Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific

[25 April 2013]

By Christine R. Yano

Excerpted from Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific by Christine R. Yano. From Chapter 3, “Global Kitty: Here, There, Nearly Everywhere” (footnotes omitted). © Duke University Press, 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter Three: Global Kitty
Here, There, Nearly Everywhere

People who live with animals value the charm of muteness.
Ursula K. LeGuin (2005:19)

Ever since I was little, Hello Kitty was just the only character…I’ve seen it everywhere. It’s like imprinted in my mind. Her face. I really don’t know. It’s weird. I just always see her face in my mind. It’s scary.
Hello Kitty fan, twenty-four years old, personal communication, May 5, 2011, Honolulu

I feel like I’m a walking advertisement.
Becky Hui, fan and Sanrio employee, twenty-seven years old, personal communication, June 21, 2002, South San Francisco

Happiness tinged with pink, in fact, seduces as a mysterious presence in the confessions of many adult fans, as quoted above. The seemingly inexplicable attraction of Hello Kitty makes many consumers in various parts of the globe speak of her with both intimacy and awe as something they hold close yet do not fully understand. This may not be quite as mysterious as it seems; after all, as Thomas LaMarre explains, “We can never quite be sure what it is that we are enjoying (or why): something of our experience always remains obscure to us, remains unconscious” (2009:242). And yet, the inexplicable nature of fans’ pleasure of Hello Kitty generates a certain amount of their talk about her. In their narratives, she is at one and the same time an affecting presence, a mouthless sphinx, and, unmistakably, a product. She poses the kawaii allure of not just being cute, but so cute, particularly through her “charm of muteness,” as the novelist Ursula LeGuin expresses it. In global fans’ talk, mute cuteness itself carries the force of obfuscation.

This chapter examines Kitty consumption among different segments of her fandom among adults outside Japan as constituent elements of pink globalization. It combines the corporate backdrop provided by chapter 2 with first the sites of consumption, then the personal stories of consumers to address the complex set of interactions, practices, and most importantly, meanings given Hello Kitty in her “here, there, nearly everywhere” settings. If, as we saw in the previous chapter, Sanrio itself emphasizes friendship and happiness as the core message of its cat, then this chapter examines ways in which that core message embeds itself in the settings of consumption and people’s lives. How does she become a friend? And more to the point, what kind of (mute, cute) friend is she? The fact that she is a friend dependent on her purchase or whose relationship may be summed up as “a walking advertisement,” as expressed above, does not bother Hello Kitty fans in the least. For them, the seductiveness of her allure and the excitement of continued consumer acquisition building a growing and unending collection stoke the fires of an ongoing “friendship.”

Hello Kitty’s global span did not reach out and touch everyone equally or all at the same time. Kitty’s trek in the United States began in Asian American–based enclaves and corporate stores in the 1970s, eventually moving into all-American merchandising meccas such as Walmart and Target, as well as specialty shops such as FAO Schwarz (toys) and Hot Topic (youth-oriented, popular-music-inspired culture), and inevitably to online shopping sites. By the 1990s and 2000s, the ubiquity of Hello Kitty normalizes her presence in global consumer cultures that transcend their original youth market. This chapter focuses on Hello Kitty’s multiple market vectors primarily in the United States, including Asian American, Hispanic, mainstream (children and adult “girls”), and even male niches. Although my observations and conversations regarding Hello Kitty consumption have spanned different continents, my in-depth interviews have been with these American fans.

