Hello Kitty

Hello Kitty

Synopsis of Toy

“After all, you can never make too many friends.”

She started out as just a cute face on a coin purse, but today she graces more than fifteen thousand licensed products. Purportedly, she weighs what three apples weigh, but her parent company enjoys annual profits in the billions, thanks mostly to her. Yes...billions. She doesn't even have a mouth, but she somehow makes us believe that she's our friend and she somehow coerces us to buy into her motto, which is stated above. And we mean "buy into" quite literally. Hello product durability. Hello brand name loyalty. Hello theme parks and specialty shops and collector mania. Hello clothes, furniture, stickers, toasters, tennis rackets, cell phones, credit cards, lunch boxes, jewelry, just about any school supply you can imagine (unless imagining school supplies makes you uncomfortable), coffee beans, batteries, refrigerators, handkerchiefs, puppets, bone china, band-aids and business ties. The Japanese company Mira even built a Hello Kitty car. And all this is just a drop in the feline product bucket, the tip of the feline iceberg. Hello Kitty.

When he was growing up, orphaned at thirteen and chronically lonely, Shintaro Tsuji yearned for “heart to heart communication”—with a person or an animal or a toy, it didn’t matter—as long as some kind of connection to something outside of himself was fostered. And when he was shaping his own toy company years later, that old childhood need for connection played big into his plans: The cheery toy items that he sold were meant to bring joy to lonely kids and adults.

Given this intention, and given the fact that giving small, token, inexpensive gift items is a standard social custom in Japanese culture, there was a market just ready and waiting for his cute, cuddly merchandise. The company, which opened its doors for business in 1960, has had plenty of success before her (like Strawberry, a little girl with a huge berry on her head) and after (the Little Twin Stars, the frog Keroppi, Monkichi, and Pochacco), but there's no one that can compare to Hello Kitty. In 1974, a little white kitten graced a little plastic coin purse, and Sanrio would never be the same again.

After a year as just another pretty face, Hello Kitty got her name in 1975, and upon her success, Sanrio quickly conjured an appropriately adorable backstory for their ingénue: Officially, Kitty lives in London with her parents; she’s in the third grade (rather perpetually, it seems); her birthday is November 1st; her hobbies include collecting hair ribbons, eating the goodies that her sister bakes, and above all else, making new friends. Through the late 70’s, she graduated from her early sitting-down pose, and thanks to Sanrio designer Yamaguchi Yuko, not only stood up, but also engaged in all sorts of playtime activities and tried all kinds of sports.

Sanrio began to export the kitten internationally, and consumers were gradually introduced to other members of Kitty’s brood—her twin sister Mimmy, her Mama and Papa, her Grandma and Grandpa, and her friends Cathy (a quiet little bunny), Tippy (Kitty’s beau), Mory (a shy mole), Tim and Tammy (twin monkeys)…just to name a few. Kitty made her movie debut in Japan, called Kitty and Mim’s New Umbrella and her Stateside cartoon debut with Hello Kitty’s Furry Tale Theater in 1987 (some of the few places you’ll ever see her with a functioning mouth).

It goes without saying that Hello Kitty was a huge favorite among little Japanese girls. But in 1987, there was a noticeable gleam in Sanrio’s eyes, and that gleam was the disposable income that belonged to Japanese teenagers. Sanrio designer Yamaguchi developed a hip and slightly more mature Hello Kitty product line—our favorite feline in a classy black and white color scheme. More teen-oriented product developments ensued, and in 1996, Sanrio staged their most impressive assault on the teen market yet. This time, it was Hello Kitty pink satin keitai (purses, book bags, straps that attach to any of the above…anything that ‘carries,’ which is what keitai means in Japanese). You would have been hard pressed to find a high school corridor that wasn’t awash in Kitty product fare. Kitty’s has had her claws firmly latched onto the teen market ever since.

