2005年12月01日 木曜日

Hello Kitty Has No Mouth

by Mizuko Ito

Fashion, Features


Here is another installment from my student essays from my Japanese popular culture class. This one is from Jennilee Tuazon.

Her blank eyes gaze at you from her white face, her button nose a sunshine yellow. A dainty bow rests askew on her left ear, the color matching the day’s adorable—not to mention perfectly coordinated—outfit. Cute, one almost overlooks an important feature: the mouth. Hello Kitty, the embodiment of cute, has no mouth. After more than 30 years, she remains a popular and recognizable character, with generation after generation of young girls falling in love—or at least consumer lust—with Hello Kitty, their zeal for collecting the fancy goods at times extending in adulthood. Why the interest (both love and loathing for the character) in Hello Kitty and all things kawaii? What factors have contributed to her rise and continued success on a global scale? Finally, what are the implications of a mouthless Hello Kitty in terms of gender stereotypes and agency?

Created in 1974 by Japan’s Sanrio Company, Hello Kitty remains one of the world’s most recognizable and lucrative brands despite limited advertising. A recent search on Google showed over five million results for the search terms “Hello Kitty.” Clearly, the graphically simple character created over 30 years ago continues to resonate with self-proclaimed fans and detractors alike. My fascination with Sanrio products began early. Though not a fan of Hello Kitty herself while I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was nonetheless a huge Sanrio fan, my favorite characters being Pochacco (the sporty dog) and Keroppi (the clumsy frog). Sanrio products were my first introduction to Japanese popular culture though at the time I was unaware of its cultural origin. Moreover, my first Sanrio purchase marked my official entrée into consumer culture. Each fall right before the beginning of the new school year, I remember making the trip to the Sanrio Surprises store at the local mall to stock up on vital school supplies such as pencil cases, pencils, pens, erasers, and pencil sharpeners with the latest character design. The characters were just so cute and much more fun to use than the plain yellow number two pencils and pink erasers. My love of Sanrio fancy good products lasted until late elementary school, but, for some, the love appears to last much longer, stretching into adolescence and adulthood. Celebrities continue to sport Hello Kitty gear, from t-shirts and plastic jewelry at casual events to sequined purses and bejeweled compacts at black-tie affairs. Now, I am fascinated by the continued interest “grown” women show in Hello Kitty and the embracement of the cute, mouthless cat, especially in an American society that often pathologizes or criticizes adults for embracing child culture (with which the character has been associated). What exactly makes Hello Kitty so appealing? And what are the implications of her appeal?


What started as a Sanrio experiment in 1971 (during which the company printed cute designs on writing paper and stationary) at the time of the cute handwriting craze in Japan grew into what is now a billion dollar global corporation that has released hundreds of cute characters pictured on their wide range of fancy goods (Kinsella, 1995:225-226). Fancy goods, Kinsella explains, are:

small, pastel, round, soft, loveable, not traditional Japanese style but a foreign—in particular European or American—style, dreamy, frilly and fluffy. [. . . ] The essential anatomy of a cute cartoon character consists in its being small, soft, infantile, mammalian, round, without bodily appendages (e.g. arms), without bodily orifices (e.g. mouths), non-sexual, mute, insecure, helpless or bewildered (1995:226).

Hello Kitty—with her large, round head; blank eyes; and no mouth—is the perfect example of cute characters used in the fancy goods industry. She is small, harmless, non-sexual (and, in Sanrio form, not sexualized), and, above all, cute. According to her official biography, she lives in London along with her parents and twin sister, Mimmy. The biography concludes with the line, “As Hello Kitty always says, you can never have too many friends." In addition, Kitty now serves as the “UNICEF Special Friend of Children” and works to educate fans about gender disparity in the educational system globally. Hello Kitty is the embodiment of all that is good and wholesome in this world.

A discussion of Hello Kitty is nearly impossible without an explanation of kawaii and the culture that surrounds the term. Historically, the rise of cuteness is traced back to the 1970s, with the popularization of cute handwriting and manga and disillusionment with earlier student riots and subsequent capitalization of those trends by the fancy goods industry (Kinsella, 1995:225). Though the general meaning of the word is “cute,” the qualities and connotations associated with the term are many. As Kinsella writes, a survey among men and women in 1992 revealed a number of other terms associated with kawaii, including: childlike, innocent, naïve, unconscious, natural, emotional contact between individuals, fashionable, associated with animals, and weak (1995:237-240). Kawaii is a produced style and aesthetic as well as an inherent quality a person, place, or thing possesses.

