Hello Kitty: Origin Of Sanrio's '70s Phenom (Who Isn't A Cat)
Who's British, loves apple pie, and looks like a cat but is actually a pre-teen girl and definitely isn't a cat? Clearly it's Hello Kitty, the Japanese character created by Yuko Shimizu and "born" on November 1, 1974, that anchors Sanrio's line of clothing, jewelry, and pretty much anything else that can be branded. Hello Kitty is so much more than a well performing brand, she's a icon of Japanese fashion that's become a global sensation thanks to an early '90s resurgence that turned a simple character into one of the highest-grossing media franchises in the world.
Hello Kitty's designer never received a cut of the character's profits
Founded in 1962 by Shintaro Tsuji, Sanrio began as a small company that sold small cute items like sandals and coin purses. Tsuji realized that the cuter an item was, the more they sold. The most logical step for Tsuji was to bring on designers to create cute characters that he could add to his items in order to move them as quickly as possible. In 1974, Yuko Shimizu created a simple line drawing of a cat with a red bow on its head. Floating above it was the word "Hello," and just like that Hello Kitty was born.
The first product to showcase Hello Kitty was a coin purse showing the character sitting on the ground with a bottle of milk on one side and her pet fish in its bowl on the other. It's remarkable how little the design has changed from the early '70s to the modern era. As popular as the character was, Shimizu stepped away from Sanrio two years after Hello Kitty's creation and didn't see any of the profits from her design.
The same year that Shimizu left Sanrio Hello Kitty made her way across the pond to the United States where she appeared on everything from jewelry boxes to stickers.
A product of Japan, a citizen of Great Britain
If this is your first brush with Hello Kitty then you may be asking yourself, Isn't she a cat? Nope. On top of that, her name isn't even Hello Kitty, it's Kitty White, and she's a British girl who lives in London with her twin sister Mimmy, and their parents George and Mary, which makes her a girl who just resembles a cat.
Why England? In the early '70s foreign countries like England and America were a source of fascination with the Japanese, and Sanrio wanted to make the character as intriguing as possible, so traced her origin to the UK to differentiate her from their characters who were from the U.S. Current lead designer for Hello Kitty Yuko Yamaguchi explains:
Britain seemed like a place straight out of a fairytale, which was why Hello Kitty was conceived to be a British human girl.
Hello Kitty doesn't need a mouth because she communicates with her heart
One of the most important aspects of Hello Kitty's design is her lack of mouth. For a brief period of time in the '80s the character was given a mouth for the film Kitty and Mimi’s New Umbrella, but fans were really against the change, so in the '90s her mouth was erased. Yamaguchi explains:
Fans who watched the film remarked that with a mouth, it is not Hello Kitty at all. It is then in 1990 that I decided to remove the mouth.
The reason behind the lack of mouth and blank face is a simple one, Sanrio wants fans to project their own emotions and feelings onto Hello Kitty. This doesn't just make the product easier to sell, it makes Kitty a character that everyone can relate to.
What is Kawaii culture?
One of the reasons that Hello Kitty sells so well is thanks to the overwhelming kawaii culture of Japan. Meaning "lovely," "lovable," "cute," or "adorable," kawaii can be anything as long as it's childlike and sweet. Kawaii comes from 11th century Japanese literature, and while it was initially used to describe someone who was just kind of sad, the meaning has changed to envelope the culture of cuteness that started in Japan and expanded worldwide.
Hello Kitty's rise to popularity goes hand in hand with kawaii culture, which began in earnest in the early '70s with cute handwriting and cute characters plastered on lunchboxes, notebooks, pencils, you name it.
Hello Kitty became a household name in the '90s
Even though Hello Kitty was seriously popular in the 1970s, it was the last decade of the 20th century that turned the character into a global phenomenon. The character didn't go away in the '80s, she actually starred in Hello Kitty's Furry Tale Theater in 1987, but in the '90s Sanrio began advertising the character to older teens and adults who either missed out on the Hello Kitty fad the first time around, or couldn't afford the merchandise when they were children.
The '90s had a retro boom that saw looks from the late '60s and pretty much all of the '70s return in one way or another, and the aesthetic pleasure of Hello Kitty on top of its vintage cool made it the perfect thing to plaster on shirts, backpacks, and wallets, turning the character from a creature with a cult following into a fiscal juggernaut. Author Helen McCarthy explains:
Hello Kitty stands for the innocence and sincerity of childhood and the simplicity of the world. Women and girls all over the world are happy to buy in to the image of the trusting, loving childhood in a safe neighborhood that Hello Kitty represents. They don't want to let go of that image, so as they grow up, they hang onto Hello Kitty out of nostalgic longing – as if by keeping a symbolic object, they can somehow keep hold of a fragment of their childhood self.
Hello Kitty: nuclear spawn of Satan
Of course there are super weird urban legends about Hello Kitty, why wouldn't there be? With the resurgence of Hello Kitty's popularity in the '90s and into the 2000s a couple of very weird theories about the character popped up around the internet, and they're as sinister as they are bonkers.
The first theory is pretty nuts so let's dive into that. Snopes reports that in 2008 an email circulated that claimed Hello Kitty was created after the parents of a 12-year-old girl with cancer of the mouth made a deal with the devil to bring her back to health. It false claim states that "kitty" means "demon" in Chinese, and that she lacks a mouth as a way to pay homage to the girl's affliction. Clearly this is a bit of creepy pasta that's trying to make the super-kawaii character into something dark and twisted, also it's incredibly false.
Next up is the theory that Hello Kitty's origin lies in a PR campaign from a nuclear power plant. The story goes that an unnamed nuclear power company needed to revamp their image to get people on board with their work, so they hired Sanrio to create Hello Kitty as their logo. Much like the supposedly demonic origins of Kitty White, this claim is also totally false.