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«Yu-Fen Ko Assistant Professor Dept. Public Communication Hsih-Shin University, Taipei October 2000 1 Abstract This paper analyzes the controversy ...»

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Hello Kitty and the Identity Politics in Taiwan

Yu-Fen Ko

Assistant Professor

Dept. Public Communication

Hsih-Shin University, Taipei

October 2000



This paper analyzes the controversy surrounding Hello Kitty, a popular Japanese

animation cat figure in Taiwan. The analysis aims to understand the cultural meanings of

Hello Kitty, and how these meanings, along with the figure itself, are consumed.

Situated in current Taiwanese cultural context, the Hello Kitty controversy consists of

at least three axes:

1. the cultural distinction of the elite and the popular;

2. the colonial question of the self and the other; and,

3. the feminist interrogation on the gender issue of cultural consumption.

In this paper, some aspects of cultural theories are applied to examining the social dialogues about Hello Kitty and the discursive formations that underlie these differences.

The theoretical framework is based on the post-structuralist analyses on signs and languages. This paper argues that Hello Kitty is a sign whose meaning has been liquidated and evacuated from the figure itself. The so-called Hello Kitty Mania reveals a heated process through which different social groups debate for their rationales and fight for their cultural leadership.

This paper concludes that consumption does not necessarily lead to identity. The phenomenon of cultural consumption requires further investigation rather than a mere binary criticism. What the intellectuals should be concerned with is not how ardent the people‘s desire to consume is, but rather, how everyone, including the critics, participates in the struggle over meanings.

It is ultimately because consumption is founded on a lack that it is irrepressible.

Baudrillard(1988:25) The Story Hello Kitty is a well-known animated cat figure from Japan. In the summer of 1999, the McDonald‘s launched a promotional campaign: the Hello Kitty Meal Package. Total amount of 250,000 sets of stuffed Hello Kitties were to be given away with any meal purchase plus $99 NT dollars. However, this campaign caught media attention not by the bargain it offered, but by the fight for the bargain. The Hello Kitty Meal Package were so popular that the people had to wait in line for hours. Eventually the Kitties were out of stock, and those who waited to purchase this celebrated stuff animal since early morning complained and inadvertently got into 2 a nasty fight. This war Hello Kitty made its presence in the evening news of several television channels, which eventually accelerated into the so-called “Hello Kitty Mania” in Taiwan.

In the end of 1999, Chunghwa Telecom Co. got on the bandwagon and launched a series of “Hello Kitty Phonecard.” The entire stock of 50,000 cards were sold out in five minutes after the counter windows were open. Meanwhile, Twinhead Computer introduced a special edition of notebook with a Hello Kitty on its pink cover. Apple Computer also promoted a strawberry-colored iMac with a set of Hello Kitty stationary gift. Yue-Loong Automobile even had a Hello Kitty limited edition of March. Makoto Bank issued Hello Kitty credit cards.

Furthermore, according to a poll by Chinese Television Network, Hello Kitty was rated the number three most figure person in Taiwan in the year of 1999. Early in the year 2000, McDonald‘s launched another joint venture with Hello Kitty, “the Love for Millennium Meal Package,” 450,000 sets of Hello Kitty to be purchased with any meal option. Again, it caused heated discussions.

The Hello Kitty Mania in Taiwan reached its peak in the McDonald‘s group fight event.

It then drew attention from the intellectuals, and another cultural fight broke out. Intellectuals with different points of view criticized the mania, mourning for the dead political social movements being substituted by absurd group fight over commodities. The phenomenon that Japanese commodities swept local consumers became a serious cultural concern, and the sensitive issue of cultural “Japanization” prevailed in the debate.

Japanese cultural commodities have quite a long history in Taiwan. Japanese animation products have been pirated in local markets for decades. Hello Kitty, along with other figures such as Doraemon, Chibimaruko, Tare Panda, or Detective Conan, are influential trends in children‘s and teenagers‘ markets. These animation figures are as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse in the U.S. Moreover, Japanese drama series has attracted a fairly large audience since the government removed the restriction against Japanese dramas. Three national television

–  –  –

In addition, at least four Japanese-speaking cable channels can be viewed through cable subscription, including NHK (Nippon Hoso Kaishia) and JET (Japanese Entertainment TV), both founded by Japanese capital. Other cable channels such as Star TV and TVBS-G strategically air Japanese drama series and are always the winners in rating.

Popular cultural commodities from Japan, such as TV dramas, animation figures, and their by-products caught more general attention, mostly criticisms, than any other cultural products. The critiques focused on various topics, from as macro as identity crises under globalization to as micro as the decline of new generation‘s cultural taste. Since the satellite channels successfully gained their local audience in the early 90s, some scholars have proposed ban on foreign channels, while others advocated for laisser-faire on communication so as to participate in the international community. No consensus was reached. However, the global system is already formed, and global culture almost equals popular culture, no binary discourse of imperialism vs. free market economy can explain the transnational production/consumption, distribution/exchange of commodities, and the cultural question that comes with the economic change. Having experienced colonialism, totalitarianism, and now being part of the global capitalist mode of production, Taiwan’s cultural spectrum is more complicated than nationalism or populism can cover. Historically or economically speaking, the craze for Japanese cultural commodities no longer follows a local/global binary reductionist formula.

Regarding Hello Kitty, this paper attempts to carve out a space of cultural theory amongst the discourse of cultural imperialism, as well to avoid the determinist discussion of political economy. In other words, structural analyses on the relations and modes of production are not the foci here. The pivotal concerns of this paper are: as a cultural commodity, what meaning does Hello Kitty convey? How are these meanings consumed?

Where is Hello Kitty positioned in the cultural structure? Why is that position controversial?

Finally, what is the controversy all about, anyway?

