Japan's Hello Kitty, the moon-faced, mouthless white cat, celebrated her 30th birthday yesterday, evolving from a nameless feline on a cheap vinyl purse into the money-making global icon of cuteness.
Hello Kitty comes on dolls, key chains, clothes, credit cards, laptops, vacuum cleaners and even karaoke boxes as a loyal fan base of young women embraces the cat whose expressionless face can be read in any way they want.
Tamaki Hirayoshi, a 37-year-old woman in Tokyo, has collected some 1,000 Hello Kitty products over three decades. She said she was most drawn to the cat's eyes -- or lack thereof.
"The biggest attraction of Hello Kitty is her eyes. They are just dots. When a character's eyes look real, it doesn't look pretty," Hirayoshi said.
"I must say I'm addicted to Kitty. When I see new items, I usually buy them. It's like a conditioned reflex," she said.
Created by Ikuko Shimizu, then a designer of character goods maker Sanrio Co, Hello Kitty made a humble start in 1974 as a nameless cartoon cat on the coin purse.
It was when the Kitty boom subsided around 1980 that the character came into the hands of its third designer, Yuko Yamaguchi, who is credited with Hello Kitty's global success.
To seek new ideas for Hello Kitty, Yamaguchi visited Sanrio shops across Japan to talk to customers and read fan letters to understand their demands.
Soon she started making Hello Kitty lively by dressing the cat in all kinds of costumes.
"I will never turn Kitty into a violent or sexual character. I once had to reject a design because it portrayed Kitty as a skull. I want people to be happy when they see her," Yamaguchi said in a book.
Kitty generates about 50 percent of the revenue of Sanrio, whose net profit in the three months to June surged nearly 500 percent year-on-year to ?1.3 billion (US$12 million) thanks in part to robust sales of Kitty's 30th anniversary-related merchandise.
Ken Asada of Character Data Bank, a marketing research firm, said Kitty's longevity may come from her expressionless face.
"It allows users to synchronize their feelings with Kitty's. If a user is feeling sad, she will think that Kitty too is feeling sad because the cat has no expression," he said.