought home the bacon but rarely saw their kids. Stuck in new, remote bedroom communities, women wanted comfort, and Hello Kitty, with her soft features and homespun story was just the kind of nurturing creature to help them escape the hostile, industrialised urban world.” (Belson P64)
What we later see develop is a relationship between the consumer and the product which is deeper than just a commodity. The consumer builds a trusting relationship which is passed on to friends and younger family generations.
Not all of the Hello Kitty and Sanrio history is positive. Tsuji hit many obstacles trying to develop his characters and company. Although Hello Kitty doesn’t originate from a television series this didn’t stop Tsuji trying to develop movies.
Tsuji wanted to develop Sanrio further and in 1974 established an additional enterprise called communications this was to produce films and distribute Sanrio products in North America. The production of films proved very expensive, with over 12 films made until 1984. “Tsuji was driven by a fascination with Disney’s Fantasia, which he had seen as a child. Wanting to produce a Japanese version along the same lines, he set about making animated fantasies, the first one, Chiisana Jumbo (Little Jumbo)” (Belson & Bremner, 2004, 45). Although Tsuji had little success with his film adventures he is best known for a documentary, “Who are the Debolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids? Produced in 1977, the 72- minute film won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1978, making Tsuji the first and only Japanese producer to win the award.
In December 1990 Puroland was opened, the Sanrio theme park has 1 ride; a boat running on rails that slowly carries you through rooms with motorised Sanrio characters. The climax of the day is a singing, dancing acrobatic story which takes place 360 degrees around Puroland’s centrepiece the Friendship Tree. “In 2001, Puroland drew 1.38 million visitors, down 8% from 2000. Yet, 10% of the park’s visitors are from overseas, a higher ratio than Tokyo Disneyland; according to Sanrio. About 80% of the visitors also “repeaters” therefore a second or third time”.
In the past decade Sanrio has run up serious debt “since fiscal 1994- a total of $403.6 million at the current exchange rate. Sanrio’s stock market forays meant that investments in securities and tokkin funds (institutional trusts that may deal in derivatives) once accounted for 40% of assets. That was fine during Japan’s boom years. But not after the bubble burst in the early 1990’s. Tsuji sold tokkin shares valued at $13.2 million; the proceeds were used to help trim Sanrio’s $1.1-billion debt. Securities and tokkin funds now account for less than 30% of total assets of $1.4 billion. To secure a fresh $247 million credit line, Tsuji pledged to dispose of Sanrio’s tokkin holdings within one year”. (Bacani & Mutsuko, 2000).
The 90’s saw a boom for Hello Kitty and Sanrio even though the country was in the middle of a recession. The Print Club phenomenon is partly to do with Sanrio’s success. Developed by Altus and Sega they proved extremely popular with teens and young adults. Mini pictures were taken which then could be framed with a selection of designs. Sanrio ones featured the main characters such as Hello Kitty, My Melody and Chococat. A sheet of up to 36 pictures was then printed- pictures are mostly swapped between friends. Highlighting Hello Kitty’s motto of “never having enough friends, and the Sanrio concept that a “small gift can bring a big smile”.
Like many companies Hello Kitty works alongside many charities like Youth Aids and Unicef. Hello Kitty first partnered with Unicef in 1984, then 1994, and again in 2004. For Hello Kitty’s 30th anniversary Sanrio donated $150,000 to the U.S Fund for UNICEF for girls’ education programs. Due to her work with Unicef she has been awarded the exclusive title of “Unicef Special Friend of Children”
On the surface Hello Kitty may just look like a Childs toy, however savvy marketing has built this character into one of the widest targeted images within today’s society. Kitty started off as a character to feature on small affordable gift products to be aimed at the young youth market in the 70’s. A progressive cute style of writing had taken over Japanese schools. School children started to move away from the strict traditional writing. Thinner more stylised lines were being used with rounded characters. A mixture of English, stars and hearts were incorporated.
Kitty was an instant hit; however Sanrio classes 1997 as the deciding point with in Kitty’s range, when she carried the company safely out of Japans deepening recession. This boom was put down to the once young Hello Kitty buyers growing up, and turning back to Kitty for nostalgic reasons, or trusting her with their own families. Sanrio has developed its product to appeal to everyone for different reasons. The introduction of household appliances provides the older Kitty fan with something more that an image or design but provides a light hearted functionality, where as the basic hair clip or stationery set provides the young consumer with another cute collectable.
Research by people such as Brian McVeigh has revealed that Hello Kitty’s ever growing success can put down to the feelings of solidarity, and fearing being left out of the mix. Hello Kitty can be seen as a consumer idol who gives women and girls the ability to look independent, and live their lives how they want, wearing what they want – ideally pink and cute. Nonetheless McVeigh found that many believed the youth’s obsession with this small character was going to be the breaking of Japans culture.
“The Hello Kitty boom, in many people’s estimations, illustrates how overly sensitive Japanese are to the whim of fashion”. Many pointed out that though they do not care much for Hello Kitty they felt they must pretend they do. If, not they became faun (anxious, insecure, uneasy) and only feel anshin (at ease) after they go along with the trend”. (McVeigh, 2000, p239).
This starts to link up the theory that the so called rebellion via childish language and shocking fashion has lost its momentum, it’s become the mainstream. The area of Harajuku could be classed as a Mecca for the ultimate rebellion with people dressing in their own individual style to shock and excite. The latest trends can be found there, Sanrio’s designer Yamaguchi Yoko used to frequent the area and discuss trends with young girls. “In 1995 she “learned that high school students were opting for clothes that were cuter and more feminine. Kitty’s ribbon was coloured and replaced with a flower in some cases””. (Masuda, 1998). Thus creating the trend of girls wearing flowers in their hair, and showing that Hello Kitty has to stay at the forefront of her market to remain popular.
