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The cat who turned kawaii into cash

Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon, by Ken Belson and Brian Bremner

Reviewed by Gary LaMoshi

According to her official biography, she was born in London on November 1, 1974, but she's still in the third grade and remains a quintessential Japanese icon. She weighs the same as three apples, has a twin sister named Mimmy (who wears her hair ribbon on the right side instead of the left), loves to play in the forest, practice the piano and bake, and she has no mouth. Hello, Kitty.

More prosaically, the simple image of the white cat with the oversized head, created by Sanrio Inc designer Yuko Shimuzu, has been plastered on 20,000 products from baby bibs and book bags to vacuums and vibrators and generates about half of Tokyo-based Sanrio Inc's US$1 billion in annual sales, along with counterfeit revenues in the tens of millions. Even then, a crackdown on pirates in Singapore generated the headline "Hello Kitty pounces on copy cats", proving that whatever Kitty touches comes out cute.

In Hello Kitty, Japan-based US journalists Ken Belson and Brian Bremner trace Kitty's roots to Sanrio patriarch Shintaro Tsuji. His friends in the government of remote Yamanashi prefecture got him started promoting local silk and vegetables in the 1950s. But by 1962, Tsuji had expanded into rubber sandals that featured a flower design, reportedly observing, "If you attach added value or design to the product, they sell in a completely different way." As a result, he began commissioning cartoonists to create designs, eventually hiring his own to avoid paying royalties. Tsuji also obtained Japanese rights to Snoopy from Peanuts for Japan and exclusive (money-losing) import deals on Barbie dolls and Hallmark cards.

Kitty's face first appeared commercially in 1975 on a clear-vinyl coin purse with the word "hello" written in red letters above it. With hardly any storyline, Kitty's meaning remains solely in the eyes of the beholder, embodying the 1970s mantra that "less is more". Hello Kitty products enjoyed an initial success that petered out during the 1980s. But their resurgence in the mid-1990s resulted from several factors, including the dawn of Japan's Parasaito Shinguru No Jidai (Age of the Parasite Single), young adults, especially women, opting to postpone adulthood and public testimonials from Japanese and Western pop stars, including Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey.

A pair of gaijin with Japanese wives and one-time BusinessWeek colleagues, Belson and Bremner start out their story strong, sharing rich insights into Japanese urban living. For example, Japan uses visual images as a means of expression far more than US society. And gift-giving is widespread, even among Japanese youngsters, creating a large market for so-called fancy goods (think of Hallmark's non-greeting-card items) that will delight and amuse recipients at affordable prices. The authors propose that something in Japan's water must foster a love for all things cute among females; even the Japanese word for "cute" - kawaii - is a cutesied-up version of the more formal term.

Unfortunately, insights quickly peter out after the introduction and opening chapters, which would have been sufficient for a coffee-table book featuring photos of Hello Kitty products and users. If subsequent chapters had been submitted to a flinty magazine editor such as Bremner, they most likely would have been kicked back with a request to find a unifying theme to drive the material and do more original research instead of churning secondary source material.

Absent that firm editorial hand, anecdotes passing for insight get repeated without elaboration or analysis, such as the unsubstantiated claim that Bill Gates offered $5.6 billion to buy the rights to Hello Kitty and the mad rush on McDonald's in Singapore and Hong Kong during Hello Kitty promotions. The book also veers into cool Japanese topics such as manga comics, anime, video games and J-pop music without convincingly linking them to Hello Kitty.

Belson and Bremner also set out key benchmarks then fail to deliver. For example, though they highlight the question of what will happen to Kitty and the company when Sanrio's septuagenarian founder Tsuji retires, their final conclusion is simply: gee, who knows? Similar insights are brought to bear on the questions of why Kitty succeeds where other characters fail and how Sanrio's marketing has been able to maximize Hello Kitty revenue without turning the phenomenon into a fad.

In a further departure from journalistic best practices, the book includes 242 footnotes, more than one per page, placed inconveniently at the end of each chapter. Nearly all unnecessarily and unhelpfully explicate items that journalists regularly handle without footnotes - for example, by writing "In an interview, Tsuji said ..." The footnotes seem to reach for gravitas through form rather than substance. Where readers would welcome a valuable insight to explain how someone named Brian J McVeigh became chairman of cultural and women's studies at Tokyo Jogakkan College, for instance, that footnote merely repeats a reference citation already given in the text.

Sadly, beyond the first couple dozen pages, Hello Kitty emulates the same formula Sanrio has used with its ubiquitous feline: here's something on the surface, and don't ask us for deeper meaning.

Hello Kitty: The Remarkable Story of Sanrio and the Billion Dollar Feline Phenomenon by Ken Belson and Brian Bremner, John Wiley & Sons, Singapore, 2004. ISBN: 0-470-82094-2. Price: US$24.95. 210 pages.

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Dec 13, 2003


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