–  –  –

structuralist semiotics, the cultural studies‘ discussions on resistance, and Foucaultian theory on discursive power. By this framework I aim to examine the relationship between consumption and cultural identity under the trend of gloablization. Most criticisms against Hello Kitty Mania tend to equate consumption with identity, especially those who fear for Japanese cultural imperialism nearly always conflate consuming Japanese product with identifying Japanese culture. Therefore, they easily come to a frightening conclusion that Taiwan is still culturally colonized by Japan, if not in terms of economy or politics. However, with that very same logic and revert it, we will soon arrive at another overtly optimistic conclusion: if we can get people to consume as many local cultural commodities, then we can identify more with local culture and be rid of the danger of cultural colonization. Cultural salvation such as this is of course too simplified, because the question of cultural identity can not be answered by consumption tendency. A peculiar argument about the cultural Japanization in Taiwan always takes quantity as the ultimate indicator of culture. However, the fact is, even for the so-called “Jap maniacs,” who would purchase just about anything from Japan, can consume nothing other than the idea of Japan in his or her own terms. That is to say, the entire Japanese cultural commodity fashion, in the late 90s‘ Taiwan, has consumed the idea of Japan made up by the consumers themselves. “Japan,” the idea, has been commodified, merchandised, marketed, purchased, always in danger of being consumed or devoured.

Fortunately or not, Jap maniacs can never purchase enough goods to identify with Japan, for each purchase relentlessly casts the idea of Japan further from him or herself.

The main concept of this paper is: consumption is a social practice, yet there is no natural equation between consumption and cultural identity. Consumption can be a formation process of political meanings, a process in which political meanings are formed through struggles and disagreements; the process has to be understood in social contexts. To put it in Baudrillard‘s words: “consumption is an active mode of relations (not only to objects, but to the collective

–  –  –

cultural system is founded.....Consumption, in as far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs.” (1988:21-22) By tracing out the ways signs are arranged, the meaning of consumption can therefore be revealed.

–  –  –

Walter Benjamin raises a challenging concept in the article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” where he states that “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.... the total functional of art is reversed.

Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice--politics.”(Benjamin, 1968:224) On the relationship between the mass and art, Benjamin here provokes two concepts. First, the politics practiced by the masses is a sense of universal equality of things which extracts art from its uniqueness by means of reproduction. Second, the greatly increased number of mass participants has changed the mode of participation: the works are appropriated by use and perception, that is, by touch and sight. The cult value of the work of art therefore recedes, while the value of exhibit is left up to the public--the absent-minded examiner (Benjamin, 1968:240).

The “aura” of the work of art, the symptomatic process in which the authenticity and originality of the work is symbolized, Benjamin points out, is a distance that the elite strive to preserve and the mass attempt to overcome. The technology of mechanical reproduction has caused the decay of the aura; the ritual distance is therefore diminished by the massive quantity. Consequently, the work of art being deprived of its aura and becoming a collective experience of the mass inevitably creates a crisis for the elite. The crisis is no less a fear for the rise of the mass than for the ardent mass reproduction of the work of art.

Even the all-time critical leader of the Frankfurt School can‘t abandon the elitist attitude what is at stake is the culture. The Frankfurt School considers the art in its pure form should

–  –  –

reproduction gives way to cultural industry and, subsequently, takes away the critical content of the culture. The Frankfurt School’s key concept of cultural industry criticizes the systematic commodification and fetishization of culture and art in modern industrial society.

They lament for the work of art losing its uniqueness and the critical distance from life. Once the art being made into a consumer product, it is detached from its authentic creation and becomes part of the ideological reproduction. In other words, the Frankfurt School thinks that, if art would eventually be compromised to the realm of reality, that of social relations and production, it would lose its critical possibility of resistance.

The Frankfurt School‘s idealist utopian position is followed by many intellectuals in Taiwan who always whole-heartedly embrace any criticism against anything popular or mass produced. Quantity is always the ultimate fear of the elite. Easy statements made to condemn ideology or fetishism may or may not follow the left-wing criticism against capitalist mode of production and mass society. The alternative perspective of emancipation of art proposed by Benjamin has hardly been discussed, despite or because of the possible disturbance his point may have caused. The political meaning of art, the mass, and mechanical reproduction rarely raises any challenge from local intellectuals. To take the Hello Kitty mania as an example, in most critiques the public is taken as the crowd without social action, and is thought to be lacking any independent thoughts and subjectivity. In other words, the Hello Kitty fans are depicted as having false consciousness and being incapable of making sense about their social positions, let along forming alliance or resistance.

Hello Kitty almost challenged most of the intellectuals in Taiwan, with its unexpected popularity as opposed to the surprisingly simple-minded academic discussions. This Japanese cat figure has no expression nor mouth, yet it is said to represent the loss of Taiwanese consciousness and national identity. Even if not to accuse the cat in the name of nation, with most Kitty fans female adults in addition to teenage girls, Hello Kitty is still guilty of

–  –  –

animated girlish look. The cat always wears pink or sky blue colors, and these childishly cute colors upset the theorists as much as they are adored by Kitty fans.

Indeed, it is hard to face the victory of an ex-colonizer‘s cultural products. It is even more so since the local cultural elite can not comprehend why such a mechanically reproduced formulated logo could sweep the market. Kitty fans crave more mouthless, cat-faced products, and advertisers reproduce more Kitty faces on their products. The Hello Kitty franchised product line provides almost everything to cover a Kitty fan’s daily life: stationary, clothes, accessories, toilette papers, instant noodles, shampoo, utensils, stereos, toasters, even hi-tech products like motorcycles, mobile phones, cameras, computers, and cars. Even some feminine napkins have the Kitty face printed on them. A Kitty fan can live a Kitty life.

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