Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
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.