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Japan

Five facts about Hello Kitty, China and Hong Kong tourism ambassador and marketing queen

Japan’s ubiquitous ambassador of cute and merchandising has been with us since 1974, believe it or not

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 7:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 7:46am

If Hello Kitty had a mouth, the first word to pop out of it would surely be “why”? Swiftly followed by “how?”

Why, as in why do so many people around the world (from kids in London to young Hong Kong women clutching Chanel bags) go gaga for Japan’s global icon of cute who entered the world in 1974 courtesy of Sanrio, the company guilty of producing products focusing on the country’s kawaii (cute) popular culture.

And how the heck did she manage to build a billion-dollar empire (by 2014, when she hit 40 years old, she was worth about US$7 billion annually) on her – let’s be honest – pretty basic face covering everything from guitars and video games to toasters and televisions.

Arguably her biggest coup came on this day (May 19) 10 years ago, when Japan’s Tourism Ministry named her ambassador to China and Hong Kong.

The move was not only a genius way to boost visitors under the “Visit Japan” campaign but was also the first time a non-human had been given an official ambassadorial role – go Kitty.

Not everyone was impressed. Oxford University professor of Japanese sociology Dr Sharon Kinsella at the time called it “a bit farcical”; “as if a dumbed-down cultural icon … can somehow do something significant to alter the gnarly and difficult state of China-Japan relations”.

But love her or hate her, Hello Kitty – who Sanrio says is not actually a cat but a “happy little girl”, despite those whiskers, and who wasn’t given a mouth because she “speaks from the heart” – gotcha – is here to stay.

So on this 10-year anniversary of her ambassadorial appointment, here are five random facts about the world’s most famous feline:

A Taste of Kitty

Hello Kitty Secret Garden Cafe added a kitty kitsch element to the backstreets of Tai Hang when it opened its doors in 2014, following in the pawsteps of other cities including Adelaide, Bangkok and Seoul.

Something new: Hello Kitty Secret Garden

The cafe has amassed a following among the city’s huge fan base, with the British country garden-themed cafe putting a Hello Kitty touch on everything from the food to the decor (her face is toasted onto sandwiches and carved into the cappuccinos). Those craving more themed items can head to YATA Supermarket in Shek Tong Tsui for over-packaged items that also feature the feline.

Thai police enforces pink badge of shame

In 2007, images that seemed too funny to be true, emerged from Thailand showing naughty police officers wearing large pink Hello Kitty armbands. The kitty shame scheme was to make those enforcers of law who commit minor transgressions (such as showing up late, littering or illegal parking) to wear the bands for several days as a penance.

“This new twist is expected to make them feel guilt and shame and prevent them from repeating the offence, no matter how minor,” said police colonel Pongpat Chayapan.

Fly Kitty Fly

In October 2005, Taiwan national carrier Eva Air joined forces with Sanrio to create a “Hello Kitty Jet,” plastering the exterior of the A330-200 with her image. The following year it launched a second Hello Kitty Jet, this time her face was on the inside and outside, plastered on everything from the toilet paper to puke bags. Both planes serve Japanese destinations, and since 2007 have had engines purring on the Taipei to Hong Kong routes.

‘Kitty has been the love of my life’

For more than 35 years, ex-police officer Masao Gunji, from Japan, has been collecting Hello Kitty memorabilia, earning him the Guinness World Record for the largest collection (he owns items from bento boxes, towels, stationary items, motorcycle helmets, clocks and kitchenware).

Japanese ex-cop has massive Hello Kitty collection. His wife is very supportive

By 2016, he had amassed 5,169 items, all displayed in his (of course) pink home complete with Hello Kitty wallpaper. No surprise that his home has become a magnet for tourists and the envy of young Japanese girls. “Kitty has been like the love of my life,” he told AFP last year.

Feline good fashion

When it comes to fashion, Hello Kitty has all taste bases covered, her image adopted by cheap and nasty labels to high-end jewellery brands such as Swarovski. The latest to jump on the Hello Kitty bandwagon is German sports label Puma, who in January this year collaborated with Hello Kitty to create the Puma X Hello Kitty For All Time collection, and of course the company’s signature sneakers for kids and adults will have the Kitty face all over them. Can’t wait to see those.