What Is the Story of Hello Kitty?
On November 23, 2016, Masao Gunji achieved a Guinness World Record. What is his record? The world’s largest Hello Kitty collection!
Gunji, who lives in Japan, has 5,169 Hello Kitty items. He has Hello Kitty plush toys, crystal figures, clocks, watches, and lamps. His collection also includes a bowling pin, a toaster, a coffee maker, a motorcycle helmet, and a ukulele. If something has Hello Kitty on it, then Gunji probably owns it.
After thirty-five years of collecting, the Hello Kitty items fill Gunji’s pink house. Anytime he or his wife see something with Hello Kitty on it, they buy it. Gunji credits his family and neighbors with encouraging him to apply for the world record and helping him count all the Hello Kitty items he owns. People like to stop by and visit his collection, making his home a kind of neighborhood hangout spot. Gunji thinks looking at all of his Hello Kitty things helps them relax.
But why Hello Kitty? What does Gunji love about her so much?
“The reason I like Hello Kitty is because of her expression; for some reason when I’m sad, she looks a bit sad as well, and when I am happy, she looks happy.”
Gunji isn’t the only person who feels this way. The design of Hello Kitty is simple, but it is enough to bring joy to millions. A glimpse of Hello Kitty can make anyone’s day a bit brighter. The motto of Sanrio, the company that introduced Hello Kitty in 1974, is: “small gift, big smile.” And for over forty years, Hello Kitty has brought a smile to so many people.
Some people think Hello Kitty is just a cute little cat. But Hello Kitty is much more than a cartoon character. She has been loved by generations of families, from grandparents and parents to small children. She brings people together. Hello Kitty looks simple. But she is also complicated. And maybe that is why she has remained popular for so long. Chapter 1: Sanrio
The story of Hello Kitty begins with Shintaro Tsuji, the founder of Sanrio. He was born in 1927 in Yamanashi, Japan. Two moments from his childhood left a lasting impression on him: Once, his teacher asked him to help give out food and clothing to people in the town who had none. He was struck by how happy other people were to receive things that seemed so simple to him. Another time, he gave some of his trading cards to a boy he knew. The boy was delighted, and Tsuji realized that even small gifts can bring great joy. He understood how easy it could be to make someone happy.
Tsuji’s life changed when he was a young teenager and his mother passed away. He drifted into the world of books. He loved poetry and literature, especially the magical world of Greek mythology.
Tsuji went to college and studied chemistry. After graduating, he got a job with the local government. In August 1960, he quit his job and started his own business, the Yamanashi Silk Center.
Tsuji and his employees traveled around Japan, selling silk items from his home state of Yamanashi. In 1962, the company decided to sell rubber beach sandals, too. Many businesses sold these, so Tsuji tried to make his different by putting a small flower on each. The sandals sold well. The company even received orders from outside Japan! Tsuji tried putting strawberry designs on other usually plain products, like wallets and slippers. And these things were also successful. He realized that just by adding a simple decoration to something so ordinary, he could increase sales.
Tsuji hired artists to draw characters to put on his items. He also tried to sell some American items in Japan, such as Barbie dolls and Hallmark cards. Neither was successful, though. The Barbie dolls were too expensive, and the Hallmark cards had American designs that didn’t appeal to Japanese customers.
The failures of these projects taught Tsuji to focus on things that were right for the Japanese market. He thought that the company should sell small gifts that people could give one another to show friendship, not just for special occasions. He didn’t want them to be too inexpensive. But if they cost too much, people might not buy them at all. He finally settled on items that he believed schoolchildren could afford to buy and give to their friends.
Tsuji’s first store was called Shinjuku Gift Gate. It opened in Tokyo, Japan, in 1971.
Tsuji decided the company might need a new name: something easy to say and remember. He thought it should be appealing and yet have a deeper meaning. He remembered how the world’s three earliest great civilizations were established on rivers: Babylon began near the Tigris River, Egypt along the Nile River, and China on the Yellow River. He decided to use the concepts of “three” and “river” for his store’s name. San
is the way to spell the Japanese and Chinese word for three
using the Western alphabet. Río
is the Spanish word for river
. In 1973, the company officially changed its name to Sanrio.
Another major change was just around the corner for Sanrio: the introduction of their biggest star. Chapter 2: Hello, Hello Kitty
Throughout the 1960s, Tsuji had paid well-known cartoonists to use their characters on Sanrio products. But he wanted Sanrio to create its own characters. He wanted to have his own designers.
