The Anatomy of Hello Kitty
How is it even possible that this simply drawn, cat-like creature has dominated the cute animal toplist for the last forty years?
Hello Kitty is not a stand-alone phenomenon, it is the product of a larger cultural system, in which a modern offshoot of traditional Japanese aesthetics intertwines with a special child-culture that developed from the 17th century.
Using Hello Kitty as a key point I am going to:
- dispel some popular myths and misunderstandings about Japan’s kawaii culture
- explain the meaning of the word ‘kawaii’ and how it can be derived from traditional Japanese beauty-idols
- show how childhood gained such prominence in today’s Japanese culture
- describe how an entire generation of rebellious Japanese teenagers brought on the kawaii movement
Sophisticated, vulnerable charm – The clearer meaning of ‘kawaii’
The ‘kawaii’ phenomenon is only a few decades old, but it can be traced back on several points to the traditional Japanese beauty ideals. It joins such classic Japanese ideals, as refinement (miyabi), humble simplicity (shibui), the beauty of imperfect, developing or decaying objects (wabi-sabi), or my favourite, the bittersweet recognition of the impermanence of things (mono no aware). Although these ideals have developed in certain historical eras, they are still alive in one form or another. For example, a number of nowadays’ manga and anime have a very specific atmosphere, which can be explained by these ideals – the characters contemplate the natural and tragic passing of things, or decay and death are depicted as beautiful things. These definitions of course are quite compressed and simplified for the sake of this article’s length. If you are interested in traditional Japanese aesthetics, I recommend the short Japanese aesthetics review in Stanford University’s Philosophy Encyclopaedia, written by university professor Graham Parkes; it is a concise and clear summary on the topic in English.
So, we are given a more than fifteen-hundred-year-old Japanese aesthetic, and its newest sprout, ‘kawaii’, which unfortunately is usually only translated into Hungarian as cute or sweet. Obviously when a teenage girl in an anime sees a pile of kittens and shouts ‘kawaii!’, the best translation is ‘oh, how cute!’. However, we need to look at this word in a wider perspective. Kawaii-culture incorporates sweetness, cuteness, adorableness, but also inexperience, vulnerability, sophistication and genuineness. What’s more, if we look at the etymology of the word, we can extract a meaning of smallness, embarrassment and pitifulness – this last notion can still be seen in the expression ‘kawaisō’, which is usually used in a derogatory context: ‘Oh, you miserable fool’.
It becomes clear that this cultural-aesthetic background is not simply a theoretical discussion once we look at an actual example of it: that the Barbie doll never really gained traction in Japan. This wasn’t because Japanese children do not play with dolls, but because Barbie’s position was taken by the 1967-born Licca-chan. According to her backstory, Licca-chan is an 11-year-old girl, whose favourite book is Anne of the Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, her favourite character is Doraemon, another manga character born in the ‘60s. Licca-chan’s fanbase included both children and adults, and she still has an active following today. One avid collector of Licca-chan memorabilia, a woman known as Littlerabi states in an interview that the doll is embedded in the sixties, and even though the dolls produced nowadays are a bit more modern, she collects them because they give her a feeling of nostalgia.
If we put Barbie and Licca-chan side by side and take into consideration which countries they were successful in, we can see an interesting difference. Barbie is a trademark product of the American culture, and with a very “grown-up” fashion and her (extremely feminized) figure she marks miming adult life as the object of play. The different Barbie-editions popularizing various activities are the embodiment of the desire for adult life. This is congruent with the centuries-old (and fortunately not very often taught) western teaching theory, according to which children are basically small yet-imperfect adults. Meanwhile the aim of the Licca-chan doll hand-in-hand with the kawaii-culture is to preserve and celebrate childhood. While Barbie is placed above the children, Licca-chan is at the same level with them. Licca-chan thus provides a way to make connections through their age for children, and helps adults reconnect with the child within them.