Yamaguchi’s plans for Hello Kitty’s development started in the 80’s. At first the information and ideas she was receiving from Kitty fans was ignored by Sanrio. Eventually she was able to develop the characters design with different uses of colour and positioning “to synchronize with social trends”. Allowing for Hello Kitty’s appeal to grow from teenagers to adults. Yamaguchi comments “The fans of Kitty, when I first started drawing her in 1980, were around 10 years old. Today the average age of core Hello Kitty fans, I think, is about 34” (Otake, 2004).
Sanrio had to quickly realise that to keep Hello Kitty at the forefront of Gift Purchasing she needed to follow the times and listen to the consumer. Kawaii has a strong hold on Asian society, the trends need to be followed to allow for product development to succeed and make the brand successful. Limited edition designs have also helped to drive sales, with “area-specific” novelties keeping kitty competitive in the character- goods industry. (Otake, 2004). Hello Kitty could well destroy itself internally due to Market Saturation. To combat this Sanrio regularly changes the products available; 300-500 products are introduced seasonally, while the same amount is discontinued. Debatably this will prevent some Market Saturation alongside the development of new limited edition design and morphing the character into a different object like a bubble bee or mermaid. However the over exposure of Hello Kitty still brings to the foreground the question of how long this “cash cow” can remain at the top of the gift giving market. The transaction of Hello Kitty into international markets will help to widen her consumer appeal, alongside Sanrio’s active policing of counterfeit goods.
Japans culture of gift giving also plays a part in Sanrio consumption. Gifts at a high price can alienate the receiver as they may feel that they need to reciprocate to the same value, or they may feel the giver is showing off their wealth. On the other hand a gift of little value can give the impression of looking cheap and representing your true feelings of the receiver. Tsuji took the decision that 300 yen to 500 yen ($2.50 – $4.15) was an acceptable medium, also allowing for children to be able to purchase the products, as they were seen as high gift purchasers. (Belson & Bremmer, 2004, P.42).
“Sanrio works with certain retailers to create products that serve their special marketing- demographic needs. For Target, the hip mass retailer that attracts a more affluent clientele, the company is developing a tiki- themed “pool party” line for next summer. “Overall, we try to keep a sense of humour and we try top keep things tongue and cheek. So, even if we dress Hello Kitty as a punk rocker, which we [have done], we make sure it’s not too hard and that it’s always [in] embodiment of trend, which is still cute and appropriate. (Gomez, 2004).
“Bill Hensley, Sanrio’s Marketing Manager in Southern San Francisco, explained that “We’re the leader in the retail- first strategy of creating characters to be on products’. “Retail-first” means having characters debut on products rather than using characters whop start their lives in books, comic strips, cartoons or films and then move onto products. Thus, “Sanrio’s characters begin their existence right off as retail products, without the benefit of prior celebrity” (Fox, 1998,15).
“In the United Stares of America, Asian American gifts and women have long been a core segment of Hello Kitty’s market, shopping both at retail outlets in Chinatown and Japantowns in big cities and at Sanrio’s own company-operated stores. More recently, Hispanic American females have discovered and become big consumers of Hello Kitty goods. Hispanic consumers “like to cuddle their children and buying them Hello Kitty goods with this kind sweetness in mind is part of Hispanic culture”. The brand further expands its market across geographic and cultural borders”. (Gomez,2004)
Sanrio’s product placement strategy of Hello Kitty anywhere and everywhere has helped the company build its huge following. In the “fiscal year 2003 Tokyo based Sanrio grossed a mighty 103.9 billion yen in revenue”. At the time Sanrio wouldn’t confirm which of its characters helped the most to generate the revenue; however “it did state Hello Kitty merchandise constantly accounts for nearly 40 per cent of takings at its 1470 retail outlets in Japan (Otake, 2004).
In light of this, Hello Kitty’s popularity has been adopted and undoubtedly exploited by other companies to market their own goods, such as Aeon Credit Services. Who issued 100,000 Hello Kitty MasterCard’s in nine months.(Koh et al , 1999, p3) (Pictures in appendix).
Successful applicants received a free Kitty doll; when they spent $3000 they got a Kitty watch; and when they spent $5000 they received a Kitty bag. 5% discount was also given when purchasing Sanrio products as Kalms gift chain. (Post Magazine, 1998). Derek Lai Wuk- Kwong from Aeon Finance explains “We wanted to target a different age group… Most (20-30 years olds) are working and most have high consumption power. Last year, we know that Hello Kitty had become very trendy, and we felt it was ideal”. (Post Magazine, 1998). The applicant target of 30,000 cardholders was smashed instantly, almost every applicant was female. “Production is valued as positively as a masculine activity and consumption is seen as negative and is identified with women and/ or as “feminine””. (Hollows, 2000, p113)
Notably McDonalds has also used the feline to gain immediate sales, though the promotions didn’t go to plan; with thousands queuing to receive their limited edition dolls, and chucking away the food they had to buy. “Fanny Lai, Director of Marketing at McDonalds Restaurants Singapore, commented that although such toys are offered in some promotion, food is still the chains central focus. “The toys are sold at cost price and they are seen as away of giving back to our customers for all the support”. Demand was so high for the dolls that it was reported that 250,000 people where waiting in queues. Police were called in due to the amount of fighting, and many restaurant entrances were damaged due to the surging crowds. (McDonalds). “McDonalds raked in $20 million from the meal-and-kitty set. A total of 2.8 million dolls were sold, and 12,000 meals were donated to charities by customers who were more interested in the dolls than the meals” (Hoon & Teck)
Though Hello Kitty has become a marketer’s tool to guarantee fast sales, the role that Kitty takes on as a signifier within Asia’s advertising industry is extremely important. Her role in establishing the Kawaii Culture foreground Baudrillard’s theories on Hyper reality.