Tsuji didn’t want Sanrio gifts to be too expensive. He wanted kids to be able to buy them as small treats. That meant he needed designs that would appeal to young people. Tsuji had had success by putting strawberry designs on products. Then he tried cherries—but no one bought those items! He realized it was time to try something new. All children seemed to like animals, so he suggested that his artists draw animal characters. Tsuji knew from talking to kids that their favorite animals were dogs, cats, and bears. But Snoopy, the dog from the Peanuts comic strip, was already very popular in Japan. So was Winnie-the-Pooh, the British bear. That left cats. Tsuji thought a cat might be a successful character.
The Sanrio designers worked hard to create new characters. They drew a bunny and mouse pair named Bunny and Matty. They also created two friends named Patty and Jimmy. They looked fine, but they didn’t become very popular for Sanrio.
Then in 1974, one designer brought Tsuji a new drawing of a character she called Kitty White. Kitty White had a very large head and a small body. She had a yellow nose, two black dots for eyes, and a red bow tilted over her left ear. She wore blue overalls and sat sideways with her face turned toward viewers. There was a small bottle of milk with a straw next to her on one side and a fishbowl with a red fish on her other side.
Tsuji thought the drawing was “just okay” but decided they would use it anyway. He didn’t expect it to be something special.
The drawing of Kitty White appeared on a see-through coin purse in 1975, with “Hello!” printed in red letters above her. Hello
was written in English because British words and styles were very popular in Japan at that time. The coin purse cost 240 Japanese yen. That would have been less than one US dollar. It was something kids could easily afford to buy.
The coin purse sold well. Sanrio made more products with Hello Kitty on them. In most of the drawings, she was shown sitting in the same sideways pose, her face turned forward. But in others, she had different items and wore different clothes.
What made Hello Kitty so successful? Of course, she was cute. But there was something else: She was in the right place at the right time.
In the early 1970s, young girls in Japan began to change their handwriting. They started to exaggerate the roundness of the characters they wrote and added little touches to them, such as hearts and flowers. When asked why they liked writing that way, they said they thought it looked “cute.”
Japanese kids, especially middle-school and high-school girls, began to use the word kawaii
(say: KUH-why-i) to describe anything cute. Kawaii
came from the words kawayushi
, which mainly means “shy or embarrassed” but also “small, pitiful, darling, lovable.” Kawaii
became a style. Wearing childish clothes or speaking in baby talk was considered kawaii
Hello Kitty was the perfect kawaii
creation. She was round and soft. She had short arms and legs. She looked like she might need a bit of help. She was like a baby animal. People wanted to take care of her. An ordinary product, like a notepad, became kawaii
with a picture of Hello Kitty on it.
There was another important reason why Hello Kitty became such a success in the early 1970s: Japan’s economy was growing at that time. Businesses were doing well. People had money to spend on extras. Parents gave their children allowances to buy whatever they liked. Grandparents gave kids money on holidays or birthdays. Many Japanese children in the 1970s could easily afford to buy a Hello Kitty item.
Sanrio made more products with Hello Kitty on them: clocks, dolls, and other small toys. Hello Kitty began to wear different clothes, and she sometimes stood and faced fully forward. The new Hello Kitty products sold well. Sanrio doubled its sales in 1975.
Tsuji called the land where all of his characters lived the Strawberry Kingdom. The company began to publish Strawberry News
, a magazine about Sanrio characters. Fans learned about new Hello Kitty products, where they could buy them, and how to enter contests. They wrote letters to the magazine about how much they loved Hello Kitty.
A Sanrio tradition also started in 1975. A sales clerk at a Sanrio store was wrapping up a gift for a customer. She wanted to add a little something to the package. She noticed a small Hello Kitty bell on the store Christmas tree and tied it onto the customer’s package. The customer was delighted. The sales clerk began to add small bells to all of their customers’ packages.
Tsuji heard about this and thought it was a wonderful idea. It truly fit in with the company’s “small gift, big smile” belief. He told all Sanrio stores to start adding tiny ornaments—or trinkets—to their customers’ purchases. The tradition still continues today, and Sanrio fans look forward to receiving their small, collectible souvenirs.
In 1976, other companies began to pay Sanrio a fee to put the Hello Kitty character on their products. Now there were even more Hello Kitty things to buy. Sanrio’s sales doubled again.
Hello Kitty was a success. But who was she?
Copyright © 2019 by SANRIO CO., LTD. Used Under License.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.