ByÂ Jessica SattellÂ (Fukuoka-ken, 2007-08) forÂ JQÂ magazine. Jessica is a freelance writer and a graduate student in arts journalism. She readily admits that while she is an avid Hello Kitty fan, she is always going to like Chococat more.
For many, young and old, female and male,Â Hello KittyÂ (or Kitty-chan, as her diehard fans lovingly call her) has been a lifelong friend. As I toted around my review copy of the newÂ Pink Globalization: Hello Kittyâ€™s Trek Across the Pacificâ€”to my part-time job, to coffee shops, on a recent tripâ€”strangers cooed over the coverâ€™s soft pink color scheme and photograph of one of artist Tom Sachsâ€™s renditions of the famous feline. Kitty led the way into my very first experiences with Japan, and her ever-presence has enriched my life in ways that I didnâ€™t fully understand until diving in toÂ Christine R. Yanoâ€™s research.
The wide-eyed little cat has been Japanâ€™s acting ambassador for decades, and her global travels had (and continue to have) profound impacts on generations of consumers and culture shapers.Â Pink GlobalizationÂ is a culmination of over ten years of Yanoâ€™s fieldwork and research on the international ubiquity of Hello Kitty as an example of Japanâ€™s actions as a tastemaker in globalÂ kawaii.
Yano, who is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiâ€˜i at Manoa, explains that Kittyâ€™s rise, development and continuing presence as perpetuated by both parent company Sanrio and an ever-growing fandom provides a rich text from which to examine a multitude of contemporary issues. Yano coins the term â€œpink globalizationâ€ here to refer to the spread of â€œcuteâ€ goods and images from Japan to other parts of the world, and it connects the actions of global capitalism with Japanâ€™s â€œcoolnessâ€ in its soft cultural products.
Using Hello Kittyâ€™s popularity as a fascinating case study, Yano explains the power ofÂ kawaiiÂ as a major signifier of the international zeitgeist; Kitty is inherently a cornerstone of Japanese popular culture, but she is now also ingrained in a much larger collective consciousness. In fact, as Yano describes, several of her non-Japanese interview subjects did not know at first glance that Hello Kitty was a Japanese character.
One of the most fascinating findings from this dive into collector subcultures and obsessive fandom is that Hello Kitty is basically a blank canvas. That is, she seems to be a symbol without any deeper meaning onto which fans and detractors project. From the obvious visual point that Kitty lacks a mouth, we are encouraged to ascribe our own assumptions about her emotion (this stems from a theory that she is the latest incarnation of traditional Japanese aesthetics, which have historically downplayed or even removed mouths in figurative art to allow a greater narrative range). In being â€œblank,â€ she is a readily moldable resource for widely diverse sociocultural groups, and Yano explores here the many ways that Hello Kitty emerges as a cultural text appropriated for themes ranging a wide spectrum of innocence, violence, sexuality, feminism, consumerism and nationalism.
In her symbolic fluidity, Hello Kitty is a â€œwinkâ€ on these themes and more, and she continues to pop up in unexpected (and often subversive) appropriations, such as an icon in the adult entertainment industry or as the darling of contemporary street fashion. While primarily an academic text,Â Pink GlobalizationÂ is a very accessible discussion of Hello Kitty as an archetype, symbol, and phenomenon. Detailed, thoughtful and entertaining (and with some stunning images of her multitude of mainstream and niche appearances alike), this is a new look at how Japanese pop culture spreads, shifts, and changes in unexpected ways.
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