Kawaii Diplomacy: Hello Kitty and the Politics of Scale by Professor Christine R. Yano, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i

27 March 2017 (Mon), 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM
At AS8-06-46

Hello Kitty, the Japanese icon that has gone global, represents some of the most far-reaching aspects of kawaii (cute) soft power in the 21st century. Since her birth by the Japanese corporation Sanrio Inc. in 1974, Hello Kitty’s image has donned numerous items, from pencils to lunchboxes to high-end jewelry and motor scooters. With Hello Kitty’s introduction to the U.S. market in 1976, followed by European markets in 1980, and official Asian markets in 1990, Hello Kitty’s expanded global “girl” culture has made her one of the most widely recognised symbols of kawaii. The Japanese government has followed in close pursuit, incorporating Hello Kitty onto the fold of “Cool Japan,” dubbing Sanrio’s icon as its Ambassador of Tourism to Taiwan and Korea in 2008. But what are we to make of such large-scale image-making captured within a tiny mouthless figure? How does Hello Kitty’s successful move into Asia navigate the laden waters of colonial histories and political debate? How does Hello Kitty draw into Euroamerican markets with its answer to Disney? In what I call “kawaii diplomacy,” Hello Kitty represents a highly successful soft-power niche for Japan that builds upon an arsenal of innocence. That performed innocence calls upon an infantilized position that makes a retreat from responsibility possible. The positioning of Hello Kitty as the face of Japan represents the power of the would-be child, at once appealing, seemingly benign, and ever in need of care and nurturance. Hello Kitty’s kawaii diplomacy performs the gendered politics of scale, juxtaposining feminized “small” positions within large, masculinist frames of nation branding.