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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2007, 02:56 GMT
Hello Kitty: the cat that got the cream
By Helen Soteriou
Puroland, Tokyo

The cat pounced unexpectedly. Resistance was futile. There was no escape through the sea of five-year-old children.

Hello Kitty
The kitten has been popular in Japan for three decades

Hello Kitty is the star attraction at Puroland Sanrio, an indoor theme park in Tokyo that comes complete with children's boat ride, theatre performances and parades.

Each year, the park's almost a million visitors leave behind some 7 billion yen ($61m; 29m).

And yet, the park accounts for no more than a small part of Sanrio's fortune, for its kitten star has a much broader appeal.

"The appeal of Hello Kitty is multifold," explains Professor Christine Yano, anthropologist and expert on Japanese culture at the University of Hawaii.

"For many, it is the blank slate that she represents. For others, it is the fact that she has been around now for over 30 years. Globally, it is both the simplicity of the visual image as well as its playful sophistication."

Hello world

But Hello Kitty is more than just a national - and increasingly international - phenomenon.

Hello Kitty
A raunchy Hello Kitty appeals to adults

This cute creature has also become perhaps the world's most lucrative feline.

Almost 90bn yen worth of so-called "social communication" gifts helped clock up operating profits of some 6.2bn yen last year - in spite of Japan's declining birth rate and sales-hammering factors such as a cold summer and a warm winter - which come on top of tough rivalry from mobile phones and other gadgets.

And although this is slightly weaker than previous years - sales in Japan have been slipping, while operating profits have suffered steep slides - Hello Kitty is not withdrawing its claws.

From the company's point of view, the kitten sales amount to expressions of giving - "from the heart" and "of the heart" - and with overseas sales rising 3.2% last year, it seems the philosophy is gaining global ground with 50,000 kinds of Hello Kitty products selling in 60 countries.

Sex appeal

But global expansion alone cannot insulate Hello Kitty's makers from the tough trading conditions back home, where market forces are eroding the feline's innocence at quite a lick.

Hello Kitty
Hello Kitty merchandise is sold across the world

Children alone can no longer satisfy Sanrio's expansionist urges, so adults both within and beyond Japan's borders are targeted with a slightly raunchy range where Hello Kitty cheekily displays her underpants.

"There is something going on here," says Professor Yano. "Call it neo-feminism if you will, that allows grown-up women in their thirties to retreat into girly feminism that is cute and spunky at the same time.

"The inclusion of sexiness into Hello Kitty only speaks to the strength of the image.

"In effect, Hello Kitty can be anything and anyone. A few years back there was even Hello Kitty as a kamikaze pilot."

There has also been aggressive development of collaborative products that have seen Hello Kitty team up with IT-firm NEC to produce a Kitty laptop and with electrical giant Toshiba to produce goods such as coffee makers and microwaves.

Taiwanese carrier Eva Air has two Hello Kitty jets that fly to Japan everyday, and the company is working closely with fashion brands, artists and designers, according to company spokesman Kazuo Tohmatsu.

There is even a Hello Kitty wine, though "Sanrio do not license Hello Kitty for knives, including knives for handcraft, or for strong alcohol like whisky", observes Mr Kazuo.

Cute rivals

Professor Yano feels that other companies may have their claws out for Kitty but that she is far from disappearing through the cat-flap into the night.

Hello Kitty
Hello Kitty's appeal goes well beyond the theme park

"I think Korean goods provide a serious rival to Sanrio. If Hello Kitty is cleverly cute, then some of the Korean manifestations outdo Hello Kitty."

But Professor Yano also points out that Hello Kitty had a following before the current wave of Japan's "gross national cool".

"I think when that wave has passed on, Hello Kitty will retain her popularity.

"Sanrio's explicit goal is that Hello Kitty not be a fad. Therefore they do not advertise. They want her following to be under the fad-radar and thus long-lasting."

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06 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
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25 Nov 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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