This week, Japan found itself agin in the throws of worldwide controversy, inflaming nationalists and foreigners alike in a divisive struggle over identity. This terrible struggle, of course, centers around nothing less fundamental than: Hello Kitty.
This week, Japanese officials with Sanrio, which, while not an official government agency, speaks with a voice equal to that of many nations, clarified that Hello Kitty is NOT, in fact, a cat at all. Not only is she not a cat, she has her own cat that is a pet. In an interview with an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii, Sanrio explained that Hello Kitty is actually named Kitty White and she is a little girl from Great Britain. Hello Kitty has a pet cat named Charmmy Kitty and a pet hamster named Sugar. She is a Scorpio. She loves apple pie. And she is the daughter of George and Mary White. She is around 5 apples high and 3 apples wide and her birthday is November 1.
Suddenly, however, with the revelation that Hello Kitty was not a cat, Sanrio faced worldwide uproar. People everywhere were outraged to learn that their beloved icon was girl in cat’s clothing. The news even threatened to overshadow Japan’s summit with the Indian Prime Minister (probably, at least I assume it did). Struggling to repair the damage from this revelation, a Sanrio spokesman first ventured: “It is difficult to answer that question, but our answer is that Hello Kitty is a personification of a cat –- a character.” Sanrio clarified that Hello Kitty is a gijinka (擬人化), a personification. In their defense, Sanrio has never actually described Hello Kitty as a “human.” Her website describes her as 明るくて、優しい女のコ (akarukute, yasashii onna no ko). So, “girl,” but not “human girl.” In Japan, it's very common for cats to be referred to as "girl" or "boy," instead of by the Japanese gender markers designated for animals ("osu" or 雄 for "male" animals and "mesu" or 雌 for female animals).
Hello Kitty (ハローキティ) was born on the side of a purse in 1974 and arrived in the United States in 1976. Hello Kitty was designed by Yuko Shimizu. At first, she didn't even have a name. The coin purse simply read, "Hello!” In Japan at that time, the character was known as "the white cat with no name" (名前のない白い子猫). But it wasn’t long before she became a worldwide phenomenon. Her image graces everything from fire extinguishers to blood-mobiles to martial arts armor. Her popularity has never waned; She adorns an airplane in Taiwan and she is currently orbiting earth on the Hodoyoshi-3 satellite. Bank of America offers a Hello Kitty bank account, including Hello Kitty checks and credit cards. This fall, she is the subject of a retrospective of Kitty art, merch and fashion at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, an exhibition opening in mid-October. Two weeks later, the first ever Hello Kitty Con, will be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. By 2014, when Hello Kitty was 40 years old, she was doing $7 billion a year, all without any advertising.
Perhaps this controversy ignited the passions of fans worldwide because it tapped into an inner fear of most humans that the world is not what it appears to be. Or perhaps it was another instance of the battle between the artist and the viewer over who really “owns” art. Or, it is possible, that people have too much time on their hands.