The History of Hello Kitty
To, like a lot of people, I’ve been obsessed with Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the past year, and Nintendo just released a huge Animal Crossing/Sanrio crossover update for both the Nintendo Switch and Pocket Camp. Players can purchase access to a line of exclusive Sanrio-inspired animal villagers and furniture items, and of course, all of it is adorable. But why is Sanrio such a big deal, exactly? Hello Kitty is a household name, and we’re all at least a little familiar with her gaggle of animal friends like Keroppi and Badtz-Maru. But how did she come to be?
The Kawaii 70’s
The character that would become Hello Kitty was first created in 1974 by illustrator Yuko Shimizu. Sanrio already existed at that point, and they wanted to expand from flowery accessories into cute character branding for merchandise. She first appeared on a simple coin purse as nothing more than a printing of a white catlike girl with a bow, a yellow button nose and no mouth.
To understand how the Hello Kitty character went from a drawing on a coin purse to a worldwide icon, you have to understand that she was in exactly the right place at the right time. While punk rock was taking off in the west, with all its spikes and rebellion, young people in Japan were rebelling against the strict, gloomy culture of adulthood by embracing cuteness. What came to be known as kawaii culture, after the Japanese word for ‘cute’, got started with high school girls using their mechanical pencils to write in a loopy, bubbly script nicknamed maru-ji instead of the traditional calligraphical style. Schools banned maru-ji, which naturally meant teens just did it even more. From there, Japanese youth started leaning into cute, childish aesthetics to resist the rigid conformity expected of Japanese adults. Anything that a 6-year-old girl would like, teenagers latched onto, and that included Hello Kitty.
Good Vibes Only
Hello Kitty’s enduring popularity is the result of some truly genius marketing techniques. She was a perfect fit with kawaii aesthetics, and Sanrio cashed in on some other trends to make her a smash hit. For one thing, Japanese women in the 70’s loved everything Great Britain. Gentle and feminine English sensibilities were all the rage, so of course Sanrio decided Hello Kitty, full name Kitty White, would be a young girl living in West London with her family.
Hello Kitty sailed through the 80’s and remained popular, but by the late 90’s, Sanrio decided to try a different tack. People weren’t as attached to cutesiness as before, but they were very into nostalgia. Hello Kitty then came to represent an idealized childhood, and the kids who grew up alongside her could buy her merchandise for their own kids or for themselves.
That retro-cool image propelled the Hello Kitty character well into the 21st century. It probably wasn’t Sanrio’s intention, but Hello Kitty fit right in with young Millennials and Gen Z. Modern youth culture is dripping with irony, and Hello Kitty’s pure cuteness makes her the perfect icon to plaster on lighters, duct tape and electric guitars. We don’t take anything seriously, so why not have Hello Kitty’s adorable face custom-painted on your motorcycle?
Ultimately, Hello Kitty is so popular because, well, why wouldn’t she be? Sanrio’s motto is “social communication,” so it might seem strange that they designed a character so famously lacking a mouth, but according to them, Kitty speaks with her actions. She’s a vision of kindness and gentleness in a world of simple lines and primary colors. Her cute face is a blank slate that people can project onto and imagine however they want. Hello Kitty is whatever we decide she is, and so far, it seems we’ve decided she’s our friend.
Except, there’s something you should know about Hello Kitty: according to her creator, she’s not a cat.
Yes, really. Her character design is meant to look like an anthropomorphic bobtail cat, but she herself is not actually a cat, and in fact has her own pet cat named Charmmy Kitty. She’s not human, either, presumably. She’s just Hello Kitty, and that’s good enough.
Rowan Thompson - April 19, 2021
Gates, James. “Why Is Japan So Obsessed With Hello Kitty?” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 25 Apr. 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/asia/japan/articles/why-is-japan-so-obsessed-with-hello-kitty/.
Miranda, Carolina. “Hello Kitty Is Not a Cat, plus More Reveals before Her L.A. Tour.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 26 Aug. 2014, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-hello-kitty-in-los-angeles-not-a-cat-20140826-column.html.