Hello Kitty has been around for over twenty-five years, and as aforementioned, there are over 15,000 licensed Kitty items circulating out there. But as time passes and the product lines mutate and multiply, the little white one remains very much the same—a beacon in that sometimes-overwhelming product night. Her facial and body design have changed only slightly over the years, the biggest makeover coming in 1993, when the bow that could always be found atop Kitty’s head became a flower.

Sanrio issued the Kitty Baby line in 1999—adorable infant kitties for your adorable infant kid. Kitty devotees from the 70’s and 80’s are all grown up now, but they continue to buy products—sometimes out of nostalgia (the ever-savvy Sanrio issued the “Traditional Kitty” line for these buyers in 1997), and sometimes because they’re serious collectors of any and everything Kitty.

Japanese consumers account for 90% of Hello Kitty sales. Outside of Japan, Kitty’s biggest sales are found in Asian countries—Taiwan and Hong Kong especially. She paved the way for a veritable Japanese toy-culture invasion, and characters like Pokémon soon followed her lead. In 1990, Sanrio’s theme park, Puroland, opened in Tama City (just outside of Tokyo), and there, Hello Kitty reigns supreme (it’s not for nothing that she’s sometimes thought of as Japan’s Mickey Mouse). Throughout Europe, there are subsidiaries that sell Kitty’s fare, and Kitty’s also busy clawing out a home for herself in the West. Sanrio has American headquarters in San Francisco nowadays, and there are Sanrio stores sprouting up nationwide. She was even named the child ambassador of UNICEF in both Japan and the States.

If you’re perplexed by why such a creature is such a craze—what with her oversized head, her undersized body and nothing but a wide open space where her mouth should be—well, we hope you don’t think we can explain it. But we will offer some possible ingredients to that craze recipe. The first is Japan’s fondness for youth culture, because youthful, imaginary worlds (be they literal or figurative, found in a comic book page or an animated movie or the latest kid-like gadget or the aisles of a toy store) can supply a moment or two of diversion from the wracking everyday pressures of life and work. Perfectly, and also quite adorably, Hello Kitty provides just this sort of world—a whole realm of merchandise to immerse yourself in, a whole cuddly mythology to wrap around you.

It’s also possible that because she doesn’t have a mouth, that because there’s a sort of easy neutrality to her her face that other toys don't have, there’s something additionally comforting about her. She just looks like a good listener, she just looks like she'd be nice to have around. And this isn't at all the type of face you’d wake up to one morning and decide to chuck into the dark recesses of your closet because she suddenly seemed sinister or annoying or too ‘young’ for you. She's durable, she's not easy to grow tired of, she's comforting, and she’s addictive: The more Hello Kitty around you, the more that intangible (but potent) Hello Kitty kind of warmth will emanate—so why not keep buying?

Here in America, where convenience and wide selection are consumer standards, there is something appealing about a product line that can't be purchased just anywhere—and the Kitty fits this bill as well. For 70’s- and 80’s-reared kids, Hello Kitty products were sometimes tough to find...nowhere to be seen in the big chain toy stores or the malls. We could only hope the Kitty would make a home for herself in a tiny corner of a gift shop, or a section of the local toyshop’s shelves. For these youngsters, the acquisition of new products became a bit of a quest, and the demand always seemed higher than the supply. But nowadays, with her Internet availability and her presence in the new Sanrio shops, if you have to have the Kitty, the Kitty can be had.

Buy a couple of Kitty items, or better yet, take a stroll through one of the Sanrio specialty stores and get ready for a little relief from whatever ails you. She's oddly, wonderfully medicinal. Hello Kitty.

Release History of Toy

1974 - little white kitty appears on coin purse from Sanrio
1975 - that little white kitty is named Hello Kitty
1993 - Kitty's hair bow becomes a flower
1999 - Kitty Baby line

Sub Categories of Toys

electronic toys
arts & crafts

Toy and Game Manufacturer


Other Toy Links