My telling of Hello Kitty’s global story moves in this and subsequent chapters to places of purchase and voices of fans. A specific sector of voices that I analyze here is that of the collector, a particular subset of Hello Kitty consumers that many would consider extreme in psychology and practices. In fact, several of those whom I interviewed readily admit to the obsessive nature of their fandom, often laughing self-deprecatingly as they tell me their stories. Here is unabashed commodity fetishism in its classic Marxist formulation. These extreme fans are familiar with the snide glances and overt scorn of other consumers and nonconsumers alike who are critical of such Kitty-based excessiveness, especially over what some interpret as a mere child’s toy. They have learned to live within such critique; some even build identities from it. Of course, not all fans of Hello Kitty are as extreme as these. The greater majority profess liking Sanrio’s cat, but not necessarily making a hobby of purchasing her. In this chapter I gather various consumer voices in order to address the attractions of Sanrio’s cat and the ways in which she has become embedded in their lives. Some readers may feel that the fan interviews I quote here represent an overload of sentiment, a barrage of capitalist frenzy, a besotted attachment to a commodity. Without apology, I agree, and suggest that these readers skip over the interviews themselves and head to the conclusions I draw from them at the end of the chapter. But, in my mind, this overloaded barrage is exactly the point. Most fans I spoke with concur that their desire for such feline acquisition goes far beyond rational explanation into the realm of insatiable hunger. The question that this chapter circumscribes is, Hunger for what (in the collective plural)?

Geographies of Purchase: Asian America and Beyond

Let us turn first to the physical and virtual contexts in which that hunger may be constituted and fulfilled. The anthropologist Elizabeth Chin, who studied African American girls’ consumption patterns, points out the importance of going beyond examining what people buy into where they buy it: “Geographic spaces… are as important to consumption as are individual desires, likes, and dislikes… Aside from providing children with different commodities to purchase or covet, these distinct geographic locations open up (and close off) various spaces for play, fears, and fantasies” (2001:176–77). Thus purchasing Hello Kitty within the ethnic enclave of a small Chinatown or Japan town shop becomes a different kind of experiential foray than purchasing the cat in a Walmart megastore or at Target.com. In short, the context of buying—from location of shop to floor space to aesthetic display to type and range of goods to individual shop seller—imbues the act of purchase with different kinds of associative meanings. The link with other goods and sites carves out a semantic space for the cat. Buying a Hello Kitty key chain in a small Chinatown shop crammed with other Asian items—from incense burners to black bean sauce—contextualizes Hello Kitty in highly particularistic ways, tying the cat constantly to Asia as a geopolitical space and to myriad other culturally linked items. Hello Kitty in this specifically Asian American setting exists as one of many products from overseas, sometimes in dusty plastic wrapping, bound to an immigrant setting that is itself historically embedded and constantly changing. For many Asian Americans who have since left these settings, Hello Kitty may nostalgically remind them of these earlier experiences, shopping “Asia” in America.

Another form of shopping Asia in America may be found in the numerous Sanrio stores throughout the United States (as well as Sanrio’s website, www.sanrio.com, that calls itself the “Home of Hello Kitty”). Because the physical stores exist outside ethnic enclaves, in suburban shopping malls and central urban areas, the success of these Sanrio stores suggests the first corporate moves of Hello Kitty goods toward a broader public in the United States. The first of these opened in 1976 in Eastridge Mall in San Jose, California, serving a population that included a high proportion of Asians and Asian Americans. As of 2010, Sanrio products are sold in more than twelve thousand locations in North and South America, including department, specialty, national chain stores, and more than eighty-five Sanrio boutiques, called Sanrio Surprises.

