Kitten-Sized Controversy: Is Hello Kitty from London or Japan?

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TOKYO — A controversy is brewing among Japan’s fanatical followers of Hello Kitty: Is the character who has been plastered on everything from stickers to face massagers to toasters to panties to deodorant sprays and long officially described as an English citizen actually a Japanese national? According to the official biography from Sanrio, the Japanese licensing company that controls Hello Kitty, the cute, mouth-less cat was born in London and her real name is the British-sounding Kitty White. But 38 years of character mythology has been thrown into dispute after the publication of Hello Kitty’s Guide to Japan in English and Japanese (ハローキティの英語で紹介する日本) in which the iconic mascot describes Japan and its culture to the outside world and seems very, very Japanese.

Natsume Publications, which received Sanrio’s authorization for the book, is marketing it primarily to Japanese people so they can explain their ancient culture to the barbarians. According to their story, Hello Kitty is introducing Japan to her American boyfriend Dear Daniel. When he arrives, he discovers Kitty living in a tatami-mat laden house. Her entire family lives in Japan and they all can read Japanese and speak the language fluently. Kitty is so knowledgeable about Japanese culture and traditions that the reader can only surmise she is either Japanese or an amazingly bilingual Japanese studies scholar.

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So far, the ones who are most concerned about the kitten's passport are the die-hard Hello Kitty fanatics -- “Hello Kitty is not from China or London, it’s from Japan -_-idiots” “TIL Hello Kitty is actually from London” -- but no one can tell how big the problem will become. (It may in fact never get bigger than “cat’s forehead” (猫の額) -- which coincidentally is a Japanese phrase used to describe very small things. )

However, the influence of Hello Kitty in world affairs can’t be underestimated. In 2008, the Tourism Industry of Japan named her Japan Tourism Ambassador to China and Hong Kong in an effort to attract overseas visitors. At the time, Sanrio and the Japanese government officially asserted that she lived with her family in London and would not clarify how often she came to Japan. So confirming Hello Kitty as a Japanese national would be big news in Japan, where she is already assumed to be a Japanese figure, if not a citizen.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in this country or elsewhere who doesn’t believe Kitty-chan is Japanese,” said Sandra Barron, a writer for the Japan Times’ trend blog, Japan Pulse.

Tatsuya Nakajima, a leader of the right-wing group Junshinkai, was outraged at even the suggestion that Kitty-chan wasn’t Japanese. “That’s the kind of stuff the Chinese say when they pirate our national treasures and goods. It’s outrageous. And unforgivable.”

Not everyone in Japan would welcome Hello Kitty as one of their own. A Japanese businesswoman, who feared being named would incur the wrath of enraged Hello Kitty fanatics, said, “Kitty is cute and silent and doesn’t do very much except wait around for her boyfriend. She’s hardly the ideal for the modern Japanese woman. It is about time that she got a mouth of her own instead of letting other people speak for her.”

Of course, Hello Kitty is no stranger to controversy. The sales of “Hello Kitty Wine” and the “Hello Kitty Massage Wand” have aroused the ire of some parents. The writer of the blog Hello Kitty Hell, which chronicles the ludicrous products, both licensed and unlicensed, on which the kitten appears received numerous hate mails for befouling the image of Kitty and for even worse: failing to tell readers where they could buy the Hello Kitty products he was lampooning.

While it is very unlikely that this small controversy ends up in an international catfight -- excluding Hello Kitty fans and ultra-nationalists -- it will probably take a revised copy of the guidebook to really settle the matter. A spokesperson for Sanrio did not have an immediate explanation for which Hello Kitty history was correct. Phone calls were made to the British embassy but they were unable to clarify the issue.

One thing that strikes a reader of Hello Kitty’s Guide to Japan in English and Japanese is that while Daniel does come to Japan in the first pages of the book, he does not appear to leave the country. In part 6, Daniel is introduced to the “Japanese lifestyle” and Hello Kitty’s home. At the entrance of her house, she tells him: “Daniel, please take off your shoes here” (ダニエル、ここで靴を脱いでね) and that’s the last we see of him. Eight pages later, there is a wedding but Daniel is missing. This is followed swiftly by a funeral.

Is Dear Daniel the dearly departed? And why is Hello Kitty shedding a single tear? Does Kitty go back to the UK after all? We asked a Japanese immigration official to speculate. He suggested he may have overstayed his tourist visa and was simply deported. “Perhaps White-san was working in Japan as a hostess or was a returnee?” the official asked. “Maybe her father is actually a British diplomat assigned to Tokyo. By the way, if she was working in Japan as a hostess, that would be illegal.”

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, consultant, and the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. He is also a board member of the Washington, D.C.-based Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade. Nathalie Stucky was most recently an assistant correspondent for the Jiji Press in Geneva. She is now a freelance writer in Tokyo. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.