The rise of Hello Kitty in the global consumer market, like other successful pop cultural imports, may be attributed to the process of removing traces of Japanese origin. Iwabuchi has coined the expression “culturally odorless products” to describe the ways in which Japanese products erase their “Japaneseness” in order to be more successfully marketed overseas (Allison, 2000:70). Moreover, “effacing the identity—the Japaneseness—of Japanese products appears to be even more prominent in the US Market” (Allison, 2000:70). Making a product “culturally odorless” somehow reduces resistance to a product through its reduction of difference. “Relating” or “understanding” a product becomes easier through this process. Like Allison’s example, in which the differences in The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were domesticated and the origins erased, the Japanese origin of Sanrio products remains obscure or hidden. In fact, Hello Kitty’s surname is White, and she hails from London. When first introduced to Hello Kitty and all her Sanrio companions, I never equated the characters, or the company behind them, with a specific national identity or state. Although I had some sense that the product likely came from Asia given the heavy presence of Sanrio products in primarily Asian communities near my childhood home and the fact that only young Asian women were employed in the many Sanrio stores I frequented, I had no idea that Sanrio was a Japanese company until a few years ago. Sanrio achieved their goal to the extent that even Hello Kitty’s current designer (the third in the history of the character) was at first unsure whether or not Kitty was a licensed character or an original one created in Japan (Interview with Yamaguchi on now offline hellokittythebook.com).

The consumer success of Hello Kitty gives Sanrio considerable “soft power” globally. As Nye explains, “soft power” remains one way in which one country can influence another’s desires or values (McGray, 2002). While I agree that all things Japanese are presently considered to be very “cool” or “hip” or “in” and I would argue that there is much greater awareness of Sanrio products as Japanese in origin (if not by young consumers, then at least older ones), I do not think the company has really tapped into that “soft power” on any level other than the consumer one. Consumer desire for all things Hello Kitty—from pencils to hair brushes and, for true (and older) Kitty aficionados, even vibrators—continue to drive sales for Hello Kitty more than 30 years after her introduction into the consumer market. Still, the very image of Hello Kitty provokes mixed reactions. The “Japaneseness” now associated with Hello Kitty may give the owner of the products a certain cache and even coolness (especially given her celebrity following) to some audiences while others may view the image as overly cute and unprofessional, especially when used by older women.

Sales of a billion dollars a year suggest that Hello Kitty has quite a fan base. While some sites are devoted exclusively to images and the biography of Hello Kitty, others wax philosophical about the character or write poems. As one fan writes:

Kitty is a paradigm of the preadolescent female self, before young women are forced to internalize the images of what society promotes as necessary to become beautiful or appealing: uncomfortable shoes, control-top pantyhose, a cow-like Nancy Reagan gaze, and those two twin demons—silicone and StairMasters. Kitty is eternally uncorruptible. She doesn’t want to please anyone except herself. [. . .] A fellow Kittyphile suggests that Kitty, with her immaculate whiteness, is the embodiment of pure innocence” (Hanks, 1999).

(While I would argue that Kitty’s gaze may be interpreted as just as cow-like as Nancy Reagan’s, I digress.) Hanks’s words show the ways in which Kitty has been appropriated as a feminist, girl power image. Fans of Hello Kitty project their own feelings onto the character, allowing consumers to give them identities (Gomez, 2004).

However, not all opinions of Hello Kitty are quite that positive. Many websites comment on Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth, often treating the subject with biting sarcasm. The official word from Sanrio is that Hello Kitty speaks from the heart; as Sanrio’s global ambassador, she is not bound by language. Nevertheless, her mouthless countenance has inspired even academics to comment. Kitty, like other cute characters, has “stubbly arms, no fingers, no [mouth], huge [head], massive eyes—which can hide no private thoughts from the viewer—nothing between their legs, pot bellies, swollen legs or pigeon feet. [. . .] Cute things can’t walk, can’t talk, can’t in fact do anything at all for themselves because they are physically handicapped” (Kinsella, 1995:236). All these remain qualities of the weak which are praised or even glorified by kawaii culture and images. Through cute images, the signifiers of infantilism—weakness, helplessness, childishness, and dependence—become things to aspire to or things to mimic. In an American society that lauds autonomy and independence, the underlying qualities represented by kawaii images, which are primarily associated with young girls, remain problematic. Without a mouth, Hello Kitty has neither voice nor agency. The image of Hello Kitty further perpetuates the stereotype of the docile Asian female. Hello Kitty, like Madame Butterfly before her, may be viewed as little more then a “compliant, doll-like [object] of fantasy,” albeit a typically non-sexualized one (Ma, 1996:17). The Asian woman is “not as verbal and tend[s] not to assert [herself] in a public setting” (Ma, 1996:18). In this sense then, Hello Kitty is the prototypical Asian female, unable to verbalize for she has no mouth.