In 2010, those boutiques came to be operated not by Sanrio, but by another Japanese corporation, Nakajima USA, Inc. (a subsidiary of Nakajima Corporation; aka Nakajima Japan), which has taken over much of Sanrio product design and manufacture in the United States. A full account of Hello Kitty in the United States, thus, must attend to the day-to-day operations and decision making that are handled by Nakajima USA, rather than by Sanrio. Founded in 1919 as a family-run company, Nakajima Corporation has been in the business of creating its own plush, collectibles, and seasonal toys and gifts, and more importantly, managing other companies with similar specialties. The Nakajima USA website explains the relationship with Sanrio, developed to address a changing marketplace in a short article entitled “The Power of Brand”: “Within this changing retail landscape, Nakajima has collaborated with Sanrio, Inc. to develop new products, redesign and rollout innovative store formats and implement strong in-store promotions” (Nakajima USA:n.d.). Thus, Nakajima USA obtained stewardship of Sanrio and its products as a brand strategy in the 2000s. A glance at the Nakajima USA website shows some of the different directions that this company is taking Sanrio and its products. For one, whereas in my previous interviews at Sanrio, Inc., headquarters, managers explicitly stated that part of Sanrio’s policy was not to advertise, the Nakajima USA website displays more aggressive promotional campaigns. Second, whereas previously Sanrio, Inc., seemed like a fairly close-knit operation—with many employees firmly committed to its products, and especially to Hello Kitty (as detailed in chapter 2)—now under a larger corporate umbrella, the relationship between Nakajima USA employees and Sanrio products seems more distant and contractual. After all, Sanrio is only one of several brands that Nakajima USA manages. In 2010 other brands managed by Nakajima USA include potential Sanrio competitors in the field of Asian (American)-influenced girl culture: Angry Little Girls, originally a self-reflexive Asian American video and comic series by Leela Lee in 1998, expanded to products featuring Kim, the angry little Asian Girl (“She’s one short-tempered little girl. Grrr!” www.angrylittlegirls.com); and Harajuku Lovers, a clothing and product line launched by the singer Gwen Stefani in 2005, inspired by the youth culture of Shibuya, Tokyo. Both Angry Little Girls and Harajuku Lovers form distinct American-based extensions of pink globalization. These two brands, combined with Sanrio, make Nakajima USA a notable empire of Japanese Cute-Cool and its derivatives in the United States.

Nakajima USA’s website provides further insights into the target market and image for its umbrella of branded products, including Hello Kitty. A photo gallery on the home page of www.nakajimausa.com displayed child and adult female models cuddling and wearing primarily Sanrio products. Of the fourteen photos displayed in June 2010, two showed adult women in their twenties, one depicted a very young elementary-school girl, and the rest pictured girls in the category known as tweens. Besides age, race plays a significantly marked category in the photos. The photo gallery presents a multiracial display of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and mixed-race females. None of the photos shows a white girl by herself; instead, whenever there is a white model, she is always juxtaposed with a girl of color. Girls of color, however, are displayed by themselves or with others. In short, girls of color perform center-stage in Nakajima’s imaging.

Hello Kitty's Ambiguous Wink

The photo gallery sheds light on the marketing and imaging of Hello Kitty in the United States. First, the use of amateurs as models (as indicated by a casting call on Nakajima USA’s website) provides a sense of verity, proof of the widespread popularity of Hello Kitty that goes beyond celebrities. Second, suggested by the photos, Hello Kitty is no longer necessarily only Asian (American); she is multiracial, multicultural, and, to an extent, multigenerational. More specifically, Hello Kitty reflects a youth-oriented, female, Southern California–branded blend of races and cultures that includes whites, but only in the context of African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and admixtures of the above. Third, the racial mix of Southern California stands in for the United States itself, or at least that segment of the American population that might be interested in goods branded by the corporation. Nakajima USA presents Hello Kitty as an icon in this Southern California melting pot of consumerism focused on Asian-linked goods. Of course, it is difficult to know exactly who might access the Nakajima USA website, and for what purposes. Nevertheless, given that Nakajima USA, with Sanrio, Inc., now takes responsibility for much of the branding, including boutique stores, it is safe to assume that the message and general direction of the website pervades most Sanrio merchandising throughout the United States.

In this age of Internet shopping, there are many kinds of Asian-linked sites—besides the obvious Nakajima USA and Sanrio websites—that tie Hello Kitty to Asian American images in different ways. Even when Asian Americans do not run these Internet sites, the link to Asia or Asian America is clear through the language, graphics, and goods themselves. The website All Things Kawaii, established in August 2001 by Valerie Franek, originally posted cute photos and items; however, more recently it lists various shopping sites for those who want to consume Asian cute goods, including Hello Kitty. In addition to the use of the Japanese word kawaii as part of the name of the site, the logo is notably a Hello Kitty–like cat (sans bow). All Things Kawaii lists 228 shopping sites of Asian cute goods (as of June 2010), complete with ratings and reviews. For example, one such shopping site, the Canadian Dreamkitty, focuses on Hello Kitty, as well as other Sanrio characters (www.dream kitty.com). The frequency with which All Things Kawaii and various other shopping sites reference Hello Kitty provides some indication of the central position of Hello Kitty within what I call pink globalization.