Hello Kitty wasn’t produced off the back of a cartoon or movie she therefore has no connection or origin with a specific reality like other manga or anime characters. The connotations of pink, cute and friendly have become an improvement on reality. The extensive anime images produced within Asian advertising produces an improvement of a “copy” world being produced to replace ours, where we seek simulated stimuli and nothing more.
The infantization which is notably seen within Kawaii culture, and argued by feminists to be a force of repression against Asian females lends itself to Baudrillard’s theories of Hyper reality. As it has been argued the obsessive buying behaviour and worship for Hello Kitty masks the years of war providing the escapism for society to forget the past and move on to the future.” The special world of Hello Kitty is appreciated by aficionados. For instance, one women in her early twenties explained that many people like Hello Kitty because she offers them a chance “to get away from the harshness of reality”. (McVeigh,2000 ). Hello Kitty has a reliability and loyalty that people look for within there friends. When Sars broke out in 2003 Hong Kong residents relied on Kitty to protect them. Face masks featuring the feline could be spotted every where. Here image exemplifies a safety and trust which many brands would never be able to reach (Kennard, 2003). (Picture in Appendix)
“Baudrillard claims that we have reached a stage in social and economic development in which “it is no longer possible to separate the economic or productive realm from the realms of ideology or culture, since culture, since cultural artefacts, images, representations, even feelings and psychic structures have become part of the world of the economic”. (Storey, 2001, p152). The Kawaii culture exemplifies this: Hello Kitty the product economically holds Sanrio together, and culturally she provides images, representations and feelings.
Baudrillard uses Disneyland as his own example of Hyperrealism as it makes the rest of America look real. Comparisons could be made with the busy central areas of Hong Kong. Harajuku has become a Mecca for the so call alternative scene, with large Kawaii lead advertising and shopping malls. Is this the set of Asia’s Disneyland with its anime inspired advertising and its own Mickey Mouse- Hello Kitty? The “rebellious” defiance of Kawaii Culture may be a tool to show the rest of Asia and the world how other parts of Asia are “real”.
“Images in advertising are often hyperreal: they seem to magnify and improve on reality” (Ward, 2003, 214). The use of Hello Kitty to advertise credit cards, taxi services etc shows how an image can improve on reality. As well as showing how Hello Kitty and the Kawaii culture are so massively mass produced and sealed within a network. “We are always already caught up in the workings of simulation: “the social contact has become a pact of simulation, sealed by the media and information”, so we are always already part of the network. For Baudrillard, nothing is outside of the flow of signs, codes, and simulations” (Ward, 2003, P74).
“A unifying leitmotif resonates deeply with the bourgeoisie obsession with rationalization and order, i.e. matching the motifs, colours, and shapes of one’s possessions, effects and environment. Hello Kitty exemplifies a unifying leitmotif, and seems to be an example of Sanrio’s determination to “point” a vast number of daily good with images rather than just merely manufacturing similar knick-knacks”. (McVeigh, 2000, p229). “She is everywhere, and her omnipresence- which cannot be understood without appreciating Japans powerful and ubiquitous daily aesthetic of cuteness- exemplifies the notion of simulacrum, i.e. copies of copies of the same commodified image with apparent original” (McVeigh, 2000, P232).
Sanrio is reproducing to keep the money rolling in. The consumer wants more and wants to see Hello Kitty designs. Association is attached to the product through branding; Kawaii or Cute to Hello Kitty. “the meaning of goods created in a brand is understood by Baudrillard to be separate from social relations of both production and consumption: it is not to be understood in relation to their intrinsic qualities or use, but neither is it to be understood in terms of their economic exchange”. (Lury ,2003, P69).
“Hello Kitty is more than just a representation expressing herself through various objects of material culture. She is an icon for the everyday, an idol for the masses, an image for modernity (i.e. capitalism, consumerism, state projects and programs), a symbol that allows meaning displacement, or “a kind of epistemological immunity for ideas” (McCracken, 1988,109). Hello Kitty teaches us that what we have in our daily life is not a stern Big Brother from the monolithic state office of propaganda demanding blind obedience but rather countless little sisters- or more accurately in the case of Hello Kitty, little critters- dispatched by corporate culture who kindly persuade (but not necessarily convince us) to consume. There is no conspiracy, but there us an ideology- or a set of ideologies to be more exact – of capital accumulation, profit making, and expanding market share, all given a powerful aesthetic spin” (McVeigh, 2004, p242)
Guy Debord believed that the economy of the late twentieth century would be determined by images rather than by the actual industrial production of the products. The robotic production of Hello Kitty arguably mirrors the robotic purchasing power of the consumers.
Hello Kitty Feminism
The simple design of a white cat with a large marshmallow head, and a pink bow in her ear, 2 black dots for eyes and a yellow nose has caused many Feminists to argue that women have been moulded into a repressive state, all because this small character has no mouth.
Is Hello Kitty a form of repressing women- keeping them in an immature state, or just as Sanrio would like us to believe an international friend who speaks everyone’s language and needs no mouth? “A product without context Hello Kitty is a blank signifier with the potential to be branded with codes and meanings as diverse as the ideas of those who consume her/it.” (Nichols, 2003)
Hello Kitty connotes many meanings, depending on the reader’s age and cultural background. Where as Hello Kitty may be seen as juvenile at the age of 13 by many girls in the west, Hello Kitty’s journey is just starting for 13 year olds girls in Asia. “Kitty is a paradigm of the preadolescent female self, before young women are forced to internalize the images of what society promotes as necessary to become beautiful or appealing” (Hanks, 1999). “Hong Kong cartoonist Craig Au- Yeung supports this view “[Hello Kitty] is so simple, so kiddy-ish. Its part of a phenomenon of anti-thinking, anti intelligence that is so popular these days…. The Peter Pan Syndrome”. (Post Magazine)
“Andrea Dworkin explains, “Infantilising women is society’s way of keeping women inferior, weaker, smaller and dumber…. It’s about children, about having sexual interest and obsession with children. Women are choosing to do something that’s very detrimental by letting this preoccupation continue.”” (Schoemer & Chang, 1995, p.54)
Therefore, Asia’s female society buying into Hello Kitty is not doing anything to stop this representation of infantisation. The infantile criticisms against Hello Kitty, which highlight the interests in cute may not necessarily, be the reasoning behind the popularity with older females.
