“After all, you can never make too many friends.”
Surprisingly, it all started with a mere change purse, one adorned with the face of a sweet little mouthless kitty – a nice little product that one would imagine would make for a cute little short-lived fad. But “fad” doesn’t even begin to describe the magnitude, the enormous impact, the marketing machine, the iconic status that this darling little feline we know as Hello Kitty would have on the world.
Today, Hello Kitty is considered the Japanese version of Mickey Mouse and it is no exaggeration. With an astounding 15,000 licensed products available, we are talking one enormously recognizable little feline. The list of items is seemingly endless, including toys, clothing, cell phones, credit cards, lunchboxes, refrigerators, china, business ties, tennis rackets, toasters, and every other item that could conceivably display her face. There is even an amusement park built around Hello Kitty in Japan and a Hello Kitty car. You go, girl!
The mastermind behind Hello Kitty was a man who had spent a troubled childhood both orphaned and alone. In his adult years, Shintaro Tsuji dreamed of creating something that could ensure that other kids never had to feel the way he once had, and so, he put his efforts into a toy company. He wanted toys that would connect on an emotional level, creating a “heart-to-heart connection” with children and his wish was granted in a way he surely never could have imagined in his wildest dreams.
In his country, small inexpensive gifts are a traditional social custom, and after toying around with various products, such as Strawberry (a little girl with a berry affixed to her head,) he decided to introduce a little change purse in 1974, one adorned with a cuddly white kitten. As a result, his life would be forever changed.
The precious feline was given a name the following year, along with an equally adorable backstory. Kitty lives in London with her parents and attends the third grade (and likely always will) She loves collecting ribbons, eating treats baked by her sister, and of course, making new friends. She even has an official birthday of November 1st. She loves to play and engage in sports, things made possible after Sanrio designer Yamaguchi Yuko decided that Kitty didn’t always need to be in a sitting position.
Far from being a loner, Kitty is surrounded by a whole posse of pals that include her twin sister Mimmy, her grandparents, a bunny friend named Kathy, a shy mole named Morey, twin monkeys Tim and Tammy, and her love interest, Tippy. Kitty and the whole clan first appeared in the Japan-released movie Kitty and Mim’s New Umbrella, and American audiences were introduced to her via a cartoon series, Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater in 1997. And since Kitty had a few things to say in her film and television debuts, these are the rare exceptions where Kitty’s face actually includes a mouth.
Little girls all over the world embraced Hello Kitty from the moments they laid eyes on her, but Sanrio shrewdly realized that it was really teens that had the most expendable funds, so they gave her a slightly modernized hip image, created with a black and white color scheme. They also released an assortment of products geared entirely towards the teen market, such as book bags, purses and the like. Soon, every high school in Japan was plastered with Kitty’s face.
An astounding 25 years after her introduction to the world, Kitty is still going strong, with every conceivable item imaginable available adorned with a face that has changed little in the last quarter of a century. In fact, all changes to her appearance have been remarkably small – tiny alterations to her face and body design. Perhaps the most significant change came in 1993, when the familiar bow on her head was replaced with a flower.
Asia still accounts for the majority of sales in the Hello Kitty product line, with 90% of her products purchased by Japanese consumers. Her success led to the creation of other toy phenomenons such as Pokemon, but none have managed to put a noticeable dent in her market share. She got her very own theme park just outside of Tokyo, the Sanrio-owned Puroland, in 1995. And a number of Sanrio stores have popped up all around the globe in recent years, finally allowing outsiders their share of Hello Kitty merchandise. And in a fitting tribute, she has been named the child ambassador of UNICEF in both Japan and the United States.
So you may be asking, how on earth could a simple little kitty, adorable as it may be, have made such an enormous impact on a global scale? Numerous theories abound. Perhaps it is the fact that Japan has an amazing fondness for youth culture, which acts as a diversion for the pressures that accompany industrialization. Perhaps it is the fact that, without a mouth, Kitty gives the appearance of being a good listener, a comforting friend always there for you, through good times and bad. Perhaps her relative scarcity in places outside of Japan (until recent years, at least) created a demand that far exceeded the supply.
Whatever the reasons may be, the one thing that is undeniable is that Hello Kitty is a toy that perhaps has had a greater impact than any other in history. With her kindness, her almost supernatural therapeutic qualities, and her open desire for friendship, she is everything that her creator could have dreamed for – a way to stave off the loneliness in life, by knowing that this adorable little feline loves you no matter what. And make no mistake – the feeling is entirely mutual. The world clearly has as much love for Hello Kitty as she does for the world.
If you are a fan of this world-renowned feline friend, perhaps had more than a few Hello Kitty items adorning your childhood bedroom, we’d love to hear all of your thoughts in our comments section. Show your love for Hello Kitty, here at Retroland.