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A Superstar of the Character World Turns 30 (April 2, 2004)

Hello Kitty
A Hello Kitty bag produced with Heatherette (SANRIO Co., Ltd.)
Hello Kitty, the little white cat from Japan who is getting right up there with Mickey Mouse in terms of worldwide name recognition, turns 30 this year. While there are other characters of equally long-standing popularity, Hello Kitty is unique in that her physical appearance has not changed a bit since she made her debut. Characters typically undergo changes over the years, from minor alterations to all-out makeovers. But after all this time, Hello Kitty still has that same humanlike seated posture; that same oversized head; that same blank yet somehow cute facial expression.

The Story Behind the Character
Hello Kitty is one of several characters owned by Sanrio Co. First known as Yamanashi Silk Center Co., Sanrio was established in 1960 by Tsuji Shintaro. Seeking to enter a business that would offer high returns on a low initial investment, Tsuji initially considered getting into purchasing and commercializing patents. But patents are effective for only 20 years. Learning that copyrights remain in force for as long as 50 years, he decided that this was the business to be in, and he turned his thoughts to devising characters. Yamanashi Silk Center's name was changed to Sanrio in 1973, and Hello Kitty was born in 1974. At the time, Tsuji never dreamed that this little white kitten would grow to the stature of a Mickey Mouse or Snoopy.

Hello Kitty was created by Shimizu Yuko, a designer with Sanrio at the time. One of the products Shimizu designed for the company was purses. She designed many different wallets, but of all the ones she created, only the ones bearing the likeness of the little white cat seated in a humanlike posture were flying off the shelves. Witnessing the popularity of the cat, who did not yet even have a name, Sanrio moved quickly to develop her into a full-fledged character and give her a solo debut. Sanrio had found in a survey that the public's favorite three animal characters were dogs, cats, and bears. It already had dog and bear characters, so it decided to commercialize the cat. A variety of products were produced, including stuffed dolls, handkerchiefs, and stationery items, and not a single one with Hello Kitty's image on it failed to sell.

Sanrio went on to create twin sisters and parents for Hello Kitty. And in 1999 the little white cat got a boyfriend. But the only character that has remained popular in the long term has been the original Hello Kitty herself. The Hello Kitty empire now extends not merely to food items, electronic goods, and fashion accessories but even to cosmetics and precious metals. And in cooperation with the prestigious French design house Givenchy, Sanrio has developed a Hello Kitty perfume.

soccer game
The first Hello Kitty product (SANRIO Co., Ltd.)

Hello Kitty Ventures Forth into the World
The first Hello Kitty craze, in the mid-1970s, revolved around toys and character goods for children. But after Shimizu left the company, the designer who followed in her footsteps expanded Hello Kitty's sphere of activity. In the next Hello Kitty craze, which erupted in the 1990s, the character's fan base expanded from kids to high school girls and even to adults, especially female office workers. This craze was fueled by the use of celebrity spokespeople and by product placements on popular TV dramas. Some of her most devoted fans would surround themselves with every kind of Hello Kitty product imaginable, becoming known popularly as Kitira, or "Kitty freaks."

This phenomenon did not stop at Japan's borders. Mariah Carey, the Hilton sisters, and other celebrities began to pop up in the pages of magazines with their Hello Kitty clothing and bags. Four years ago, Sanrio opened a store in New York City. In April 2003, under a contract with the designer of a new US brand, Heatherette, models appeared in Hello Kitty print dresses for the second time at a fashion show in Los Angeles. And at the end of last year, two American business journalists living in Tokyo published a book on the history of Hello Kitty. All this has left many people stunned by the extent of this cat's success.

Characters: A Growth Industry
About 50,000 different Hello Kitty products are produced each year worldwide. There are even regional Hello Kitty products developed as local souvenirs; examples include Hello Kitty gyoza (minced pork dumplings) from the city of Utsunomiya and Hello Kitty natto (fermented soybeans) from Mito. Hello Kitty has certainly come a long way from her humble origins as a little white cat on a purse.

Hello Kitty goods now account for about half of Sanrio's total sales. Sanrio's character business has transcended the arena of children's goods to tap into a market that spans two generations, and the company has plans for further expansion. But this growth will be disciplined: Hello Kitty is a character from dreamland, and the company will not sully her image by lending it to products like knives, which are associated with danger, or cigarettes and ashtrays, which are associated with bad health.

To control its character business, Sanrio invests about ¥1.5 billion yen ($10 million at ¥105 to the dollar) a year on measures against unauthorized copying. Hello Kitty has become a treasure, not only for the company but for the entire Japanese character world, and it seems that guarding this treasure is the corporate equivalent of guarding the virtue of a sheltered daughter. Which is to say it is quite a job!

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Sanrio Co.

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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