Art

Hello Kitty celebrates 50th anniversary: Behind the phenomenal rise of the Japanese icon

CUTE is a new exhibition exploring the irresistible force of cuteness in contemporary culture, with Hello Kitty front and centre

Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty Coin purse. Image: © SANRIO Co. Ltd

She may only be the height of five apples, but Hello Kitty bestrides the world.

As she celebrates her 50th birthday this year, Sanrio’s little white cat has gone far beyond her humble origins adorning a children’s coin purse to collaborate with the world’s coolest brands and designers, inspire cutting-edge artists and reveal the complex power of cuteness – for good and ill. You can fly in a Hello Kitty plane, drive a Louis Vuitton Hello Kitty Mini, play a Hello Kitty telecaster guitar or wear Hello Kitty Dr Martens. You can even toast Hello Kitty with her own branded wine. 

Kitty’s origins go back to Tokyo in the mid-70s. Shintaro Tsuji, a former civil servant, had formed Sanrio Company Ltd with the motto ‘Small Gift, Big Smile’ and the aim of bringing happiness to people’s lives through inexpensive goods. His great innovation was the realisation that adding a kawaii (cute) character to those trinkets would massively increase their desirability. Designed by Yuko Shimizu in 1974, Hello Kitty would propel Tsuji’s small company to international significance. She is now the world’s most famous emblem of cuteness.  

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“Hello Kitty is really, really cute. But it’s also really, really clever,” says anthropologist Christine Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific, the only academic study of Hello Kitty’s impact. “That kind of cute-cleverness might not have been found in Western cute goods. To me, what Sanrio did is they allow for a little bit more space in cute. There’s a greater licence to play with the concept. Hello Kitty has possibilities for irony, has possibilities for satire, has possibilities for some subversiveness. And that makes it exciting.” 

Though marketed solely to children for her first couple of decades, in the 90s Kitty White (Hello Kitty’s official name) found commercial success among teenage and adult consumers. At the same time, her international profile exploded. By her 40th birthday in 2014, Hello Kitty was estimated to be worth $8 billion (£6.3bn) a year. She appears on more than 50,000 different products in 130 countries.  

“In the 90s, young women especially take her up as an emblem of their own rebellion,” says Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, the London gallery that connects creativity and the arts with wider society. “You get rock groups in America, like Hole and Sonic Youth, taking up Hello Kitty. It’s then that cuteness, its power, starts to be revealed.” 

To coincide with Hello Kitty’s anniversary celebrations, Catterall has brought together a new exhibition that explores how cuteness has taken over the world… and what that means. Opening next week, CUTE gets to grips with both joy and darkness.  

While Sanrio’s aim for Hello Kitty has always been to spread friendship and happiness, cuteness has been exploited for some truly awful aims. “Cute has this really interesting way of being able to deliver quite difficult messages. So, you often get right wing politicians drawing on cuteness as a way to soften their message,” says Catterall. In order to woo the people of Europe, Hitler was “photographed feeding baby deer and being generally kind to animals and children”, she adds. Marine Le Pen uses similar tactics today. And closer to home, “The whole Leave UK campaign was smothered in this kind of Cath Kidston cute nostalgia for a lost Britain.“ 

Yet that same facet of cuteness – its ability to soften things that are hard to hear – is also harnessed by progressive causes. Japanese teenagers have long employed kawaii as a form of rebellion against the expectations placed on them by a traditional, conformist and patriarchal society. Catterall points to Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova as an activist who “uses cute to disrupt perceived ideas. It really makes her message powerful.” 

“There’s this idea that cuteness is very soft and cuddly, but actually, it demands quite a lot from the people that interact with the cute objects,” agrees artist Bart Seng Wen Long, co-curator of London-based art project Kawaii Agency. “You want to cuddle it, you want to protect it from the world.” 

For CUTE, Long has created a series of films exploring how cuteness has evolved once again to become a global language in the internet age. Referencing TikTok trends, K-pop idols, YouTubers, Instagram filters and memes, he shows a “very strong duality within cuteness. It is one side powerless, but also powerful.” That makes for an interesting interaction with queerness, he adds. “I think queer people live in quite precarious environments. And they probably relate a lot to this vulnerability that cuteness exemplifies, and also the power that it actually holds.” 

No one suspects Hello Kitty of any right-wing tendencies, but critics have accused her of using that power, her irresistible cuteness, for no great purpose beyond making us buy stuff. “She’s everywhere,” says Yano. “So she might symbolise the ubiquitousness of capitalism, of profit-making corporations. And in particular, the perniciousness of targeting children, young girls. 

“But who’s going to say, ‘No, we shouldn’t smile, we shouldn’t give small gifts’? Who going to put barricades up against that? It is, in some ways, a very unassailable position… even if it’s also corporate profit. I mean, let’s face it, Hello Kitty just makes you laugh. She makes you giggle.” 

CUTE is at Somerset House, London, from 25 January-14 April.

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