The bullet train is decked out in pink ribbons and images of Hello Kitty as a conductor. Sanrio

It’s a dream come true for some, and a big part of the country’s embrace of “kawaii” culture.

It was only a matter of time before two of Japan’s biggest obsessions came together. It’s an unbearably sweet collaboration—and, for many, a dream come true.

Beginning June 30, the country’s newest bullet train will come barreling down the railway at some 200 miles an hour, decked out in pink. Blink and you might miss the sight of one the world’s most iconic characters plastered on the side: the beloved Hello Kitty.

She’s the ambassador of kawaii—that’s Japanese for cute—and now, she’s the face of a new shinkansen that will run from the Fukuoka prefecture in western Japan to the Shin-Osaka station roughly 400 miles north. In an unveiling for the media ahead of Saturday’s service, the operators West Japan Railway Co. showed off the eight-car train, with pink ribbons painted on the side and drawings of the celebrity (who’s not really a cat?) in a conductor’s outfit.

Inside, Hello Kitty is everywhere—on the bright pink walls, on headrests, and even on window curtains. Her signature bow dots the pink carpet. There’s a “Hello! Plaza” car that will introduce passengers to the goods and attractions of western Japan, and—for the Instagrammers—a car dubbed the “Kawaii! Room” with a giant Hello Kitty doll.

There’s no doubt that this is a big tourism draw. But more importantly, it’s part of Japan’s ongoing embrace and strategic development of its kawaii culture. This is, after all, a country whose prefectures have adopted cuddly, wide-eyed (and sometimes weird) mascots as figures of regional pride.

Today, Hello Kitty (and the rest of the Sanrio gang) can be found on almost everything, from clothing to stationery to entire cafes. But it’s not just merchandise that carries her instantly recognizable face. In the U.S., you likely won’t find American icons like Mickey Mouse or Kermit the Frog on city property. But in Japan, Hello Kitty has graced the surfaces of buses and traditional trains, and on less-expected things: traffic barriers, for example, and manhole covers.

Since Sanrio created the character in 1974, the company has been a key player in the country’s “kawaii diplomacy.” At home and abroad, Hello Kitty’s childlike appearance sold not only the culture of cute, but also the image of innocence—something post-war Japan badly needed. Anthropologist Christina Yano, who coined the term “pink globalization,” explains in a post for the East Asia Forum:

Kawaii diplomacy ultimately teases us with the idea of Japan as victim, rather than as perpetrator… The positioning of Hello Kitty as one face of Japan represents the power of the would-be child, at once appealing, seemingly benign, and ever in need of care and nurturance.

Overseas, the character has helped boost railway tourism in Taiwan, inspired a popular food truck in the U.S. that’s drawn hours-long lines, and in Bangkok, the police use the character as a disciplinary tool by issuing pink Hello Kitty armbands to embarrass officers who misbehave. Today, Japan’s arsenal of cute ambassadors continues to grow: Kumamon, the black bear mascot from the Kumamoto prefecture, Studio Ghibli’s beloved Totoro character, and, most recently, a lazy egg by the name of Gudetama have all gained a following abroad.

Inside Japan, they’re even more popular. Hello Kitty remains an  obsession across generations and genders, and something citizens have accepted as part of the national identity. And just as she connects Japan with the rest of the world, she also bridges the different regions within the country—now at crazy high speeds.

That has been her mission all along, according to the adorable backstory West Japan Railway Co. created for the train. According to that story, Hello Kitty met a pink ribbon spirit that charged her with connecting a lot of people. Naturally, a bullet train was the way to make it happen.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Perspective

    Untangling the Housing Shortage and Gentrification

    Untangling these related but different problems is important, because the tactics for solving one won’t work for the other.

  2. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  3. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?

  4. Maps

    A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings

    The practice wasn’t limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×