The New York Times business writer Ken Belson recently presented his book “Hello Kitty: The remarkable story of Sanrio and the billion dollar feline phenomenon” (John Wiley & Sons) at the American Book Center in Amsterdam, and took some time to chat with Expatica editor Danielle Latman about the cartoon cat, expat life in Japan, and business opportunities during a recession.
You’re both a business reporter and a Hello Kitty fan. Which trait was more prominent during the writing of this book?
There’s two parts to the answer: Hello Kitty is the motivator, but at the end of the day it was a business writing job.
I was in love with the topic, but I had to hand in a book that tells a story, and that is both a writing and a research exercise. I spent several months doing interviews and research, so that I had more than enough to start writing.
How does Hello Kitty represent some of the central elements of Japanese pop culture?
One is its graceful, simplistic design. She’s very two-dimensional and minimalist. As I pointed out in the lecture the other day, she’s a Zen cat, very flat and emotionless.
The other is the way she’s packaged on everything. In Japan she’s on all manner of things and I think it speaks to Sanrio’s [the company that created Hello Kitty] success at branding her, but also the Japanese acceptance of characters. Practically everything in Japan has some sort of logo or character.
The book was written in 2004. Have you noticed any changes since then within Japanese pop culture that Hello Kitty or Sanrio represent?
Sanrio is now marketing Hello Kitty to men in Japan. I think that’s a sign of a shrinking market in Japan; declining population, deflation, and a slow economy have forced Sanrio to look elsewhere.
Also, Japanese pop culture has become more global even since 2004. When I went to college, people approached Japan through business in order to make money. Now it’s completely different; Japanese pop culture is the motivator for foreign language study in American universities.
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