Licca-chan paved the way for Hello Kitty in several regards. Although Hello Kitty’s age is not specified, according to her character record she is in third grade and lives outside of London – making her connection to English child-culture even stronger (which cannot be said about Barbie). When asked why they love this small, round, mouthless cat, fans of Hello Kitty usually say that she is their friend and she understands them – feedback like this confirms that the connection the brand established with the fanbase is one that is not based on hierarchy.
“Then we realised that there is such a thing as childhood”
In western cultures children usually look forward to adulthood as an ideal or fulfilment to achieve; childhood is a transient stage, we want it to be over with, want to forget we were ever like that – which provides an interesting contrast with our contradictory relationship with cartoons and drawn media.
Contrary to this, Japanese culture regards childhood as an ideal to preserve, one that is lost with time. According to popular belief, Japanese society started to pay more heed to children and childhood after centuries of isolation, when, as part of their big opening towards the western world, they adopted the British education system. Nowadays we have a more nuanced understanding: according to social historian Brian Platt’s 2005 study, conscious family planning was popularized in Japan in the 17-18th centuries, which stated that every member is essential in keeping a family alive, everybody deserves the same attention, big or small.
New family rites appeared in this era, which were tightly connected with the child’s age, starting with the celebration of announcing pregnancy (obiiwai). These rites accompany the child’s life events and aging – the third and seventh day after birth, when the child first leaves the home, first visits the local Buddhist temple, then at age three, five and seven. The last three are called “Shichi-Go-San”, which seems to have existed centuries before among the nobility, but only became widespread in the 17-18th centuries among non-noble castes.
The last rite celebrates adulthood (seijin-shiki). The rite was first described in 714 AD, it was held at ages 12-16 at the time and entailed the child first appearing in public wearing adult clothing and hairstyle. Now think about any anime or manga where a character’s hair is cut or they cut their own hair – for example, any Miyazaki movie is a guaranteed candidate for this scene. Think of stories where the character’s ritual/mythical/fabulous passage into adulthood happens at age 12-16 (so basically any shōjo-shōnen story).
Most rites of passage are still in practice today, although they may be changed partially or completely. For obvious reasons, rite of passage is held at age 20 instead of 12, this is the legal age of adulthood now, but the celebration of it appeared later. This is called Seijin no Hi, or Coming of Age Day, celebrated on the second Monday of January, with both traditional and modern elements.
The sanctity of childhood
The surprising number of different celebrations and rites developed parallelly both on a spiritual and institutional level. This is no wonder, as nothing really had any meaning if it was not backed by religion in the era.
In general, the most liked religious figure was Jizō-sama – in Japanese culture there is no such thing as a saint, Jizō-sama is a bodhisattva, according to Buddhist teachings an enlightened person, who decides not to leave the circle of life, instead he stays and helps those who suffer. He mainly watches over children who have died too young – according to earlier beliefs children did not have the chance to perform enough good acts to earn passage through the river Sanzu (the Japanese equivalent of the Greek river Styx), and so they have to build piles of pebbles on the bank of the river to try and cross to the afterlife. Newer ideas suggest that Jizō-sama stands by these children delivering Buddhist mantras to them so that they too can reach enlightenment. This is a perfect example of how mythologies change in response to changes in the way a society thinks.
This, however, does not mean that child-culture or the child-centered education system already existed in the 17th century. The reasons behind the variety of rituals were practical ones, the high child mortality rate and the high number of abortions (as the announcement of a pregnancy was a public declaration towards family and community that the child would be kept). The celebrations at ages 3, 5 and 7 were checkpoints, it was worth celebrating that a child lived to those ages.
To sum up, this whole child-centered institutional system was developed to emphasize practical views and to back these by religious and cultural means. This through the decades inadvertently brought about the realisation that children are wired completely differently than adults – and the fact that teenagers differ from both groups is a fairly modern development.
