Sitting on a wooden stool in a tiny ten-seat restaurant facing an alleyway in Omoide Yokocho, on the edge of busy Shinjuku Station in Tokyo I am immersed in people-watching.
It’s early evening and crowds are everywhere. I’m so fascinated by the scene outside that despite the beauty of the elegantly arranged plate of tuna sashimi I just ordered, I can’t take my eyes off the commuters who squeeze past each other on their way to homeward-bound trains.
Many are salarymen, mid-tier white-collar office workers.
They rush past in well-cut business suits and ties – expressionless and almost all clutching briefcases.
These briefcases fascinate me.
I find myself wondering whether – wedged between business papers – there are quirky obento lunch boxes or other examples of a peculiarly Japanese obsession: a love of kawaii, which means ‘cute’.
Kawaii brings a smile to the face of even the most serious-looking salaryman.
Kawaii is everywhere
On the window near where I’m sitting is a large decal of Hello Kitty, a twinkling-eyed white kitten.
Trains thunder by – but a picture of this ubiquitous cartoon character, the most widely seen Japanese cutie, grabs my attention.
The kawaii Hello Kitty is plastered everywhere – from beer bottles and Visa credit cards to vending machines and tourist buses.
She’s worn on clothing and handbags, appears on the logos of fast food outlets, on stationery, street signs and advertisements.
In fact, it’s hard to walk down a street in a Japanese city and not see Hello Kitty’s friendly face.
Even here, in Omoide Yokocho, or ‘Memory Lane’, famous for its 60 bars and eateries, among the speciality dishes and the seemingly endless serves of draft beer, sake (rice wine) and green tea, there’s still a place for the Queen of Cute.
So how, I have to wonder, does this cute white kitten fit into this very grown-up environment?
With her particularly Japanese sense of kawaii, Hello Kitty enjoys global celebrity status.
Products with Hello Kitty’s image are sold internationally.
Purses, pens and sweaters are particularly popular.
A Hello Kitty-themed café thrives in the London suburb of Soho.
In Taiwan, EVA Airlines has a specially commissioned Hello Kitty plane, there are Hello Kitty theme parks in Johor, Malaysia; Zhejiang Province in China; as well as in Tama, a city west of Tokyo.
Hello Kitty also stars in themed restaurants across Asia: a yum cha restaurant in Hong Kong, a café in Changi Airport in Singapore and in downtown Seoul, South Korea.
More predictably, there’s also a Hello Kitty teahouse in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto.
Good morning, kitty
The reason I’m sampling the tastes of this part of Shinjuku is that it’s only five minutes walk from where I’m staying: the Keio Plaza Hotel, a 47-storey, five-star hotel that was Tokyo’s tallest building and Japan’s first high-rise hotel when it opened back in 1971.
Today, I discovered, the hotel offers a unique experience: among its 1450 rooms are eight Hello Kitty-themed rooms. Checking them out is one reason I picked this hotel.
So, the next morning, I meet Sunaho Nakatani, the hotel’s public relations manager, and together we take the lift to the 23rd floor. The doors open to reveal a pastel-coloured corridor, with mostly plain brown doors on both sides.
It could be a hotel corridor anywhere, I start to think, until Nakatani stops in front of a door with a small pink bow sitting neatly above the peephole. Here is the first clue of what lies inside.
We then step inside the room and into a scene of a high-energy cartoon strip. Wallpaper screams of cheerful images of Hello Kitty and her similarly kawaii friends and family.
While the bed and side tables are reminiscent of what you find in ‘normal’ hotel rooms, the giant hot-pink plush stiletto shoe that doubles as a chair takes me by surprise.
From the huge pink roses embellished on the carpet, to the enormous pink bow cushion on the window seat, this is a room in which any 12-year-old girl would feel right at home.
In this 25-square-metre room, Hello Kitty’s favourite pink bows, roses and love hearts abound.
Even complimentary water bottles are graced with her joyful face.
Science of kawaii
The lovable character was created in 1974 by the then little-known marketing company called Sanrio.
It was designed by Yuko Shimizu, a 28-year-old graphic artist employed by the company.
