After she was appointed, third Hello Kitty designer Yuko Yamaguchi infused new ideas like family love and relatability into the character, who came about as a symbol of friendship, and helped make Hello Kitty into a character with international popularity. In the second half of our interview, we speak about Hello Kitty collaborations and the Sanrio Character Ranking currently underway.
[Yuko Yamaguchi’s Profile]
Joined Sanrio Co., Ltd. in 1978. Appointed as Hello Kitty’s third character designer in 1980, and in addition to designing, was very active in Hello Kitty-related events both in Japan and abroad. Became head of production for the character in 2005, and became director the following year.
**Meeting People is Valuable**
──There are a lot of developments underway for Hello Kitty in an effort to build a feeling of closeness with fans. Among these, there have been Hello Kitty collaborations with various characters and people such as KISS and Lady Gaga. How did these come about?
Many of them start through random encounters. The first collaboration were illustrations of a monkey named Julius drawn by Paul Frank. When I was doing a signing in San Francisco, during a break I went to a nearby shopping center where he was doing a signing. Julius was a character that I knew nothing about, but lots of people were lining up, so I lined up.
──You stood in line?
Yes, I stood in line and got his autograph. He thought I had come all the way from Japan for him. I had no idea who he was. [laughs] Afterwards, when I went back to the hotel and looked at the photograph he signed, I realized he was eating Kellogg’s from a Hello Kitty bowl. So when I went back to Japan, I wrote him a letter. I said things like, “Do you like Hello Kitty?” and, “I’m the Hello Kitty designer.” And then, I wrote, “If you do like Hello Kitty, why don’t we work together?” Shortly after I sent the letter, I got a reply. “I hate planes so I’ve never been to Japan, but if you get a chance to come to Los Angeles, please come visit. I like Hello Kitty and I’d like to work with you. I’m interested.”
I had a chance to go to Los Angeles right away, so I met him and we agreed to work together. As the planner, Paul thought about what to make and what materials to use, while I came up with a collaborative illustration of Julius and Hello Kitty. After I returned to Japan, I sent my design to Los Angeles. After that, the two of us thought of more designs to use for products.
It was also at that exact time that the Paul Frank store was opening in Japan in Harajuku and Osaka. Thinking that the timing was good, we revealed the plan for the Julius and Hello Kitty collaboration in conjunction with the store openings. That was the first collaboration. After that, offers to collaborate came flooding in.
──Hello Kitty has collaborations with people and works from a variety of industries, such as the Sadako horror films. No matter what she does, she’s still cute. How do you do that?
When it gets designed, if it’s not cute, it gets cut. Depending on the collaboration, the designs get redone over and over and over again. I was involved in the Sadako collaboration as a supervisor. I felt that if Sadako wasn’t scary and Hello Kitty wasn’t cute, there would be no point, and I don’t remember how many times it was redone.
──You’ve collaborated with people like Lady Gaga and with the Hilton sisters.
That wasn’t work. Lady Gaga always says how much she loves Hello Kitty, so I wanted to show my appreciation by giving her an original custom-made plush toy and did so through a TV network. I became friends with the Hilton sisters when I had a chance to eat with them. Meeting people is valuable. I see it as a chance to learn a lot of new things.
──Hello Kitty is loved by people from all kinds of industries. How many of her do you have in your home?
There’s only one. She’s sleeping. If I have a lot of her in my house, I get into work mode and I can’t sleep. But a sleeping Hello Kitty won’t be looking at me, so I can relax.
I’d be in trouble if her eyes were open and she looked at me. She would be prodding me, saying, “Hurry up and get to work!”
──Would you say that Hello Kitty is your business partner?
Yes. To put it more concretely, in the 1980s, she was my friend, in the ‘90s, she was my alter ego, and since 2000, she has been my business partner. How can I sell Hello Kitty. I feel like a talent manager. Since the beginning of the 2010s, I’ve felt like the president of a talent management company. We have a few different clients, and Hello Kitty is the one who makes the most. However, I’m always thinking about better ways to sell her. I try to sell new characters alongside our moneymaker.
**I await everyone’s votes from outside Japan!**
──This year marks Hello Kitty’s 40th anniversary. The 29th Sanrio Character Ranking is also currently underway.
Speaking of which, there aren’t many Character Ranking votes from outside of Japan! There’s an English language page, but it hasn’t brought in votes. I get the impression that the Character Ranking itself hasn’t ever become widespread.
Even when I went to Taiwan recently, when I asked all of the Hello Kitty fans there, they all said, “I’ve never heard of [the Character Ranking].” People don’t know about the event in the first place. Because they don’t know about it, they don’t vote. I think that’s the main reason that we can’t get more votes from overseas. Those who do know about the Character Ranking think you can only vote once. (Editors note: You can vote once a day on the same device, so you can keep voting.) There are a lot of people in Japan who misunderstand it as well.
My Melody had the first place spot in the Character Ranking up until three years ago. So I got flustered, thinking, “I have to get Hello Kitty back in first place!” The Hello Kitty of Puroland was completely quiet. Thinking, “This isn’t good!” I gathered Hello Kitty fans and held a strategy meeting. I tried asking everyone, “Why isn’t Hello Kitty able to get first place in the Character Ranking?” And that’s when I discovered... Hello Kitty fans hadn’t voted. Not one! And this is what they thought. “Everyone knows Hello Kitty, so even if I don’t vote, she’ll get first place, right!?”
So I started changing the way people looked at voting, saying, “Don’t think, ‘Hello Kitty will get first place’ and leave it to other people,” “If you don’t vote, she won’t get first place,” and, “We all have to work at it.” I have a lot of opportunities to go abroad, so I want to keep promoting the Character Ranking. For the people reading this article, I await everyone’s votes from outside Japan!
──Is there anything you would like to say to our readers?
In Japan right now, fans seem happy about the Hello Kitty 40th anniversary. I think the fact that everyone knows Hello Kitty outside Japan came about from me bringing her overseas. I am going to keep doing the best I can alongside Hello Kitty. I’d love it everyone would keep showing their support and giving their requests for Hello Kitty. I also would not mind it if you commented on my blog.
Oh, right... I haven’t asked for your feedback, have I! Those of you in other countries may think, “She won’t be able to read it if it’s in English.” But, I can read it. Do not worry. Even if it’s something trivial, I’d like to know what you think about Hello Kitty. Chat with me at an event or send me a short letter. I don’t care how you send it or what kind of opinion it is. But by all means please share your opinion with me.
Everyone, let’s get Hello Kitty to No. 1 for her 40th anniversary!
Sanrio Character Ranking
Sanrio Official Site
Sanrio Character Ranking Official Twitter
© 2014 Sanrio Co. Ltd.
© 2008, 2014 Sanrio Co. Ltd. / Sega Toys S, S/W, TX, JLPC
© 2011 TV Asahi Corporation, Sanrio Co. Ltd.
This is a Tokyo Otaku Mode original article written by Kohji Sakurai and Photos by Tetsuya Hara.