My last seminar in English was a wonderful course taught by the chair of my committee on Asian American Cultural Critique. Before that class my background in Asian American studies was pretty much absent. While Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific by Christine R Yano sort of has one foot in Asian studies and one in Asian-American studies (if that makes sense), I think, had I not taken a seminar, it would have made a wonderful introduction to some of the possibilities for what Asian American cultural critique can do.
In Pink Globalization, Yano examines the evolution of Hello Kitty and Sanrio from a niche Japanese company to an international icon. Through smart anthropological study, personal correspondence with Sanrio employees and execs, and interviews with a surprisingly diverse group of consumers, Yano analyzes Hello Kitty’s emblematic role in cute culture, international commerce, and Japan’s “national brand.” Further, she looks at the backlash against Hello Kitty (i.e. Hello Kitty Hell) and artistic innovations with the cat (such as the Three Apples Exhibit). My personal favorite is Leslie Holt’s Hello Masterpiece series (see below).
Yano’s study starts with an extensive look at kawaii, or cute culture in Japan, examining how kawaii evolved from the stuff of child’s play through the shojo or schoolgirl figure, to cute-cool culture with valences of sexualization, rebellion, and nostalgia. For example, in analyzing a May 1998 fashion spread in the magazine Cutie for Independent Girls that featured bondage, she argues, “that joke can only be viewed as disturbingly complicit with female subjugation, at both sexual and consumer levels. In this, rape becomes a form of kawaii chic with sex-child shojo featured as nothing less than a fashionable victim. Given the readership of the magazines–the audience for chic rape, the victims themselves–a photo spread such as this raises alarming questions of media responsibility in Japan” (51).
Later, she notes “The heightened valence of kawaii and the nostalgia for an idealized childhood that it circumscribes directly points to adulthood as burdened with responsibilities and obligations…This kind of nostalgia pits the freedom of childhood against the restrictiveness of adulthood. Within this context, kawaii represents a temporary state of abnegation” (57). Her analysis of the man facets of kawaii in media and consumer culture helps set the stage for further analysis of how Hello Kitty functions within frameworks of kawaii and in Japan’s commercial and national branding efforts to create a “cool” Japan.
In a later chapter, “Global Kitty: Here, There, Nearly Everywhere,” Yano includes profiles and interviews with a range of consumers to unpack how Hello Kitty relates to people in a variety of contexts in America. She includes Asian-American immigrant women, second generation diasporic women, Latinas, and straight men. She endeavors to critique how “The seemingly inexplicable attraction of Hello Kitty makes many consumers in various parts of the globe speak of her with both intimacy and awe as something they hold close yet do not fully understand” (119). Coming after the heavily theoretical chapters on kawaii, gift giving culture, and Sanrio’s corporate vision (“small gift, big smile”), this chapter helps to ground Hello Kitty in lived consumer experience before Yano turns to fascinating analysis of art centered on Hello Kitty.
A recurring issue across several chapters is Hello Kitty’s lack of a mouth. I found these parts really compelling as Yano contrasts Sanrio’s vision of mouthlessness as a way to create a blank canvas upon which the consumer can project his/her emotions and feminist critiques that view the mouthlessness of Hello Kitty as emblematic of female passiveness, particularly for women of Asian descent.
What I found most surprising about Pink Globalization was the affectionate tone for Hello Kitty, her creators, and her consumers. I’m not sure why, but I anticipated the book to pick Hello Kitty apart in a sort of hostile way. I think what made Yano’s observations and arguments gel so clearly was the generous and invested tone of the study. The interviewees are described as one would describe a friend and it’s pretty clear that the subjects felt comfortable with and trusted Yano. Those characteristics make the book really engaging and readable in such a way that the big points unfold brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly.
Pink Globalization is long and complex which makes it a fascinating read and hard to summarize in blog format. I highly recommend this book for those interested in Japanese consumer culture, global capitalism, cute culture, or girlhood studies. I learned a ton not only about kawaii and Hello Kitty but also about research methodology and how much potential there is in excellent analysis of pop-cultural objects. I was really impressed by how in-depth and far-reaching Yano’s study was. This one’s going in my growing collection of academic books that are teaching me how to write better.