I guess everybody in Japan, and a huge amount of people in many other countries, know who or what 'Hello Kitty' is. The Sanrio Company's kawaii (Japanese for cute and vulnerable) character must be one of the most successful marketing devices ever created. The simple line drawn kitten adorns every consumer item imaginable, from fishpaste to handbags. You can even get a pink 'Hello Kitty' toaster in Japan that will leave the image of her cute face on your toast slices at breakfast! And such tastefully adorned celebrities as Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton own very visible items of Hello Kitty clothing and jewelry, adding (for some, anyway) to the attraction of the brand.
Although arguably the most successful, 'Kitty' is not the only, nor the oldest, kawaii character seen around in contemporary Japan. She has only been with us since 1974, originally created then by Sanrio as just another of their attempts at a merchandising prop. In 1950, a very popular and much loved Japanese character, 'Peko', the Fujiya cake shop mascot, and in 1969, 'Doraemon', a robot cat, made their respective debuts. And both of them are still around today, still holding down a firm place in Japanese popular culture.
'Peko' is a small girl who first appeared outside the original Fujiya cake shop in the Ginza. Fujiya specialized in western style cakes, one of the first post-war shops to do so, and wanted a recognizable motif to welcome customers to the store. They came up with 'Peko', a wide-faced, big-eyed young girl, a little over a meter high, smiling and licking her lips. She has the classic look of a Japanese manga (comic book) character, and although originally western-looking, she has been modified to be of more Japanese appearance over the years.
The full view of 'Peko' dressed in real clothes, which means she can be constantly in fashion, and 'Doraemon' in the room of his friend and discoverer Nobita.
Fujiya has become a very successful chain of cake shops, each one having the figure of 'Peko', and/or her male companion 'Poko' (added in 1951) standing outside the door. Although these days, she is just as likely to be inside the shop, as she has become the target of thieves, who can fetch as much as 1,000,000 yen for her at second hand stores who specialize in pop culture icons!
'Doraemon' was the brainchild of Hiroshi Fujimoto, who in searching for a new manga character, was inspired by the yowling of a cat fight and the perceived need for a universal machine to solve many problems, came up with the idea of a robot cat with a pouch in front that contained many 22nd century gadgets with which he used in attempting to help his human 'owner', the boy Nobita. Originally a manga, and now a very successful tv anime program, 'Doraemon' is widely loved by children and adults alike, and is respected for having helped generations of parents instill good values in their children.
'Miffy' the bunny outside a display home in Saga, a purple haired cute girl doll outside an Azare cosmetic outlet, a nameless rooster in front of a used car yard (or maybe it's a roadrunner), and Fuji Palette Plaza's photographer Lucky Cat beckoning you into one of their Fukuoka stores.
These days, we see many 'a little over a meter high' kawaii mascots placed outside businesses, in the hope that the cuteness of the character will attract sales. And these are not always Japanese. I have seen numerous images of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and Tom and Jerry of Cartoon fame are the chosen mascots of the Saga Bank in my home town. And I have seen large figures of the the Dutch created (Dick Bruna) character 'Miffy' the bunny, being used to welcome people into new display homes by a major building company in Japan. And although 'Hello Kitty' outsells 'Mickey Mouse' worldwide, Mickey and crew are very popular here.
I also see characters that to me are unknown outside of their viewed location. A Toyota dealer near me has a large plastic rooster beckoning people in to his yard. I have no idea of the significance of it to a car dealership. Perhaps it isn't a chook, but may be a roadrunner? And the Azare cosmetic company, who have a large range of tastefully minimalist packaged goods have invented a large figure of a very cute blonde to stand outside their front door. Strangely contradictory images, I feel. But hey, if it sells product.
Children's school crossing marker, very practical here, as it both marks the crossing point for car drivers and the children, and also reminds the children to hold their arm in the air, which is the sign that they want to cross.
One very common plastic figure in Japan is the little girl seen standing either side of pedestrian crossings near schools, one arm raised high, to warn motorists that children cross there. The easily-seen raised arm is the signal real children use in Japan when they wish to stop the traffic and cross the road. This doll character is very widely used and known, and is very effective.
It is interesting that so many of these characters are cats. Some popular culture analysts think that the inspiration for 'Hello Kitty' came from 'Maneki Neko', the Lucky Cat figure seen in homes, and shops and businesses of all kinds, all over Japan. It stands with one paw raised, waving to people to come in and shop. The origins of this are probably from the Meiji period, or even late Edo (around 1660/1670 or so). The one-hour photographic printing business chain, Fuji Palette Plaza, who have only been around since 1986, have adopted this very cat as their outside-store mascot, a larger than one meter high photographer lucky cat, beckoning, with a camera hanging around his neck. It has grown cuter, more kawaii over the years, but it has always been on the cute side.
Childrens' masks on sale outside a shrine in Saga. Hello Kitty is on the same level as Mickey Mouse, and in terms of monetary worth to her owners, deserves that status.
A full view of 'Doraemon', showing his pouch where he stores his gadgets.
I doubt that there is much evidence to support the Lucky Cat into Hello Kitty theory. Kittens are cute, and popular in cartoon circles. Tom, Felix, Scratchy, and a host of others. I also doubt many of the stated origins of kawaii in Japan; such as the inspiration for it from the childish handwriting that became popular in the seventies. As I have shown by the Peko character, kawaii was well in vogue before the 1970s. And it is not just anime or manga inspired, either. The fact is that Japanese people love cute, and have for a very long time. They seem to favor vulnerable cuteness over mature beauty. Cuteness is in evidence in fashion here, in signage, in advertising, everywhere. Kawaii is much more wide-spread than just Hello Kitty.