The need for a different viewpoint when it comes to children appeared in the 1870s first. In 1874 Mitsukuri Shūhei criticised the then popular way of teaching harshly in his essay ‘On Education’, which moved along the lines of “make the children repeat classical literature until they become smart”. He delivers a philosophical line, which can help us understand the modern Japanese view of childhood:
“From infancy until they are six or seven, children’s minds are clean and without the slightest blemish while their characters are as pure and unadulterated as a perfect pearl. Since what then touches their eyes and ears, whether good or bad, makes a deep impression that will not be wiped out until death, this age provides the best opportunity for disciplining their natures and training them in deportment. They will become learned and virtuous if the training methods are appropriate, stupid and bigoted if the methods are bad.” (Source: Shūhei, Mitsukuri. “On Education.” Meiroku Zasshi: Journal of the Japanese Enlightenment. Translated and edited by William Braisted, 106-108. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.)
Shūhei, as a translator for the 1862 First Japanese Embassy to Europe, travelled many countries, mainly for political reasons: to delay the opening of more ports in his shell-shocked home country. Their secondary goal was to gain knowledge of the state of western science and bring home intel to help Japan catch up with the West. Shūhei’s essay, and the works of his contemporaries, show signs of mixing between the traditional Shintō views and the new branch of science form the West, psychology. The ancient Japanese unwritten spiritual-mythological system, the Shintō is free of the western basic ideas of the original sin, or sin itself, it views the natural as the perfect state. Moving in harmony with nature is the best thing anyone can do, and human society is only dysfunctional if this harmony is missing – again, a lot of anime and manga explore the idea of the disturbance of the balance between humans and nature, and its restoration. Therefore, the developing method of teaching adopted the idea of the purity of childhood, which is to be handled carefully, and decides everything. Numerous contemporary anime and manga have main characters who solve their problems and trauma by working with their childhood memories, representing this peculiar amalgamation of psychology and Shintō.
Where ‘childish’ is not derogatory
When in the 20th century cultural products specifically made for children appeared, the modern view of children appeared in the view of those adults who created child-culture. For us the description ‘childish’ carries a negative connotation. In western cultures childish things are embarrassing for adults, who should be concerned with serious adult things. In contrast, the Japanese kodomo expression does not carry a negative connotation and means child-like instead of childish.
The roots of this phenomenon lead us back to Shintō. Other cultures feature adoration of babies and children as some special creatures, as they have just arrived from a mystical place before life, and thus are closer to deities than people, and this made them garner fear and respect. This is represented by the ideas present in Japanese literature. One of the key aspects is that Shintō holds nature, natural harmony and natural existence in the greatest regard. While western views regard material existence as inferior (according to our religious teachings this is where humanity was banished from a better place), in Japan every natural existence is filled with sanctity and only us, humans can ruin this with our foolery. It is no coincidence that those who are more child-like (and so closer to your original, natural existence) are thought to be more in sync with the original harmony of nature.
This principal is often played out in Japanese stories, where the old and wise master acts like a child, or an enlightened saint-like character exhibits child-like spontaneity. These characters represent that spiritual realization, that the perfect state is reached when your full potential as an adult is balanced by pure childish naturality. There are numerous examples of this in manga and anime, where this personality is a main element of the story, from Miyazaki’s work, through Lain, Ghost in the Shell, to Dragon Ball and Utena.
The Shintō shrine-maidens, who nowadays only perform daily tasks and sometimes sacral duties, are called miko, 巫女 in written form, which translates to shaman woman. The original writing of this word was 神子, which translates to a godchild, further supporting the sanctity of children in this cultural scene.
Considering this tradition of purity and sanctity ascribed to children, it is not so surprising anymore that child-culture is an integral part of Japanese culture. This is why the Japanese are not averse to creating ‘cartoons’ – another word that we view derisively (so much so that in some professional settings one may need to say they specialize in Japanese animated film, because if they said the word ‘cartoon’ others may think ‘why would anyone study a childish thing like that?’).
Visual self-realization was quite important in Japan early on, the scroll containing the first manga-like depiction is over 800 years old. With the historical and artistic influences of centuries, modern manga and later anime was born from this. The same way that Japan doesn’t recognize the western idea of sin, they also do not consider drawn media to be inferior. This is the reason why the works of Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki can be considered national treasures, and an adult watching animated movies in the cinema is not frowned upon.