Shimizu left Sanrio two years later to get married and did not make much money from her design.
Today, Sanrio’s Hello Kitty design team is headed by Yuko Yamaguchi, a flamboyant designer and illustrator who enjoys a cult following in Japan.
Essentially, Hello Kitty is a cat with human attributes.
She is based on the local cat breed, the Japanese bobtail, but has no mouth, is always cheerful and helpful and proudly wears a bow in her fur. Her one purpose is to be adorable.
The character appears in the media – and on more than 50,000 franchised products ranging from backpacks to bath towels, pens to mugs, tea towels to clothing lines, nail polish to lipstick.
In 2014, the Hello Kitty brand was worth US$7 billion a year to Sanrio, from licensing the rights to use her image to other companies.
In 2014, the management of Keio Plaza felt it was time they shared in Hello Kitty’s kawaii appeal and profit-making potential.
“The Keio Plaza’s Hello Kitty rooms were dreamed up to appeal mostly to Japanese [guests],” says Nakatani.
“But we’ve been surprised by the strong appeal to foreigners who are aware of Hello Kitty and kawaii. After all, Hello Kitty items are among the most popular souvenirs foreigners take home after visiting Japan.”
While Hello Kitty is the most commonly seen kawaii character, there are many others. Among Sanrio’s creationsare Bad Badtz-Maru, a spiky-haired penguin; a cat called Charmmy Kitty; a brown puppy named Chibimaru; and Chococat, a black cat with a chocolate coloured nose.
Where cartoons come alive
Nowhere is it easier to observe the Japanese fascination with cute than beneath Tokyo Station in Tokyo Character Street, one of many walkways leading to the main concourse.
The street is lined with more than 20 shops, each devoted to a kawaii character or group.
Some kawaii characters are Western, some Japanese. The boutiques on Tokyo Character Street are devoted to kawaii merchandise.
Snoopy, Pokémon as well as Moomin, created by Finnish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson, are well represented.
Along the street, shoppers abound, ranging from parents with toddlers to high school kids, adult couples and men who discreetly pop purchases – gifts, I assume – into briefcases.
The more discerning kawaii shopper must visit the Harajuku district of Tokyo, a quick train ride from Shinjuku on the Yamanote line.
This part of Tokyo is best known for the groups of girls who dress up extravagantly and parade in groups.
Essentially, it’s a form of fancy dress on parade, featuring intricately designed and elaborately sewn dresses worn by very heavily made-up young women in their late teens or early 20s.
Their boyfriends, mostly in black jeans and T-shirts, remain in the background, shunning the limelight.
They watch as armies of camera-toting tourists admire their creations and their girlfriends.
Known as Harajuku Girls, their clothing is dictated by their subgroups.
‘Gothic Lolita’ girls go for elegant Victorian-era children’s dresses coupled with heavy make-up, while the ‘Sweet Lolita’ group don pastelcoloured children’s dresses.
Then there are Japanese punks and the ‘cosplay’ (from ‘costume play’) subgroup who dress like cartoon, anime or computer-game characters.
Generally the Harajuku Girls and their boyfriends are polite to foreigners and pose for pictures – parading is part of the appeal.
Harajuku is known as an inexpensive area for trend fashion shopping. One group of shops stocks exclusively red clothing for both sexes. The colour, a fellow shopper explains, is “cute”. I might have guessed.
Love of kawaii will never die
Back in Omoide Yokocho on my final night in Tokyo, I find myself in a restaurant once again gazing at passing briefcases.
Only this time, it’s with a different eye.
Were I lucky enough to see inside one, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find an obento lunchbox with a pair of Hello Kitty chopsticks.
If those kids back in Harajuku have taught me anything, it’s that kawaii is a part of the Japanese psyche.
In a decade or so, I can picture today’s Harajuku Girls being replaced by younger kawaii teens, while their boyfriends will become briefcase-carrying salarymen.
Love of kawaii will endure, I tell myself, even if hidden away in many a passing briefcase.
This story was originally published on Readers Digest and has been republished here with their permission.