- Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific by Christine R. Yano
Stationery, utensils, kitchen appliances, computers, expensive jewelry, cars—Hello Kitty’s enigmatic visage decorates items too innumerable to list. But Hello Kitty’s influence is not restricted to daily items, whimsical knickknacks, or the more quirky expressions of popular culture. She has been the subject of artists, both those who grant her ironic iconicity and those who take a more critical view. Hello Kitty also makes appearances for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pitching in to help promote “cool Japan” as one component of the state’s “soft power” campaign. Hello Kitty is, to borrow a term from the anthropologist Victor Turner, “multivocal” (possessed of many symbolic meanings), but she is so in a remarkably promiscuous manner, associated with innocence, sexuality, satire, sophistication, kitsch, hipness, girl culture, play, and erotica.
Christine Yano skillfully meets the daunting challenge of giving expression to all the aforementioned “many voices” in the book under review. Yano explains why she focused on this potent icon of transnational movement of postmodern popular culture. First, since around 2000, Hello Kitty [End Page 540] has acquired great “buzz” and become noticeably “newsworthy”; she is now a part of the everyday mediascape. Second, since the mid-1970s, Hello Kitty has been on the international stage, and this indicates something about the global flow of products from Japan. Third, Hello Kitty is not a mere fad but has enduring popularity. Fourth, Hello Kitty’s fame did not originate in a cartoon, movies, videogames, or a particular product. Rather, her image is a floating “pure product” that graces countless commodities. Finally, the makers of Hello Kitty target not just female children but male and female adults as well.
Yano’s accomplishment should be contextualized within the history of Japan studies. Given the fact that within Japanology, studies of popular art were not as welcome in the past, Yano’s contribution is well appreciated as a type of research constituting a major transition in Japan studies. Indeed, it was not that long ago that Japanologists, it could be argued, carried out several types of “serious” research. One kind of scholarly endeavor looked at historical topics, for example, the momentous transition of the Meiji period, why Japan mutated into an authoritarian, militarist, and expansionist state in the 1930s, or Japan’s rich religious traditions. A second type can be described as social scientific and included efforts at explaining Japan’s explosive postwar economic growth and attempts to fit Japan’s political system into the U.S. mold. And of course much “serious” research was on high art, that is, the refined, polished, and elegant aspects of Japan’s storied artistic heritage. Though heartily consumed by the masses, what we call “pop art” was generally regarded by elitist academicians as less sophisticated at best, tacky and gauche at worst. But Yano’s book, a work of ethnographically informed cultural studies, illustrates well Ludwig Wittgenstein’s quip that “aesthetics are ethics.” And a society’s values and norms, being contradictory, conflicting, and inconsistent, require a steady and nuanced look at all types of artistic representations.
Yano offers a rich buffet of interrelated culturally critical themes that weave their way in and out of each chapter. For the sake of convenience, these can be teased apart as: (1) “pink globalization”; (2) cute-cool; (3) identity; (4) the social function of “character goods”; and (5) subversions. The first theme—pink globalization—concerns the global impact of Hello Kitty. This is a pivotal concept undergirding the book’s arguments and is defined as the “transnational spread of goods and images labeled kawaii [cute] from Japan to other parts of the industrial world” (p. 6). As such, it interlinks the expansion of Japanese corporations to overseas markets and the rise of Japan’s “national cool.” The color pink carries connotations of the feminine as well as a type of sexuality embedded in certain manifestations of cuteness. Chapter 2 deals with...