“Because women who collect Hello Kitty articles are not necessarily interested in things cute, but rather have a predisposition towards what is better described as camp, and this campiness, for older female Hello Kitty aficionados, is tied to a type of femininity that highlights cultural desirables such as sincerity, kindness and sensitivity to the feelings of others, the latter being a norm heavily emphasized in different spheres. What we have is not immaturity, naiveté, or regression, but theatrical innocence, accessorised cheerfulness, and affected youthfulness”. According to Yamaki a social psychologist “Owning things with cartoon characters on them shows one’s childlike nature….It is proof of one’s youthfulness, which is now considered a positive attribute” (McVeigh, 2000, p231).
There comes a stage in an Asian Females life when they are seen by society as too old, and past their prime if single. By presenting themselves as youthful they can prematurely stop this representation.
“For Marx, our sense of who we are, is a product of our relationship to production and, therefore in a capitalist society- in which our relationship to production is structured by unequal power relations between social classes”. It can be argued that “development of consumer culture lead to a weakening of class identity because people increasingly saw themselves in relation to what they consumed rather than in relation to production” (Hollows, 2000, p113).
Consequently the opinion that Hello Kitty is producing a weakened Female Identity can be linked to the view of production isn’t even identified within the consuming process. It can be argued that commercially Hello Kitty is indoctrinating the consumer into believing they will gain happiness from design. Hello Kitty’s authority within a wide product field signifies unrestrained and characterless consumerism. The youth culture of rebellion has become mainstream; with figures such as Hello Kitty being mass produced. The female identity has become robotic instead of individual. “The negative criticism of a “Japanese-like” trait of group behaviour, a “follow-the-leader” propensity, and how Japanese blindly follow trends” (McVeigh, 2000, p239)
The stereotypical view would be to look at Asia as a continent depriving or restricting its female population by not letting them mature, dressed in traditional kimono style clothing with fewer rights than their male counter parts. However, this acquiescent view can be put aside as the value of the woman in the home is seen to be respected; many of the most important decisions are made by the female. Instead of Hello Kitty being a hindrance to the maturing of an Asian female it could be argued that this trusted kitty is a reliable source of comfort which can be recognised and trusted through the persons aging process; with the “friendship” that’s been produced with Hello Kitty, being past on to the next generation. Where as a culture of cute and trust has been built in Asia, where as in the West females are more likely to grow out of Hello Kitty in early teens, which shows the depth the cute culture dominates Asia, and arguably the force of Feminist teachings of maturity and independence in the west. Minorities of western females revisit their relationships with Kitty when they reach late teens, but unlike the trusting relationship built up by their counterparts in Asia this relationship is purely built of the ironic values of purchasing products with the Hello Kitty motif printed on. Celebrities such as Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera and Nicky Hilton declare Hello Kitty to be their favourite carton character and are often seen wearing Sanrio products. Pictures of famous celebrities wearing Hello Kitty can be found on her site hellokitty.com/ sanrio.com, and pictures are also available in the appendix.
Hello Kitty’s dominance has been pushed further with the culture of cute – Kawaii. Journalists, Belson and Bremner argue that this culture produces weak women, instead of independence and assertiveness.
“Kawaii isn’t just a gimmick. It’s embedded in the culture and manifests itself in social and gender roles, particularly those of young Japanese women. Cute isn’t just a fashion statement- pink lipstick, butterfly hairclips, and pastel colours- it’s also a mode of behaviour. Cute girls often act silly, affect squeaky voices, pout and stamp their feet when they’re angry. It seems to be a cultural statement”. (Bremner, 2002). “Cultural critics since the late 1980’s have linked the cute aesthetic with crass consumerism, the debasement of the work ethic, the inflantalization of Japanese youth, a general rebellion against the whole post-war Japanese societal compact that values conformism, discipline, self-sacrifice and defence to authority” (Belson & Bremmer, 2004, p.21)
Conversely, in whatever way you look upon Kawaii or Cute Culture the multi million dollar porn industry is clearly fuelled by the obsession and depth of this culture. Often featuring Asian women dressed in an infantilised fashion or Hentai cartoons of school girls being dominated by male counterparts. Sanrio has had to strongly police the internet due to Hello Kitty being used within porn images. “The sex industry in Japan is worth 4 trillion yen (£275m) a year” (O’Connell,2001)
Jennifer Robertson considers “a Japanese narrative of girlhood in which “heterosexual inexperience and homosexual experience” (65) are recognised, but not necessarily, sexual behaviour (resembling the homoerotic images in Western girls magazines). The gender and sexual ambiguities of these girl culture figures are not distant from the prominence of school girl figures in mainstream men’s pornography, which are particularly public in Japan”. (Driscol, 2002, p295).
“Asian- American feminists think Hello Kitty is emblematic of an entire range of values- largely submissive ones that feed into male chauvinism throughout Asia and foster a misguided, simplistic and patronizing form of Orientalism among white males in the US. Some even argue that this has spawned a huge range of Asia bridal search sites on the internet”. (Belson and Bremner, 2004, p138)
Hello Kitty’s static image has become a symbol to the submissive state. If Hello Kitty was to take on an appearance of a harder more dominant personality she would inevitably not have the same mass appeal. Arguably is she was to lose her pink exterior and image of ultimate cute we could see a change with the structure of the Kawaii style presentation of some Japanese females. The Grrrl Riot group have presented Hello Kitty as a punk in an effort to produce a harder Hello Kitty. (Image available in the appendix).
