Happy birthday, Hello Kitty

Japan’s Hello Kitty, the moon-faced, mouthless white cat, celebrated her 30th birthday on Monday, evolving from a nameless feline on a cheap vinyl purse into the money-making global icon of cuteness.

Hello Kitty comes on dolls, key chains, clothes, credit cards, laptops, vacuum cleaners and even karaoke boxes as a loyal fan base of young women embraces the cat whose expressionless face can be read in any way they want.

Tamaki Hirayoshi, a 37-year-old woman in Tokyo, has collected about 1 000 Hello Kitty products over three decades. She said she was most drawn to the cat’s eyes—or lack thereof.

“The biggest attraction of Hello Kitty is her eyes. They are just dots.
When a character’s eyes look real, it doesn’t look pretty,” Hirayoshi said.

“I must say I’m addicted to Kitty. When I see new items, I usually buy them. It’s like a conditioned reflex,” she said.

Created by Ikuko Shimizu, then a designer of character goods maker Sanrio, Hello Kitty made a humble start in 1974 as a nameless cartoon cat on the coin purse.

But when Shimizu put the cat with a red bow on small children’s stationery, stuffed dolls and handkerchiefs and called it Hello Kitty, the mouthless cat was quickly purring.

Hello Kitty products are now sold in 60 nations and about 50 000 different Kitty products were sold worldwide in the fiscal year to March 2004.

It was when the Kitty boom subsided around 1980 that the character came into the hands of its third designer, Yuko Yamaguchi, who is credited with Hello Kitty’s global success.

To seek new ideas for Hello Kitty, Yamaguchi visited Sanrio shops across Japan to talk to customers and read every fan letter to understand their demands.

Soon she started making Hello Kitty lively by dressing the cat in all kinds of costumes ranging from a baseball uniform to a China dress to a wedding dress, putting her on roller skates and creating a new character, Kitty’s boyfriend Daniel.

Thanks to a new, more colorful product lineup, Kitty’s fans have expanded from little girls to high school girls to young women.

“I will never turn Kitty into a violent or sexual character. I once had to reject a design because it portrayed Kitty as a skull.

I want people to be happy when they see her,” Yamaguchi has said in a Sanrio book.

A 25-year-old Kitty fan, who gave her name as Momoko, said Hello Kitty was almost like a close friend.

“Since I was an elementary school student, I was a big fan of Kitty. For me, she is more than a character. I have over 600 Hello Kitty items and they always make me happy,” Momoko said.

Kitty generates about 50% of the revenue of Sanrio, whose net profit in the three months to June surged nearly 500% year-on-year to 1,3-billion yen ($12-million) thanks in part to robust sales of Kitty’s 30th anniversary-related merchandise.

Ken Asada of Character Data Bank, a marketing research firm for character goods, said Kitty’s longevity may come from her expressionless face.

“It allows users to synchronise their feelings with Kitty’s. If a user is feeling sad, she will think that Kitty too is feeling sad because the cat has no expression,” he said.

“Also having an emotionless character may just fit the feelings and senses of people living modern times,” Asada said.

But for Noriko Takahashi, a 34-year-old mother of two children who owns about 100 Kitty products, the biggest attraction is her plain cuteness.

“Kitty is irresistible because all her products are cute. Even as a grown-up, I cannot stop buying Kitty’s goods,” Takahashi said. - Sapa-AFP

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