But before anyone rushes to pack up and jump on the first flight to Tokyo, I must address the fact that while certain highly respected anime creators and their works may be part of basic education and it is not frowned upon to read manga on the metro, anime and manga culture is far from generally adored. Teenagers bully each other the same way in school, and the stereotypes about manga, anime and cosplay exist just as prominently. The judgment against otakus (people who obsess over Japanese media) is particularly heavy, as the notorious child-murderer Tsutomu Miyazaki (not related to Hayao Miyazaki!), caught in 1989, was a reclusive otaku – dubbed hikikomori, an extreme hermit who withdraws from any social interaction –, therefore in the public eye anyone who likes anime is suspect of being a murderer. The same ‘logic’ applies when after a mass shooting in America, tabloid media jumps on the fact that the perpetrator had a gaming system, therefore anyone who ever played a computer game (which amounts to about 70% of the developed world’s population) should be arrested pre-emptively.
Kawaii, the rebellious girls’ movement
Today’s kawaii culture can be traced back to the seventies. Sharon Kinsella, a lecturer in Japanese visual culture at Manchester University, points out the peculiar parallel between the modern kawaii movement and the change in writing lessons in Japanese schools in her 1995 book ‘Cuties in Japan’.
This era saw the start of pencil-based writing lessons, and the characters painted with ink with varying line thicknesses were replaced by the uniform characters written by pencil. The teenage girl generation of that time transformed this into an entirely new writing style, rounding out the kanji and katakana, mixing the Japanese characters with Latin letters, inserting little hearts, stars, clouds, and other illustrations, and shifting the direction of writing from vertical to horizontal.
This movement produced more or less illegible handwritings, called by many names, such as marui ji (round writing), koneko ji (kitten writing), manga ji (manga writing) or burikko ji (fake child-writing). Kinsella showed various handwritings with differing level of distortion from 1985 in her book and seeing the writing styles it quickly becomes obvious why they were banned in most schools. This didn’t stop the trend, before the age of the internet or any kind of mass communication technologies the new writing style spread like wildfire between classes and schools, and by the mid-eighties, there were an estimated five million people writing in this new cute style.
Kinsella speculates that the kawaii writing style is a sign of a new youth culture that wants to break away from old practices and traditions (“we don’t write from top to bottom, as boring Japanese people do, we do it from left to right like the exciting western people!”), and is looking for new ways of self-realisation. The magazines, companies and text editor creators are keeping up with the trend and have adopted this new style, this is why modern magazines and websites and letters or chat messages in anime are full of kawaii characters.
It’s interesting that while the teenage girls of the seventies’ Japan brought a new wind into the young adult generation’s self-image spontaneously, shōjo manga and anime gained popularity in this same decade, producing classics such as Candy Candy, Berusaiyu no Bara or Atakku No. 1. Then in the eighties, Miyazaki brought the new era of female heroes with his movies.
Kawaii culture infused every aspect of everyday life in Japan in just a few decades, kawaii clothing is youthful and playful, kawaii food are cakes, ice cream and milk products, and kawaii music: Seiko Matsuda pioneered the idol-era with her concerts rich in giggles and tears, which directly lead to AKB48 and the catchy Pamyu Pamyu Pon Pon Pon by Kyary.
Hello Kitty: empathetic friend or Trojan horse?
Sanrio latched onto this newly popular kawaii culture. The communications company started to decorate their paper sheets and greeting cards with sweet, adorable patterns and characters in 1971. This is not to say that cats weren’t cute before the seventies. The domestic cat arrived in Japan in the mid-sixth century AD, according to legend when the first Buddhist scrolls were transported by ship from China, cats aboard the ship ensured the scrolls’ safety, preventing rodents from nibbling on the sacred texts. Japan had a native wild cat-species beforehand, called yamaneko, but the animal native to the mountain ranges of the Iriomote island was never domesticated. Because of its hidden lifestyle, this species wasn’t even discovered until 1965 – today it is an endangered species, only a few hundred of the cats exist.