“The cuteness of a giggling girl clad in a Hello Kitty jumper isn’t entirely innocent. It ties in to what is well known in Japan as Loilicom, the Lolita complex. The phenomenon of the little girl as sexual object abounds in Tokyo: Vending machines sell schoolgirls used panties, which the girls sell middlemen. “Image bars” specialize in escorts dressed in school uniforms, Telephone clubs feature bored adolescent girls earning spending money by talking dirty. Sex shops sell a porn magazine called Anatomical Illustrations of Junior High School Girls “(Roach, 1999).
“Porn stars like Kiko Wu (“the Net’s first real Asian amateur”) or Bianca Lee, who have been known to cavorts lustfully with Hello Kitty merchandise; in one photo on her web site, Lee deploys the Hello Kitty vibrator, a cheerful, pink-plastic instrument equipped with a figurine of the favour feline (clutching a little teddy bear) at one end. Sanrio, which cautiously guards Hello Kitty’s wholesome image as a far as all of its licensed products are concerned, prefers to call the gadget a “ personal massager” ( Gomez, 2004).
Blame for repression caused by Hello Kitty has been pointed at the designers. With claims that Shintaro Tsujio the CEO of Sanrio, sadistically markets Hello Kitty to capture the widest audience possible for financial gain, and to keep women young. We have to go to the core of Kitty’s development three designers have created Hello Kitty as we know her today, and all three are female. Would female designers create something, which will destroy the growth of their own gender?
“An estimated 90 percent of Tokyo’s character designers are women, so a lot of it is about cute for cutes’ sake- but designs of cute seem to have innate sense of the titillation factor. The cute characters themselves often display elements of passivity and little-girl helplessness. They frequently lack a mouth, for example, and have tiny, rounded stumps for limbs. According to Sharon Kinsella, the connotative meanings of Kawaii include helplessness and vulnerability” (Roach, 1999).
Each design is approved by Tsuji as long as it fits the criteria of being cute and sellable. Surely the designers are creating a design to fit this criteria and the want and need for such a design within the culture they are targeting.
Hello Kitty’s appearance has helped Sanrio market her to a wide audience due to her amorphous history which is reflected in her carte blanche design
(She allows the compete freedom within her design to permit her consumers to act as they wish) :
“Such a look of embellishment provides carte blanche for whatever an individual feels” Hello Kitty is a blank canvas, which provides the user with complete freedom to act as one wishes. Her mass consumption can be explained with her simple design which can fit the uses emotion of sad or happy. “Her plainness characterizes her as a cryptic symbol waiting to be interpreted and filled in with meanings. Thus, she functions as a mirror that reflects whatever image, desire or fantasy an individual brings to it. Yoneyama Kazuhide explains that Hello Kitty’s mouth less countenance is part of her appeal: “Without the mouth, it is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character…. The person can be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty.( McVeigh, 2000, p234).
On Sanrio.com there answer to why she has no mouth is “Hello Kitty speaks from her heart. She is Sanrio’s ambassador to the world who isn’t bound to one certain language”.
“Mouth, the ultimate symbol that defines personal character is an organ that governs in/out relationship of the interior corporal self and the exterior other. Without a mouth one can not devour nor vomit, nor swallow nor speak. A mouth less face bears an even more significant sign for something that is uncommonly at lack. The empty face represents the infantization of the Kitty fans, that a mouth less cat represents the dull and docile femininity that always remains silent, and that soft pink and blue colours stereotype female as fragile and weak”. (Yu-Fen-Ko,2000).
Without a mouth Kitty loses a verbal connection with society, however Kitty fans seem to be able to adopt her and produce a personality of their own. The Kawaii culture may present women as cute and therefore inferior and infantile, but questionably this image could be a form of manipulation. Women using this cute image are independent in their thinking of personal presentation; there are many styles involved in Kawaii: Lolicom, Gothic, Military and British Influence. Their image and personalities can be perceived as manipulating men via their “innocent” demure. (Pictures of Kawaii styles are available in the appendix).
“Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally constructed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporal signs and other discursive means” (Butler, 1999, 173)
Hello Kitty’s motto “you can never have enough friends” broadens her appeal and critically obliterates the notion of repression. Critics are over looking the simplicity trying to find a negative aspect to what can be plainly be seen as a design which appeals to the masses merely for the reason that it’s simple, non offence design to which emotions and stories can be individually created. She is an icon for the latest generation of females because she’s not using her body or being sexually demoralized to get her message across. Her message is in the eye of the beholder.
Lucy Nicholas notes, Hello Kitty’s mouthless manifestation presents significant connotations as a logo for third-wave riot grrrl feminism; representing voiceless ness of girls, a logo which re-contextualised by parody.
“According to Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, the imitation that mocks the notion of an original is characteristic of pastiche rather than parody:
Pastiche is like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice or mimicry, without parody’s’ ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without the still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is blank parody, parody that has lost its humour” (Butler,1999, p176)
Butler foregrounds the idea that “the notion of gender parody defended here does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate” (Butler, 1999, 173). Kawaii’s elements of style and design has become a Pastiche, because the unique style and the “wearing of a stylistic mask” (e.g. Kawaii) produces the paradoxical humour which can be associated with youthfulness. The image of cute has become something for the consumer to depend upon. The originality of the Kawaii rebellion has been lost within a cycle of mass production.
