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40 Is The New Cute: Hello Kitty Celebrates Birthday

A cute-a-bration has broken out among Hello Kitty fans, as the beloved Japanese character marks its 40th year. Since introducing Hello Kitty in 1974, the Sanrio company has turned simple design and a knack for accessorizing into $8 billion worth of annual sales.

The milestone inspired a Hello Kitty Con in Los Angeles and a large run in Singapore. But the largest fete was in Tokyo, where Sanrio put on a parade and other events.

Hello Kitty's cultural context is currently being explored by the Japanese American National Museum, where an exhibit includes "a 12-foot-tall statue depicting Hello Kitty as Cleopatra," as reporter Lisa Napoli noted for NPR last month.

The museum's director, Greg Kimura, told Napoli that despite arriving when anti-Asian sentiment was high in the U.S. back in the 1970s, Hello Kitty "was immediately adopted by young girls because they sensed in her this connection to Japanese and Asian cultural idiom."

The feline character's 40th birthday has also included controversy, after Sanrio said in August, "Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature."

But as Japan Times notes today, Hello Kitty "started out life known only as 'the white kitten with no name' ('namae no nai shiroi koneko')." And the company has modulated its tone, telling the website Kotaku, "Hello Kitty is a personification of a cat."

Of course, none of that fazed the feline's fans. NPR.org reader Len Black's comments on Lisa Napoli's story included this birthday poem:

"Lordy, Lordy Hello Kitty is forty,
Very cute for such a shorty.
The little Kit hasn't changed a bit.
They say she's a girl dressed as a cat.
Don't know about that.
In my heart you'll always be a cat.
Happy Birthday Kit Kat!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.