Japan from the inside out

Hello Kitty: The Japanese Kris Kringle?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 21, 2007

I’ll bet you thought Hello Kitty was nothing more than a cute cartoon character used to sell merchandise to little girls of all ages. Well, think again!

Catherine Yronwode has a fascinating theory about the origins of the Kitty phenomenon and the cat’s Western counterpart.

Many people recognize the Sanrio anime Hello Kitty, but not as many (especially not Americans and Europeans who lack experience with Asian cultures) know that the name Hello Kitty is a hyper-literal translation of Maneki Neko — a Japanese phrase also translated as Welcoming Cat, Beckoning Cat, and (far too loosely; not really a translation but a description) Lucky Cat and Fortune Kitty.

Maneki Neko was a female calico cat who, in the 17th century, was in part responsible for the spread of Buddhism into the upper classes in Japan. Her tomb is located at her former home, a Buddhist temple outside of Tokyo. A large statue of her, with her paw held up in the welcoming position, stands over her grave, a popular site for pilgrimages. You can read about her role in the dissemination of Buddhism in Japan at this web page.

Because of this cat’s sanctity and role in Buddhist religious legend, you can get a good cultural handle on the Sanrio Hello Kitty anime character if you think of her as the Japanese cultural equivalent to Santa Claus:

In each case there was a real being (the Bishop Nicholas, the calico cat) with a strong connection to a developing minority religion (Christianity, Buddhism). The being, while alive, was known for his or her monetary helpfulness to those in need (the Bishop gave the poor girls a dowry, the cat drew wealthy Lord Li to the poor Buddhist temple).

After death, the being became an icon of material generosity, underwent a name-change (Saint Nicholas, Maneki Neko), and acquired an iconographic emblem of prosperity (Saint Nicholas is depicted with a bag of gifts, Maneki Neko is depicted with a large gold coin at her feet).

In each case, folk magic and folk religion customs then became associated with the entity (the performance of Saint Nicholas plays in the Europe, pilgrimages to the grave of Maneki Neko in Japan).

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, images of the entities became popular home and shop decor motifs (Old Saint Nick as a sales device in December, Maneki Neko as a sales device in Japanese shops, especially restaurants).

Then, in the mid to late 20th century, each of these religio-magical icons evolved into a highly merchandised cartoon form, as a short, round, cute, roly-poly character associated with gifts, money, joy, and prosperity (Santa Claus, Hello Kitty).

Just as any intelligent European or Euro-American person can see the Christian Saint Nicholas beneath the cartooney Santa Claus, so can any intelligent Japanese person see the Buddhist Maneki Neko beneath the Hello Kitty anime image.

Even if you gag when you see Kitty-chan, you really ought to read the whole thing here, and Catherine’s ideas here on the cat’s connection to sushi shop decorations and Nang Kwak, the Thai rice and prosperity goddess shown in contemporary statues as wearing a penis glans for a hat.

She mentions that the Maneki Neko is buried at a Tokyo-area temple. That would be Gotoku-ji in Setagaya Ward, but Japanese sources also suggest other possibilities for the cat’s origin, including the Jisho-in temple in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. Here’s more on the original story of the cat under the title, “Beckoning Cat”.

Whether you accept her thesis or not, you have to admit she makes a good case. And if you don’t believe her, you can always buy a lucky mojo from her!

One Response to “Hello Kitty: The Japanese Kris Kringle?”

  1. […] that has kept me up at nights: just where did Hello Kitty come from?  You can find one theory here at Ampontan, one of the many WordPress sites on Japan, which I must start […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: