Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Christine R. Yano

Pink Globalisation:
Hello Kitty's Trek across the Pacific

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-8223-5363-8 (pbk), 336 pp.

reviewed by SooJin Lee

  1. One of the leading scholars on Japanese culture and its globalisation, Christine R. Yano focuses in her new book on a commodity that has become one of Japan's most proud soft power icons: Hello Kitty. The ribboned cat that appears on every possible item of merchandise from a jotter to a diamond necklace and men's underwear turns forty this year. Hello Kitty was created in 1974 by Sanrio, then a developing company in Japan that now has licensing offices around the world in cities like San Francisco, São Paulo, Hamburg, Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The anthropologist, however, chose the center of her fieldwork to be the United States in the 2000s, the decade when Hello Kitty's visibility rocketed as part of the so-called Japanese Cute-Cool wave around the world. Pink Globalisation: Hello Kitty's Trek across the Pacific is a product of Yano's extensive research of twelve years, complete with detailed explanations of Japanese values and thought-provoking interviews with some of the Hello Kitty fans and critics as well as Sanrio employees, including marketers and designers.
  2. The only scholarly book devoted to Hello Kitty published to date, it is also an excellent contribution to scholarships on globalisation, consumer culture, design, marketing, fandom, gender and national identity, among many other issues that the book addresses and touches upon as necessitated by the very topic of Hello Kitty. As Yano reveals, the apparently simple, childish character turns out to be a vast, extremely complicated subject, excessive with meanings, ironies, contradictions, and controversies that are ongoing and elusive. She suggests that it is the ambiguity and flexibility of Hello Kitty—exemplified by the overlap of cuteness, coolness, girliness, sexiness and quirkiness, which the author relates to the character's physical mouthlessness (blankness)—that explain its global allure for consumers of diverse backgrounds of culture, age, gender, and ethnicity. Notably she characterises Hello Kitty (and its complex semantic space) as a wink, a concept she carries throughout the book:

      The wink creates the possibility of two-way interactions whereby cute might be cool and vice versa, kitsch might be art and vice versa, Hello Kitty might become anything at all and vice versa. It is the possibilities of the two-way, double move that interests us here…. Producers and many adult consumers understand implicitly the value of the wink and deploy it as a fundamental component of the Cute-Cool positioning of Sanrio's cat (p. 28).

  3. Yano begins the book by tracing Japan's kawaii culture that initially enabled the creation and success of Hello Kitty in Japan in the 1970s. It is a youth-oriented, commodity-obsessed consumerist culture that emerged around the figure of the shoojo (young, unmarried female) not only as the consumer but also as the object of consumption, which thus explains the rise of the related concepts/industries/trends such as fanshii guzzu ('fancy goods' or frilly commodities targeting girls), kyarakutaa guzzu ('character goods' or commodities oriented to both male and female youth), kogyaru (bad-girl types characterised by modified school uniforms, heavy makeup, and dyed hair), rorikon ('Lolita complex' or adult male desire for prepubescent females), and enjo koosai ('compensated dating' between adult men and teenage girls). These elucidate the contradictions inherent within the Japanese concept of kawaii and demonstrate the blurred lines between cute and cool, benign and powerful, youth culture and adult culture, girl culture and sex culture, among others.
  4. In Chapter 2, Yano analyses Sanrio's marketing strategies and techniques used in the U.S. such as the model of 'friendship' created by the founder Tsuji Shintaro, the company ethos of 'happiness' manifested during interviews with U.S. employees, and the making of Hello Kitty's image as a socially-produced, artisanal product (as it is reflected in Hello Kitty's designer and celebrity Yamaguchi Yuko's public persona). Chapter 3 examines the consumption of Hello Kitty in the U.S. through interviews with a range of adult fans, from whites to Asian Americans to Latinas, which bring up issues of nostalgia, gender, class, ethnicity and Hello Kitty's link to 'Japan' and 'Asia.' Chapter 4 turns to 'the other side' of the fandom and examines critiques of Hello Kitty, which range from anti-Kitty websites and parody T-shirts businesses to more serious attacks coming from religious and feminist groups. It is also here that Hello Kitty's association with Asian femininity, an interesting issue briefly addressed in the previous chapter, is further explored as Yano discusses some selected works of art and literature by Asian American women who have used Hello Kitty as a symbol of the west's gendered, racialised, orientalist stereotypes of Asian women. Chapter 5, 'Kitty Subversions: Pink as the New Black,' and Chapter 6, 'Playing with Kitty: Serious Art in Surprising Places,' continue to explore the iconic cat's myriad permutations by discussing the contributions by 'subversive' fans (for example, in punk subculture, the porn industry, and lesbian and gay communities) and Hello Kitty-themed artworks and exhibitions.
  5. The book concludes with Chapter 7, 'Japan's Cute-Cool as Global Wink,' in which Yano evaluates Hello Kitty's place within the recent rise of Japanese soft power. She significantly argues how Hello Kitty-led pink globalisation complicates the previous (Euro-American-centred) discourses on globalisation: in spite of its omnipresence across the world, Hello Kitty does not evoke a sense of power or threat, unlike popular icons from the traditionally hegemonic western cultures. Yano posits this is not just because of its cute appearance but probably more due to what she describes as its 'embedded exoticization' (pp. 264–65). Apparently, for example, Hello Kitty does not instigate 'wanna-be Asian' desirings in any comparable ways that an American icon such as Mickey Mouse or Barbie might promote 'wanna-be whites.' And this is the very reason that Yano provides to opine the limits of Japan's soft power focused on cute-cool commodities: The Japanese government has used Hello Kitty and other popular kawaii characters such as Doraemon (the blue cat robot protagonist of a manga/anime series) and Puffy AmiYumi (J-pop girl duo) in its explicit nation-branding effort, but they are too detached from images of power to affect any real power.
  6. The book as a whole is well written and well organised and the arguments are firmly based on the author's wide-ranging fieldwork. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Japanese popular culture and the issues of Asian femininity and consumer culture. While it is strong and delightful to read, I would also have to say the book's strength—its focus on Hello Kitty—is also its weakness. It provides a great amount of detail about the intricate world of Hello Kitty that cannot be found elsewhere, but I also think that some additions of more extensive comparisons between Hello Kitty and other Japanese or American pop icons, for example, their different receptions in the global market or visual analyses accompanied by actual images, would have strengthened the argument about Hello Kitty's unique appeal.
  7. Still full of thorough observations and brilliant opinions, the book is anticipated to be of great use for many. As I work on this review, at least two of the trending topics on my Facebook newsfeeds fall under the issues covered in the book. The fashion news tells me that a new 'must have' style item is Fendi fur charms designed like a fist-sized monster's face, which conjures up the Japanese cute-cool aesthetics. Yet nothing beats the 'buzz' about Miley Cyrus's American Music Awards performance of 'Wrecking Ball' featuring a cute but giant lip-synching cat. A projection in the backdrop, the cat lip-synched the entire song, blinking its big, round eyes and even shedding tears during the ballad's emotional climax. But when the music ended, the lovely-looking cat suddenly changed its attitude: it winked sticking out its tongue, as if the whole performance (and her media performances in general, including her Video Music Awards performance that provoked much controversy three months before) had been a joke, a play, literally a show. In addition to the factual details provided in the book, Yano's concept of the wink would be also extremely useful in mass cultural criticisms dealing with images or phenomena that are ironic, ambivalent, or polysemous.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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