The mass produced meaning of repression Hello Kitty appears to produce is contradicted within the third-wave feminist movement. The cute culture produces independence where pink doesn’t define femininity as a repressed state but that of an ironic independent feminist icon. The populous are likely to be unconscious to the connotations, which create struggles for the effective use of femininity and Hello Kitty as a seditious tool. (Nicholas, 2003).
Linda Hutcheon suggests “juxtapositioning of signifiers in order to upset hegemonic readings”. Paul Sweetham (1990) explains “it seems more effective to confuse the signified of the reader by taking elements of, for example Hello Kitty with its connotations of girl ness, and simultaneously incorporate signs of punk imagery. This serves to create a look which cannot be read as merely girly or as merely punk, which changes the functions of both signifiers”. (Nicholas, 2003).
Articles discussing feminism in Asia have detailed the behaviours of women being contrasted to improve women’s social position.
“Cuteness in Taiwan is slowly shifting from inconcsouisly embodies “habitus” to a kind of “performance”. In other words, where as in the past cute behaviours conformed closely to the social expectations of women and were exhibited as second nature, in recent years similar behaviours are often displayed with a certain level of playfulness or even cynicism due to growing awareness among Taiwanese women of the social implications of acting cute”. (Chuang, 2005, 21).
“The cute styles and manners constitute what Bourdieu calls “Habitus” that is, composite of social identity and dispositions that reflects naturalises the asymmetrical social conditions. It is integral to the body and so operates on an unconscious, instinctual basis”. (Chuang, 2005, 22).
“The distinction between expression and performativness is crucial. If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces it’s cultural signification, are performative, then there is no pre-existing identity by which and act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notion of essential sex and a true or abiding masculinity or femininity are also constituted as part of the strategy that conceals gender’s performative character and the performative possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality” (Butler, 1999, 180).
Kawaii the culture of cute, established itself within Asian culture in the 1970’s when a wave of students started writing in their own cute style, which in many establishments was banned.
“Japanese writing had been written vertically using strokes that vary in thickness along their length. The new style was written laterally, preferably using a mechanical pencil to produce very fine even lines. Using extremely stylised, rounded characters with English, Katakana and little cartoon pictures such as hearts, stars and faces inserted randomly into the text, the new style of handwriting was distinct and the characters difficult to read. Yamane Kazuma carried out two years of research into cute hand writing between 1984 and 1986 which he officially labelled, “Anomalous Female Teenage Handwriting”. Arguing against the common view that cute handwriting was something young people had mimicked from the lettering in comics, Yamane furnishes evidence that in fact the craze for rounded lettering pre-dates its use in comics which relied on the later invention of photo composition methods in order to be able to use the round characters. Instead, he concludes that teenagers “spontaneously” invented the new style. Results of Yamane’s survey carried out in 1984-85 amongst middle and high school students showed that the older students were, the more likely it was that they would use the childish hand writing. 22.5 percent of 11 to 12 year old female pupils, 55.3 percent of 12 to 15 year old female middle school pupils, and 55.7 percent of 15 to 18 year old female high school; pupils, used the cute writing style. Amongst young men 10 percent of 12 to 15 year old middle school and 17.5 percent of 15 to 18 year old high school pupils used the cute style. The increasing incidence of cute handwriting amongst older students illustrates that cute handwriting was a style acquired with maturity and exposure to youth culture rather than the result of any adolescent writing disability”. Explains Sharon Kinsella, a leading Popular Culture theorist.
Kawaii has taken control of Japanese culture changing the language, fashion, linguistics and image, which many feminists’ critics argue is the cause of infantilising and repressing the female population.
“Dick Hebdige offers a clear and convincing explanation of the process (“bricolage”) by which youth subculture appropriate for their own purposes and meanings the commodities provided. Products are combined or transformed in ways not intended by their producers; commodities are rearticulated to produce “oppositional” meanings. In this way, and through patterns of behaviour, ways of speaking, taste in music etc., youth subculture. Youth cultures, according to this model, always move from originality and opposition to commercial incorporation and ideological diffusion of general consumption and profit.” (Storey, 200, p105).
The development of Kawaii culture through language and linguistics exemplifies the idea of bricolage: Feminine connotations such as innocence, vulnerability and cuteness have been entangled in the original ideals of rebelling against the educational and political structures of Japan, producing a youth subculture protecting themselves against the traditions of growing up and becoming independent. Sanrio’s products helped develop the Kawaii craze by allowing consumers to buy into the Kawaii culture. Sanrio developed Hello Kitty to appeal to the cute ideals of the time. Through the commodification of Hello Kitty and Sanrio’s strategy of placing her on every possible product the original ideals have become those of consumption rather than rebellion. Hello Kitty’s commodification has also changed the ideals of cute being the latest fashion trend to that of a feminist attribute, which can either be used by the Kawaii female to charm male counterparts or by society’s youth as away of slowing down impending maturity.
“The culture industry reflects the consolidation of commodity fetishism, the domination of exchange value and the ascendancy of state monopoly capitalism. It shapes the tastes and preferences of the masses, thereby moulding their consciousness by inculcating the desire for false needs. It therefore works to exclude real or true needs, alternative and radical concepts or theories, and politically oppositional ways of thinking and acting. It is so effective in doing this that the people do not realise what’s going on” (Strinati, 1995,61).
“In reality much consumption is play, and it is precisely this dimension that gives it its subversive edge. The act of buying can be a resistance to work; display can be subversive of convention or establish hierarchies. Here lies the essential political paradox of contemporary mass culture. It is certainly true that such a culture is indeed mostly the product of what Adorno calls the “culture industries”. But this does not mean that it is just passively consumed. Mass culture is doubled edge, is a mechanism of both conformity and rebellion”. (Clammer, 1997 62)
The Japanese consumer, like consumers in any late capitalist society, is not merely a passive victim, but operates at the nexus of needs, desires, products, taste, information and traditions, and is capable of endlessly restructing the relationships between these into a kaleidoscope of possibilities” (Clammer, 1997, 95).