Various artists and satirists have paid particular attention to Hello Kitty’s lack of mouth. The Tims have written a poem entitled “Hello Kitty Has No Mouth” . Irreverent, sample lines read “Hello Kitty has no mouth, yet she speaks the truth/ [. . .] Hello Kitty has no mouth, yet she’s the spokesperson for Sanrio.” They also include a hilarious, albeit somewhat nonsensical, FAQs page in which they enlighten readers about reasons for Hello Kitty having no mouth as well field angry responses from fervent Kitty lovers. Meanwhile, performing artist Jaime Scholnick has created a film entitled “Hello Kitty Gets a Mouth”. Inspired by her shock at the popularity of the mouthless Kitty, Scholnick decided it was time for the silent female to get a voice. Her introduction reads:

After years of silence, Hello Kitty now joins the historic list of others of the same gender in acquiring a voice. The short film depicts the frustration Hello Kitty encounters upon realizing her inability to utter a sound. Appropriately frustrated by her discovery, Hello Kitty promptly takes action and finds herself in the perfect place for reconstructive surgery, Los Angeles.

Scholnick gives Hello Kitty both agency and voice, sending the message that females can be empowered and more than able to solve their problems.

Hello Kitty remains one of the most recognizable and profitable brands in the world today. Her popularity and Sanrio’s financial success has brought both popular and academic attention to the image of the cartoon character and the meanings conveyed by her countenance and design. The culturally odorless nature of the character at the beginning of Sanrio’s global expansion, her cute appearance, and the certain “coolness” or cache that Japaneseness now lends to the product have contributed to the success of the brand. Finally, the very image of Hello Kitty appears to promote traditional gender stereotypes, glorifying the weakness and infantilism of young girls. Such views have led to satirical works that criticize the image while still approaching the topic in a humorous fashion.

Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2005年12月01日 05:28

1- blah

Hello kitty has no mouth, but Winnie the Pooh has no pants...

I think, some times, we read way too much into things that really are just simple.

I might be tempted to wonder why it is almost predictable that someone would equate "Hello Kitty has no mouth" with "the male patriarchy ideal of the perfectly silent and obedient female" but noone has ever seemed to seriously equate "G.I. Joe has no genetalia" with "feminist efforts to degrade and demasculinate young boys".

4- Kitty Tanaka

Actually, she does have a mouth according to her creators, it is simply invisible beneath the fur. Thus, it is never drawn, but it does exist in theory.

5- Zan

Wow, and they call me paranoid.

6- Rin

What the author fails to realize is that Kitty's male counterpart, Dear Daniel, also has no mouth. In my opinion, this negates the claim that Kitty is representative of the Asian female's lack of voice. Other Sanrio characters, including Landry, Nyago, Pochacco, and Pippo do not have mouths. On the other hand, many old and popular female characters, such as My Melody and Little Twin Stars, do have mouths.

7- KT4ever

I have been a Kitty fan since I was about 6 years old (early 80's). I always knew Kitty/Sanrio was Japanese- the Japanese characters on the packaging kinda gave it away. Besides that obvious clue, the "look" of Sanrio goods is VERY different than American cartoon characters. I always gravitated to the "kawaii"-- I liked it because it WASN'T "odorless"-- it had a distinctly foreign feel.

8- Shizuoka Sensei

You can find meaning behind anything if you look hard enough, and the points made by Submandave and Rin hit the nail on the head. The idea that Kitty somehow perpetuates the "docile Asian female" stereotype by her lack of mouth (and therefore voice) is instantly rendered moot by the fact Dear Daniel is also mouth-less. It's a very poor connection to make.