From this point on, cats gained popularity and respect rapidly. Emperor Ichijō, who reigned between 980 and 1011, had cats in his household, one by the name of Myobu no Omoto, that had a rank equivalent to a lady in waiting, and had its own ladies in waiting. With their popularity growing, cats started to play a central role in literature and painting, so much so that a recent New York exhibition of exclusively Edo-era (17-19th century) cat paintings was possible to organize.
Utagawa Yoshifuji’s painting ‘Popular hotspring spa’ (Ryūkō onsen no zu) from 1880 has no cats in the title but the artwork speaks for itself.
A unique mutation among cats, that causes them to have short tails developed in the 1700s, and this short-tailed breed became the Japanese housecat. This is the reason why both the beckoning cat (maneki neko) popular from the 19th century, and Hello Kitty have short pom-pom tails. This is all despite the declining number of short-tailed cats since the Second World War, as other cat breeds have been brought into the country. In the eye of the average Japanese, a cat is definitely Japanese if they are depicted having the characteristic short pom-pom tail, the centuries-old idea is carried on despite the statistics.
The iconic character of modern Japan, Hello Kitty was designed by Yuko Shimizu in 1974. It is popular amongst even those who otherwise don’t consume pop-culture products, those who don’t watch anime and would never read a manga. Hello Kitty breaks boundaries between countries and cultures. Due to this, the interpretation evolved into myriad different branches, every person applying their own unique view to the iconic cat. As the discussion above shows, this character is a product of so many different cultural eras and impressions, it becomes impossible to equate it with one simplified idea.
In the West Kitty’s lack of mouth seems like a negative, oppressive sign to some. According to this interpretation, the mouth is missing so that girls learn they should not speak. This carries some truth, as in traditional Japanese views it is a womanly virtue to be silent and invisible; this strongly affects today’s society the same way inequality in the West is a product of inequality of rights in the past. In spite of, or even because of this the underground feminist punk movement from the nineties, Riot grrrl put Kitty on their flag, stating that the radical equal rights movement doesn’t have to mean excluding anything cute. “I’ll be home late tonight. I need to buy a new bow and destroy the patriarchy” says Radical Kitty.
Coming back to the birthplace of Hello Kitty, and excluding the interpretations rooted in western culture, we can discover completely different layers to the character. On the one hand, there is the childhood approach originating from the Shintō, where evoking memories of childhood entails the preservation of one’s natural, pure original state; Hello Kitty reminds not to lose the child deep within. On the other hand, there is the emotional freedom, which is in stark contrast with the Barbie-line: Hello Kitty has no predetermined emotional state, because its purpose is to reflect our emotions. It is not compulsory to smile in Hello Kitty’s world, we can feel how we feel, and this friendly cat mirrors our emotions, understands, empathises.
Finally, there is the social environment. The British-friendly background and name are purposeful, the cat could be named Ohayo Neko, could be flying the Japanese flag and reading Haruki Murakami. The decision on this was deliberate: the character embraces the open mindset towards western culture and the rebellion against the previous generation affected by the war. In an interview on the fortieth anniversary of the character with Time, Sharon Kinsella brings up a good point: according to her adult women, who until then have only been welcome in the home environment, concealed their sudden and competent appearance in the working world, to reduce the perceived threat. In this regard, Hello Kitty is a tool to blunt the edge of “frightening” female progress in a world previously centered around men.
All of this shows that Hello Kitty carries more than one unified idea. It may have started out as a simple white cat, but today it is a symbol
Is it a modern branch of ancient Japanese beauty-ideals?
Is it a consequence of the child-culture from the 17-19th centuries?
A feminist icon hiding in plain sight?
Or is it just a simple cat with a cute round face and no mouth?
Hello Kitty may be all of these things at the same time. Hello Kitty’s interpretation is not defined, it changes with time and region what one sees in it and what we think of it today. It may be something completely different in another forty years. Fortunately, it seems like Hello Kitty herself is not at all bothered by any of this.
What do you think? I was quite shocked when I finished my research and understood how much this little kitty cat can do. I never thought a simple question like the one inspiring this article could lead down a rabbit hole this deep. What was the most shocking thing in your opinion? Tell us in the comments!