One shopping website that handles Hello Kitty among a myriad of popular culture goods from Japan is J-List (“a wonderful toybox of things from Japan”; www.jlist.com) and its companion J-Box (for those under eighteen, or not interested in “adult goods”; www.jbox.com). Established in 1996, J-List and J-Box are run by “Peter,” a forty-one-year-old American, former English-language teacher, and San Diego State University graduate who has been resident in Japan since 1991, and his Japanese wife, Chiharu. “Peter” sets the tone for the website, which is chatty, informal, and humorous. The website staff of thirteen includes Americans, Japanese, and Europeans, and its primary office is maintained in Isesaki (Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo), as well as another in San Diego, California. On such a website, Hello Kitty rubs shoulders with the following kinds of items: Japanese magazines, photo-books, dating-sim games, manga, DVDs, calendars, anime, T-shirts, toys, items for kosupure (“costume play”; wearing costumes of characters, typically from anime or manga), food, bentō (lunchbox) paraphernalia, as well as R-rated sex toys, DVDs, calendars, and Asian pornography. In other words, Hello Kitty shares the electronic stockroom shelves with the very products of Cool Japan (including schoolgirl pornography) discussed in chapters 1 and 7. Websites such as J-List and J-Box demonstrate the range of associative meanings given Hello Kitty through this shared stockroom, here run primarily by Americans resident in Japan and Japanese engaged in the English-speaking world. Pink globalization of Hello Kitty in the 1990s and 2000s engages in this kind of electronic connection directly to Asia.

One particularly noteworthy Asian American site selling Hello Kitty is Giant Robot, in both its physical and online retailing manifestations. Eric Nakamura and Martin Wong, both University of California at Los Angeles graduates, began Giant Robot in 1994 as an alternative-culture magazine about all-things-cool-and-Asian, inspired by their own backgrounds in the punk rock zine scene. The beginnings and ethos of Giant Robot embody a deliberately created subcultural niche that may have begun with an independent zine/magazine, extended to small stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco selling subcultural niche products such as toy robots, figurines, and T-shirts, and further extended to Internet sales and blogs. According to their website, half of their customers are of Asian ancestry. The items sold by Giant Robot differ from that of J-List and J-Box in that they exhibit more of a punk aesthetic, reflecting the founders, Nakamura and Wong. Unlike the expat-American preferences of those resident in Japan (e.g., J-List and J-Box), Giant Robot provides a decidedly hip Asian American take on things Japanese. Here is Asian American “cool,” and Hello Kitty within it. Sanrio’s product within the Giant Robot setting thus shares the virtual and real stockroom shelves with the hipness of toy robots, humorous art (including that by the Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Nara Yoshitomo), street or graffiti T-shirts (e.g., Shepard Fairey’s obey line), and other items that circumscribe an art-infused, ironically framed, politically directed, alternative-culture lifestyle. Hello Kitty within this setting may be interpreted as an Asian-based counter-culture to an American mainstream, especially as designed and directed by politicized Asian American youth. Hello Kitty items preselected and framed within a Giant Robot setting thus signify the possibilities of pink globalization inhabiting an edgy, alternative Asian American lifestyle.

