Christine R. Yano is an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii (and currently a visiting professor at Harvard) who has spent years studying the phenomenon that is Hello Kitty.
But there's a lot we don't know about Hello Kitty. And, Yano, who is currently wading through hundreds of objects for the exhibition at the the Japanese American National Museum gives us the lowdown:
Hello Kitty is not a cat.
You read that right. When Yano was preparing her written texts for the exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum, she says she described Hello Kitty as a cat. "I was corrected — very firmly," she says. "That's one correction Sanrio made for my script for the show. Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it's called Charmmy Kitty."
I grew up with Hello Kitty everything and all I have to say is, MIND BLOWN.
Hello Kitty is British.
Kitty is actually named Kitty White and she has a full back story. She is a Scorpio. She loves apple pie. And she is the daughter of George and Mary White.
"She has a twin sister," adds Yano. "She's a perpetual third-grader. She lives outside of London. I could go on. A lot of people don't know the story and a lot don't care. But it's interesting because Hello Kitty emerged in the 1970s, when the Japanese and Japanese women were into Britain. They loved the idea of Britain. It represented the quintessential idealized childhood, almost like a white picket fence. So the biography was created exactly for the tastes of that time."
Hello Kitty has special significance to Asian Americans.
Yes, she's worldwide. But Hello Kitty has had special resonance with Asians who grew up in the United States.
"When Hello Kitty arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1970s, it was a commodity mainly in Asian enclaves: Chinatowns, Japantowns, etc.," explains Yano. "In talking to Japanese Americans who grew up in the 1970s, they say, 'That figure means so much to us because she was ours.' It's something they saw as an identity marker. This is why the exhibition is being held at the Japanese American National Museum. It's about reconnecting her to this community. It gives the whole thing a certain poignancy and power."