““Cute” is an omnipresent force in Japan. The everyday landscape of Tokyo- the ad banners on the subways, storefront signs, digital display screens and various forms of mass media like manga and fashion magazines – are just oozing with the stuff….even the government has license cartoon characters to jazz up their advertising. On the packed Keio train line, Hello Kitty warns straphangers not learn against the door”. (Belson and Bremmer, 2004, p10).
“The Frankfurt School see only “conformity”: a situation in which “the deceived masses” are caught in a “circle” of manipulation and retroactive need in which the unity of the system grows ever stronger” (Storey, 2001, p85).
Looking at the teachings of Adorno and the Frankfurt School; Kawaii culture can be seen as being “imposed upon the masses, and which makes them prepared to welcome it given they do not realise it is an imposition” (Strinati, 1995, 62). In the 60’s and 70’s when the female Japanese youth were developing their own language and linguistics the transformation of the Kawaii culture can be viewed as being imposed on the masses due to the mass production of manga, anime and characters such as Hello Kitty.Some Hello Kitty consumers do realise the imposition: “Most young adults I spoke with clearly claimed that they do not like her at all. Moreover, there was a good amount of cynicism and scepticism in what many had to say. According to one person “I have my doubts that so many people can really like something so trite”. Some described Hello Kitty fans as “childish (Kodomo-ppoi). “They look like children with their toys” (McVeigh, 2000, 239). What becomes apparent is that the role of rebellion which Kawaii once held in the 70’s is now too mainstream. Hello Kitty has been linked to for producing a society of consumers who are too sensitive to fashion and trends; “a follow- the –leader” propensity, and how in many people’s estimations, illustrates how overly sensitive Japanese are to the whims of fashion” (McVeigh, 2000,239. A sense of robotic behaviour over shadows the individualistic nature Kawaii followers like to lead.
“Kawaii” or “Cute” essentially means childlike; it celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak and inexperienced social behaviour and physical appearances. It has been well described as a style which is “infantile and delicate at the same time being pretty”. (Kinsella)
The above connotations produce signs which are polysemic- they have more than one meaning. The audience makes sense of signs according to personal knowledge, experience and the context in which the sign occurs. This raises questions in regards to the Frankfurt School thesis. Although Kawaii culture looks to be imposing on the masses the fact that the polysemic signs are being read according to personal knowledge and experience shows that Sanrio and other producers of the Kawaii culture aren’t imposing something that isn’t wanted. Kawaii followers have the independence to seek other products and images they have the ability to end a trend. Thus we each, consciously, select which of the possible meanings to apply, and read the sings accordingly. Roland Barthes claimed “that it is at the level of secondary signification or connotation that myth is produced for consumption. By myth he means ideology understood as a body of ideas and practices, which by actively promoting the values and interests of the dominant groups in society; defend the prevailing structures of power”. (Storey, 2001, p 65). By looking further into the polysemic nature of signs we can get better understanding. Cute signs or images such as Hello Kitty produces many meanings such as Kawaii, which in turn produces sign of innocence, pure, simple, adorable, weak and vulnerable.
The above descriptions produce signs which are polysemic- they have more than one meaning. The audience makes sense of signs according to personal knowledge, experience and the context in which the sign occurs. Thus we each, unconsciously, select which of the possible meanings to apply, and read the sign accordingly.
The Kawaii culture and Sanrio’s production of Hello Kitty lends itself to this statement due to the nature of Asia’s society. Sanrio can be blamed for feeding society with the mass conformity of Hello Kitty and other characters it produces.
Kawaii can be used to describe the fashion sense of individuals, examples of this can be seen in such publications as Fruits, and also in the Harajuku district of Japan. Gwen Stefani has highlighted the Harajuku area with her use of Harajuku Dancers. The clothing takes on the appearance of being made for young children and accentuates the Kawii-ness of the wearer. Pastel shades are often featured with other colours also excepted. Cartoon characters often feature on the clothing or accessories adding to the cute look.
Sanrio developed itself by producing cute diaries and stationery to appeal to the handwriting craze. Further product development created products with strawberry patterns, and many cute characters were designed; Hello Kitty being the most successful to date.
Unlike many cartoon characters Hello Kitty wasn’t launched off the back of a programme. She first appeared on stationery and then on small collectables such as coin purses, which allowed the consumer to bring their own values and ideals to her.
“Consumption is not simply a process in which commodities are brought but also how they are “given meaning through their active incorporation in peoples lives” (Jackson, 1993, p209). Furthermore, the ways in which these consumer goods are used are practices through which cultural identities are formed and reformed” (Hollows, 2000, p113)
Hello Kitty produces cute identities for its consumers; which intern produces the images of ultra femininity. Arguably Hello Kitty could be classed as a modern feminist icon, as she hasn’t ever used her body to sell herself; she has a successful image, and in the case of work with Unceif and Youth aids charities she has a voice to which many listen. Nevertheless, the identity produced by Kawaii can be described as developing a subculture which encourages and practices acting in a submissive childlike manner while demonstrating elements of sexual prowess. Kawaii followers are using passivity and helplessness to appeal to boys/men. Adult manga and aimne such as Hentai foregrounds the popularity of youthful innocence within sexual desire. This points to the theories consumers buying into Hello Kitty maybe producing- to hide growing.
