By now you’ve probably read the earth-shattering, heart-rending news that Hello Kitty’s own copyright holder Sanrio recently alleged that the world’s most famous bow-sporting feline isn’t actually a cat. If, like me, you’re a huge fan of Japan’s unofficial mascot, you probably already started going through the five stages of grief, too.
I, however, never got past denial. Instead, I picked up the phone and called Sanrio’s PR department in Japan. My findings will bring your suffering heart some relief.
The gentleman who picked up the phone at Sanrio was polite but entirely without nonsense. After explaining who I was, pausing a little too long for a round of applause that never came after I mentioned “RocketNews24,” I launched into my questions: First up, I had to know if the LA Times article saying that Hello Kitty is a human girl was correct.
His response: “We never said she was a human.”
That sound you just heard? It was a thousand Kitty fans sighing in relief.
So what’s the deal then?
The PR rep calmly explained that Hello Kitty is a 擬人化 (gijinka), a personification or anthropomorphization. Basically just like Micky Mouse, the Sanrio representative told me. No one would mistake the Disney character for a human–but at the same time he’s not quite a mouse. Just like Hello Kitty isn’t a human, she’s not quite a cat either.
Feeling like I’d just escaped a burning building moments before it collapsed, I went on to my second question. “I’ve seen various explanations for this…but why doesn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth?”
Without missing a beat, he replied, “We never said Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth.”
“It’s just not drawn.”
So…Hello Kitty has a mouth, but it’s simply not depicted most of the time. Die-hard fans will already know this if they’ve seen any of the cartoons.
▼Get your bourbon ready. Your mind is not ready for this.
So, why is there so much conflicting information out there right now?
At this point, all I have to go on is pure speculation, but I’m guessing when your company is as big as Sanrio is, not everyone is on the same page.
▼That was my reaction too, Kitty-chan.
For example, in an interview with Time, Yuko Yamaguchi, the current designer for Hello Kitty, gave the following response when asked about Hello Kitty’s missing mouth. “It’s so that people who look at her can project their own feelings onto her face, because she has an expressionless face. Kitty looks happy when people are happy. She looks sad when they are sad. For this psychological reason, we thought she shouldn’t be tied to any emotion – and that’s why she doesn’t have a mouth.”
However, the official English Sanrio FAQ says: “Hello Kitty speaks from her heart. She’s Sanrio’s ambassador to the world and isn’t bound to any particular language.” This isn’t necessarily in conflict if you consider Yamaguchi’s statement a Doylist explanation and the FAQ response a Watsonian explanation, but it does indicate a lack of unity in message.
Also, all of this is obviously in conflict with what the Sanrio representative just told me–and the fact that the Japanese profile for Hello Kitty notes that she is “good at English.” (It also adds that she likes making cookies and playing the piano and her dream is to be a pianist or a poet.)
So, when it comes to Hello Kitty, who should you believe? Well, we’d say you’re probably pretty safe in believing whatever you want–Sanrio won’t send armed mercenaries to your house demanding you believe Hello Kitty is a human or a cat.
As far as I’m concerned, though, she’s still totally a cat! Well, kind of…