One last context of Hello Kitty consumption that needs mention has little to do with Asian America but everything to do with American-based globalization—that is, McDonald’s. Since 1999, Sanrio and McDonald’s have sporadically cooperated in offering Hello Kitty toys and other goods as premiums with McDonald’s Happy Meals. Creating this kind of cooperative agreement with a major global company such as McDonald’s only confirms, in fact and image, Sanrio’s place within a major hub of global consumption. In fact, media coverage of this tie-up focused far more on its manifestation in Asia (especially Singapore) than in the United States or elsewhere. Because these McDonald’s/Hello Kitty premiums are limited to those who purchase or receive them with other McDonald’s offerings, and who do so within a limited time frame, the resultant objects can easily become collector’s items, for sale in places such as eBay to the highest bidder. Hello Kitty in conjunction with McDonald’s thus participates in the limited-edition framework of value for collectors, even as it spreads throughout the globe, arm in arm with industries of mass consumption aimed in part, though not exclusively, at children.

In fact, it is Hello Kitty’s associative meanings as inclusive global figure that positions the work of pink globalization at its extreme: thus, no longer exclusively Asian, Asian American, youth, or female; simultaneously retaining all, some, or none of these at some level. Here lies the ambiguous wink of Hello Kitty. Not all Hello Kitty fans would necessarily agree with, for example, Giant Robot’s selection of items for sale nor the kinds of meanings given Sanrio’s cat by McDonald’s Happy Meals. Nevertheless, with the unmistakable imprint of Hello Kitty, the contradictory yet overlapping set of meanings is exactly the sweet punch of pink globalization in its trans-Pacific trek.

Hello Kitty as Mall Denizen, from Tweens to Adults

One of the most obvious links between Hello Kitty and at least some of her fans is her feline nature: it stands to reason that among Hello Kitty’s global fans, a number may be cat fanciers. One such fan is K. S., a white female in her sixties who works as an executive director of a social service organization in Minnesota and is a cat lover. She describes her encounter with Hello Kitty as follows:

I bought a ceramic Hello Kitty in the 1970s. I was a student at the University of Minnesota at the time and saw it in a gift store near campus. I didn’t know her name until years after. I bought it because it was cute. I used it for many years as a decoration on the placemats for my pet cats’ feeding and watering bowls. Then about three years ago I was at a cat show and many of the exhibitors had manekineko [Japanese figurines of begging cats used in business to encourage sales] on top of their cat cages… So I started looking for one for myself. Last summer I went on vacation to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore and I finally found some in gift stores there. One of the clerks gave me an information sheet about maneki nekos. He said that a loose translation is “Welcoming Cats” and that that derived into “Hello Kitty.” I was so surprised! Here I had had a maneki neko all along! Last December while Xmas shopping at the Mall of America, I came upon a whole store full of Hello Kitties. It was like heaven for me! I bought a whole bunch of stuff then. So since then my husband and I give each other Hello Kitties and maneki nekos whenever we can. They look great massed in a collection. (Personal communication, June 16, 1999)

3.1. Display of one fan’s Hello Kitty collection (1999)

3.1. Display of one fan’s Hello Kitty collection (1999)

Although based on a fictitious (and erroneous, as far as I can tell) connection between the Japanese figurine maneki neko and Hello Kitty, what draws K. S. to Sanrio’s icon is cats. She shared with me photos of her cat display at home (see figure 3.1), which includes framed images of her cats (past and present), maneki neko, and Hello Kitty. K. S. changes the display seasonally.

Although some Sanrio consumers such as K. S. vividly recall their first encounter with Hello Kitty, others remember only a gradual co-existence with Sanrio’s cat from an early age. This may come about in the form of small gifts here and there, and then extend into active buying. For example, one Honolulu woman in her thirties recalls: “I can’t even remember how young I started. I only remember my mom giving me little gifts. But even now when I go into Sanrio stores I feel the same as I felt before [when I was a child buying Hello Kitty], excited. I want to buy everything! It’s weird. It doesn’t change. I’m like, ‘My god! I’ve gotta get that, I’ve gotta get this!’” (personal communication, July 2, 2002).

Christine Yano is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii. She is the author of Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways, also published by Duke University Press, Crowning the Nice Girl: Gender, Ethnicity, and Culture in Hawai’i’s Cherry Blossom Festival, and Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/170350-pink-globalization-hello-kittys-trek-across-the-pacific/