By GWEN MURANAKA
Rafu English Editor-in-Chief
If there’s any doubt where you’re going at the new Hello Kitty exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum opening this weekend, just follow the little red bows.
Hello Kitty’s distinctive red bows dot the floors, forming a walking path between exhibition spaces of “Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty,” the first-ever exhibition devoted to the iconic Japanese brand. The exhibition, which features hundreds of vintage artifacts, is extensive and covers two floors of JANM.
All manner of Hello Kitty merchandise, both domestic and Japanese, are on display, including a copy the first Hello Kitty product, a vinyl coin purse. For fans of original Hello Kitty items from Sanrio, the Japanese company that produces the beloved goods, there are large display cases filled with colored pencils, erasers, diaries and backpacks from the 1970s and ’80s, sure to bring back warm memories of childhood.
Uniquely Japanese Hello Kitty items include ceramic Hinamatsuri dolls and a map of Japan adorned with Hello Kitty trinkets from different regions.
The second floor is contemporary and at times provocative, showing interpretations of Hello Kitty by artists and fashion designers. Jamie Rivadeneira, founder of the fashion boutique JapanLA and curator of the art portion, explained, “Her simple design makes the perfect canvas for artists to interpret her though their unique style.”
A Sphinx-like Hello Kitty statue forms a thematic gateway into the museum’s original “Common Ground” exhibition.
Dr. Greg Kimura, president and CEO of JANM, said that Hello Kitty has a special connection to the Japanese American community, making the museum a natural choice to host the exhibition. He noted that when Hello Kitty first arrived in the United States 40 years ago, young Japanese American girls were the first to embrace the character.
“It was the first positive cultural image and icon that they recognized because of its connection to Japanese cultural idioms and tropes like the maneki neko,” said Kimura. “For Japanese American women of a particular generation especially, there is a deep emotional resonance with Hello Kitty, and that’s one of the reasons we’re doing the exhibit.”
Dr. Christine Yano is curator of the exhibition and author of “Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek Across the Pacific.” During her research she spoke with Japanese American women in Los Angeles who grew up in the 1970s and shared their connection with the Sanrio character.
“They talked about Hello Kitty with such passion and Hello Kitty was the center of a lot of lives. It affirmed their presence and it was really one of the first pop culture elements from Japan that was doing that,” said Yano.
According to Yano, the popularity of Hello Kitty reflected wider acceptance of Japanese culture in the United States, and in turn Japanese Americans.
“It’s something people told me retrospectively, if they think back to their childhoods, if they think back to the time when Hello Kitty was the only deal in town and it was theirs. There was that kind of ownership of Hello Kitty among Japanese Americans.”
Sanrio president and COO Janet Hsu said the popularity of Hello Kitty endures due to her ever-evolving status as a true pop culture icon. She also addressed the question that has garnered a fair amount of attention in recent weeks, after a report that the character is in fact a girl, and not a cat.
“She is Hello Kitty, and that’s who she’ll always be,” Hsu said.
Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty” is on view from Oct. 11 to April 26, 2015 at the Japanese American National Museum. Adult admission: $20; children 6-17, $10. Free for museum members. All admissions are based on timed entry and advance purchase is strongly encouraged. Tickets are available online at janm.org/hellokitty.