““When peoples call character goods “Kawaii”, they are not just admiring the products, but they are also releasing a “signal” through which they are trying to connect to others” argues Nobuyoshi Kunta, Professor of Sociology at Musashi University in Tokyo” (Otake, 2004)
The connections being developed encourage what Sanrio publicizes as Hello Kitty’s friendship. As Kitty says “you can never have enough friends”. Kawaii takes on the image of passivity; however the savvy consumer buying into what could arguably be called a cult or subculture which allows rebellion against strict ethics such as work while allowing the consumer to carry on working. The fact that even men buy into Kawaii culture and own mobile phone charms with their favourite cartoon character on; shows that Kawaii is a source of rebellion in what is classed as an extremely serious nation- Kawaii takes away the edge, and seen as an in joke for society as away of letting their “hair” down.
Understanding a culture which attracts such comments as forming a Peter Pan like Syndrome, and the development of thousands of counterfeit products feeds the views and opinions that Kawaii is a low class culture.
“The reason why Hello Kitty is considered to be low class and vulgar popular culture is derived from its mass production and low price- two of the most traditional and hierarchical standards of judgement in cultural consumption. Hello Kitty is inevitably categorized as low culture. The more popular it is, the lower cultural strata it goes. The counterfeits are the main reason that makes Hello Kitty a low culture. The uniqueness vanishes and the so-called “originality” has also vaporised amongst the “real counterfeits”. The “original” has become sacred and untouchable under the manipulation of commercialization, and the labelled high price guards that valuable status, thus indirectly maintains the operation of sustain of production” (Fen Ko, 2000 p 13-14)
Kawaii’s effect on Japanese culture isn’t just an image for the young fashion conscious females. In recent years it has become apparent that this culture is changing the “reigning ideology that women best serve their society and families by attending to their kids’ education and running house holds”. (Belson and Bremner, 2004, p22). Kawaii brings escapism and independence to women; they have their own images which they can create from the thousands of fashions available to them.
More and more Japanese women are deciding to live as free as they want to be before making the life changing decision to have or not to have children. “By 2000, Japanese conservatives coined the new phrase for Japanese women in their late 20’s and early 30’s who had gone completely AWOL on the whole idea of being married with kids. A bestseller by Tokyo Gakugei University Professor Masahiro Yamada was entitled Parasaito Shinguru No Judai or the Age of the Parasite Single (Belson and Bremner, 2004, p22) Feminist like Mashiro Yamada blame Kawaii for producing a culture of single women still living in their parental homes, paying little rent and living the high life. “The percentage of women who are unmarried in the 25- to29- year old age group, many of whom live with their parents, has doubled over the past 15 years, to 48% in 1998”. (Belson and Bremner, 2004, p23).
Hello Kitty’s large marshmallow shaped head, stumpy arms and legs represent to many the typical image of Kawaii. (Table of Cuteness by McVeigh in the Appendix)
“Cuteness is not an aesthetic in the ordinary sense of the word and must by no means be mistaken for the physically appealing, the attractive. In fact, it is closely linked to the grotesque, the malformed”. (Harris, 2001, 3). Debatably the images depicted by characters such as Hello Kitty, Miffy and My Melody are repressing the body image of women. By producing a malformed image of what is meant to be cute.
“Far from being an accident of bad craftsmanship, the element of the grotesque in cuteness is perfectly deliberate and must be viewed as the explicit intention of objects that elicit from us the complex emotions we feel when we encounter the fat faces and squat, ruddy bodies of creature. The grotesque is cute because the grotesque is pitiable, and pity is the primary emotion of this seductive and manipulative aesthetic that arouses our sympathies by creating anatomical pariahs” (Harris, 2001, 3).
“Christine Yan, an Anthropologist at the University of Hawaii notes for Japanese consumers, what’s cute “is more relational- it describes more of a relationship with a person or an object” than it does specific aesthetic values “So, almost anything can be Kawaii if it is embraceable.[ For the consumer,] the relationship is one of taking care of something. Thus even something ugly can be Kawaii” (Gomez, 2004)
A big part of Hello Kitty’s appeal is that she reaches all ages. Parents trust her, and pass her on as a product to their children. Conversely, cuteness has a negative effect of elevating children’s behaviour, which in turn inhibits parents from benefiting their children in their natural states. The image of cuteness takes over the traditional personality traits.
“Cuteness is every parent’s portable utopia, the rose- coloured lenses that colour and blur the profound drudgery of child- rearing with soft- focused sentimentality. We use it to allay fears of our failures as parents and to numb us to the irritations of the vigilance we must maintain over creatures who are, despite the anesthetizing ideology of cuteness, often more in control of us then we are of them”. (Harris, 2001, 15).
“Cuteness thus coexists in a dynamic relation with the perverse. The failure of the hyperboles of one aesthetic gives rise to the hyperboles of the other, of the child as the vehicle of diabolical powers form the Great Beyond, which have appropriated the tiny, disobedient bodies of our elfish changelings as instruments for their assaults on the stability of family life” (Harris, 2001, 17).
“A form of popular polyculturalism nestles within the apparent hegemony of the traditionalist, and elitist definitions of what constitutes Japanese culture and society”. (Clammer, 1997, 64).
“Society is leaving its traditional roots and heading towards singledom. The Japanese are marrying later and staying married for a shorter time. In 1971, women married at 24; now they wait until they are 26. They are 53 percent more likely to divorce than they were 10years ago. Thirty years ago, one fifth of households were made up of three generations. This has fallen to 11 percent. The number of single-person households has risen to a quarter” (O’Connell, 2001).
“Japan has experienced the subtle emergence of a girl-power movement over the last several decades and Hello Kitty, at the symbolic level, is leading the way” (Belson and Bremmer, 2004,23).
The Kawaii culture has fore grounded freedom and choice too many Japanese women, men may still be primary in political and economic fields, but a new structure of living for women has grown. “In that sense, Hello Kitty is a menace, a Bolshevik with a bomb, a threat to the established values system,” (Belson and Bremner, 2004, 23).
Copyright 2006-2011 Julia Wenlock