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An über-icon called Hello Kitty and the cult of cute

Hello Kitty is a cat. Her length is five apples, but her weight is only three apples. (I can't help thinking that's a mathematical blunder, but let's not get too literal.) Her blood type is A+++++, and she loves eating yummy cookies (but her weight remains three apples) and "buying things". She has a significant other called Dear Daniel.

Hello Kitty was created in 1974 and registered in 1976 by Sanrio, a Japanese company that creates cartoon characters and sells branded items. She generates more than $1 billion a year from sales and licensing, and though she has competition – ranging from Mickey Mouse to the Teletubbies – she remains top dog. Err. Top cat.

Millions and millions of women are obsessed with her. You can even, heaven help us all, have a Hello Kitty wedding. Any man who's willing to marry a woman in a Hello Kitty ceremony deserves the wife he's getting.

I couldn't resist, either: I bought a phone strap of Hello Kitty reading a book.

I became intrigued by this obsession as well as Kitty's mouthlessness. I was convinced this muteness had a very deep, very Freudian significance, so I went in search of proof for my suspicions. As you know, that's the basis of all True Scientific Research: first reach your conclusion, and then find facts to back it up.

Kitty is the queen of cute, but she frequently abandons her kingdom of kawaii for a sovereignty of schmaltz and kitsch. (Sounds like a law firm: Schmaltz & Kitsch.) Here in Japan, a country ruled by kawaii, she is the über-icon, the ur-archetype of kawaii. She is everywhere. Silent, dumb, innocent, cheerful, obliging. Why do women like her so much? Why - in a country still famous for its aesthetics, for the simplicity of its haiku and the quiet empty spaces of its watercolour paintings – why did kawaii take over? It's a very recent phenomenon; it didn't really take hold until the 1970s.

Here’s one explanation from an article by Mary Roach which you can find here:
The most obvious appeal of cute to the Japanese is, in large part, the appeal of childhood. "There seems to be this feeling of always wanting to be a child, of never wanting to move on, to grow up and leave it behind," says Yuuko Yamaguchi, assistant general manager of Sanrio's character-design department. Small wonder. Japanese adulthood is, perhaps more so than in most cultures, a time of onerous responsibility and pressure to conform.
 "Childhood, in Japan, is a time when you were given indulgences of all kinds - mostly by your mother, but by society too," says Boston University anthropology professor Merry White, author of The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America. "In the US, we are said to be a youth society, but what we really are is an adolescence society. That's what everyone wants to go back to. In Japan, it's childhood, mother, home that is yearned for, not the wildness of youth." 
It's interesting that this yearning for childhood, as expressed by an obsession with kawaii, started in the 1970s. That's when Japan really turned into an economic super-power: its citizens had cash to burn, but also had many responsibilities and experienced a relentless pressure to work harder, do better, run faster. American pop culture was spreading its influence throughout the world, and here in Japan you had the first generation that had no memories of the war and had experienced neither hardship nor defeat. Yet they still operated under that "onerous responsibility", the fierce pride, the tremendous self-discipline that helped Japan to shake off the ashes of Hiroshima and become the power it was in the 1980s and still is today. (Let's not forget, doomsayers, that it still is the third biggest economy in the world.)

It requires discipline as well as self-denial to maintain the harmony that is so important in Japan. A Westerner's first reaction is to reject this vehemently and to insist on freedom, but don't dismiss what you don't know. Perhaps this way, wa, is equally valid, for though you pay a premium, you get much in return. I digress. This issue – individual vs group; personal freedom (and does it really exist? how free are we to do what we want?) vs conformity - that is another topic for another day.

Anyway, to return to Hello Kitty, perhaps this bloody corny cat is simply a result of wealth, disillusionment and a yearning for childhood with no responsibilities. I read another interesting explanation in this article in The San Francisco ChronicleIt quotes Ken Belson and Brian Bremner, authors of Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion-Dollar Feline Phenomenon. Here's an excerpt:
Hello Kitty quickly struck a chord with Japanese consumers, Belson and Bremner write in their book. When the brand came along, the Japanese had rebuilt their country and had bounced back from the destruction of the war. Japan's hard-working population was poised to enjoy the fruits of an economic miracle, a run of prosperous boom years that would peak in the 1980s. 
Hello Kitty was originally aimed at children, but she turned into adult escapism:
When the 1970s arrived, long, daily, mind-numbing [train] commutes were taking the fun out of work for millions of Japanese. Increasingly, women became servants to their salarymen husbands who brought home the bacon but rarely saw their kids. Stuck in new, remote bedroom communities [outside big cities], women wanted comfort, and Hello Kitty, with her soft features and homespun story, was just the kind of nurturing creature to help them escape the hostile, industrialized urban world. 
That brings me to my next quote by Hermann Broch, who wrote The Death of Virgil. He said kitsch is nothing other than "an escape into the idyll of history where set conventions are still valid … kitsch is the simplest, most direct way of soothing this nostalgia". Milan Kundera said, a bit more bluntly, that "kitsch is the ultimate denial of shit".

You can't really talk about kawaii without referring to its dark side, kitsch, can you? I tend to equate these two terms, but they're not always similar. One could argue that a three-year-old girl with Hello Kitty hairpins is cute, but a forty-year-old woman with a Hello Kitty bag is kitsch. My rant is not against cute cartoons for kids or even adults – I happen to love Rilakkuma, the bear who loves relaxing – but against a monopoly of kitsch. It's a fine line, but I think adult women who turn into Hello Kitty acolytes definitely cross it.

Rilakkuma is much cuter. January 29th is my birthday.

After reading myself into a migraine, I reached the tentative conclusion that Hello Kitty represents the ideal woman as seen by man: she's cute, innocent, childish, submissive … and she has no mouth! She can't nag, complain, demand, yell or express an opinion. (Sorry, guys, it also means no blow jobs.) What I can't figure out is why women would want to identify with her, or is this identification in itself a denial of adulthood and its unpleasant aspects? "Let me stay a small girl so that Daddy can always look after me; then I don't have to deal with nasty things like decisions and responsibilities."

As far as that mouthlessness is concerned, my friend Sara, who's a poet, wrote this haiku:

her pain is winter-
white silence, unspeakable;
Hello Kitty mute

Sanrio itself explains her lack of mouth as follows:

The reason Kitty's mouth is not drawn is so that anyone looking at her can imagine their own expression for her. When you're happy, you can imagine a smile on her face; when you're sad, she's sad with you. Kitty always knows how you feel, and being your friend, she shares your feelings.

Here's a funny site written by a man who's married to a Hello Kitty fanatic, and here's a food-for-thought academic article about kitsch and gender issues by Rita Felski.
I don't know what I've tried to achieve with this rambling scribbling, and there are many contradictions, but I'm suffering from Hello Kitty post-traumatic stress disorder and I'm going to stop abruptly without having reached any profound insights or earth-shattering conclusions.

Your insights would be deeply appreciated.

Post-script: I originally wrote this a few years ago, after South African friends expressed their befuddlement with Hello Kitty's popularity. A recent chat with fellow blogger StarBrooke reminded me of My Very Scholarly Dissertation, so I edited it slightly and posted it on my blog. Please take into account that I'm not a sociologist or an expert in pop culture. The best English blog about contemporary culture in Japan is Néojaponisme. I'd still rather go to a shrine in the shitamachi than the latest happening spot in Shibuya (or wherever the latest happening area is) [meh], but this blog is well worth a read.

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