9- Ms. Obu

I grew up a tomboy in the midwest in the late 70's, early 80's, and I was attracted to hello kitty because of a) the inaccessibility -- it was very hard to locate these products when I was a kid - and when things are hard to get, we're often attracted to them, and b)the simplicity of the image, which I never really felt was all that "girly" compared to Barbie and all the unicorn encrusted crap being offered up to girls at the time. I still like Hello Kitty and feel a sense of nostalgia for her. When in Japan this past year, I collected Hello Kitty charms in each major city or cultural landmark that I visited. They were relatively cheap, easy to carry souvenirs and they make me smile each time I look at them.

10- Eiri Rin

I completely agree, there is always the danger of over-intellectualising things, especially when the author has their own agenda to push. They force themselves to view everything through the prism of this consuming idealogy, often at the expense of common sense and simple fact checking (Dear Daniel is a prime example of this). More of a polemic than an article.

11- Tim

There are other ways, than feminism of explaining the lack of the mouth. Masaki Yuki et al.'s paper on the difference between Western and Japanese smilies/kao-moji, :-) or ^-^,
for instance, claims that due to cultural psychological differences the eyes in Japan and the mouth in the West are the central means of conveying emotion respectively.

I have noted the lack of mouths in Japanese boys heros
and wanted to fit it in to my general media of self theory but alas spiderman does not have a mouth

On the other hand one might argue that batman has a mouth but no or concealed eyes

Perhaps someone could investigate the instance of mouths among 50 randomly chosen Japanese and American characters.

12- Buzlle

There was this one documentary I saw about Hello Kitty and how she started. Hello Kitty without a mouth was supposed to express a range of emotions. When you are sad she looks like she is sympathizing with you, when you are happy you looks at you in wonder. I think its fairly accurate, Hello Kitty is a like a loyal dog.

hey this is cute but kinda weird, but you gotta love her!!! :)

14- Otakky

I've been a Hello Kitty fan (as well as other Sanrio character fan) since they first came out in Japan around 1974. I have also been a big Japanse manga/anime fan since then too.

I think Tim is right on target as cultural psychological differences as reason why Kitty has a mouth or not. It really has nothing to do with "passive Asian female stereo-type" or anything. That's such an "American" way of looking at things.

Mouth, or even "smiles" aren't very important aspect of attractiveness in Japan. So, for the Japanese, it really doesn't matter if Kitty had a mouth. What attracts us are the EYES. And BIG EYES at that. When I was a little kid in the 70's, most girl's manga characters had BIG EYES, even with stars drawn inside. By the manga artist drawing different shadings or stars inside the girl character's big eyes, we the reader are suposed to understand the different emotions the character is going through.

Facial features such as mouth and nose on characters are not as important to the Japanses. In a way, putting all those "realistic" facial features sort of nullify the whole "kawaii"-ness or loveability.

So actually quite often, Japanese-drawn characters don't have NOSE either (look at Little Twin Stars, for example), and this is often in the case of HUMAN characters. In the case of ANIMAL characters, often the mouth is lacking although the nose is left as identifying character for "kawaii" animals. So if what the author is trying to point out as reason for Kitty's mouthlessness is true, I wonder what her arguement will be for various Japanese kawaii character's "NOSE-lessness"?

15- Angeline

I LOVE Hello Kitty SOOOO much!!!

16- Nicole

I love hello kitty sooooooooooooooooooooooo much my room is hello kitty but i am 15 and i still love hello kitty

17- Joshua

"In addition, Kitty now serves as the “UNICEF Special Friend of Children” and works to educate fans about gender disparity in the educational system globally. Hello Kitty is the embodiment of all that is good and wholesome in this world."
And some people are blaming Hello Kitty of promoting sexism? How pathetic. And as said before, Dear Daniel is mouthless as well. I can't even find words to describe how stupid whoever came up with this sexism in hello kitty idea. Well...not without being extremely profane at least.

18- Kitty

Hy everybody!i am a hungarian girl and I do my own internet page of hello kitty, but I can't collect everything to this page because I can't find the hello kitty's history in hengarian!so I am very sad because i can't do it very fast!I must translate the English text! :( :'( hy everybody!!!
HELLO KITTY 4 EVER!!!this is my favorite!!! :)

19- kiki-san

Hello Kitty has no mouth,
because she speaks from her heart.

no need for a big fat essay. end of.
I read it on the Sanrio site once.

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