Visiting Hello Kitty Con and “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” at JANM

November 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Live Action and Film Combo at Hello Kitty Con, 10/30/14/All photos Hope Anderson Productions

Though I grew up in her homeland, I came late to the charms of Hello Kitty, a serious lapse of my instincts for pop culture phenomena. How did I miss Kitty’s future ubiquity as Japan’s ambassador of kawaii? Probably because I was jaded by my Tokyo years, which featured a delightful stream of childish novelties: toys, stickers, candies and rice crackers in seasonal shapes (e.g., cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, umbrellas). Japan also celebrated (and still does) three children’s holidays–Children’s Day, Doll Festival, 7-5-3 Day–surely a record unmatched by any other country.
Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum

Hello Kitty Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) Emperor and Empress Dolls, at the Japanese-American National Museum


Against this backdrop of national cuteness, Hello Kitty’s debut in 1974 was not earthshaking news. In fact, because my family had moved to the United States two years earlier, I didn’t see the pink sensation until my first trip back in 1980. “I don’t think this is going to catch on in America,” I remember saying. I soon knew better. But it wasn’t until early 90s, when I noticed a grown woman in the next car gripping a Hello Kitty steering wheel, that I realized how wrong I’d been.

In the years since, Hello Kitty’s reach has extended around the world and into the air. As part of Sanrio’s 40th anniversary celebration, EVA Airlines is flying to Paris in planes painted with Hello Kitty. Inside, everything is Hello Kitty-shaped or marked: food, soaps, pillows, headrest covers, and toilet paper. Another part of the 40th anniversary celebration was last week’s Hello Kitty Con, which I wouldn’t have missed. Held at the Geffen Contemporary, it was a completely sold-out four-day convention of all things Kitty: exhibits, merchandise, official and unofficial mascots, and even a live show against a filmed backdrop (above).

Next door at the Japanese-American National Museum, I toured a more subdued but even more fascinating show (which runs until April 24th) featuring Sanrio’s artifacts as well as Hello Kitty representations in fine art and fashion.

Hello Kitty Man's Suit at JANM

Hello Kitty Man’s Suit at JANM

Lady Gaga's Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Lady Gaga’s Hello Kitty dress at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Hello Kitty birthday cake sculpture at JANM

Which brings me to the perplexing news that Hello Kitty is not a cat. According to Christine Yano, the author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific in an interview in the LA Times:

Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature.”

As if that weren’t enough, Kitty White is a British third-grader who lives with her twin sister, parents and grandparents outside London. She loves Paris–hence the EVA flights.

Nevertheless, Hello Kitty could only have sprung from Japan, the land of kawaii. As the JANM exhibit points out, the word kawaii (cute) is derived from kawaisoo, which means pitiable. It’s the powerful combination of cuteness, pity and the color pink that gives Hello Kitty her universal appeal.
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