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Sunday, March 2, 2008
'Mr. Cute' shares his wisdoms and wit
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Shintaro Tsuji isn't joking when he says he wants to make Hello Kitty, his company's best-selling character, into a brand name that rivals Gucci or Hermes.
"Did you go and see it?" the founder and president of Sanrio Co. asked enthusiastically during our interview, referring to a 2.5-meter Hello Kitty statue installed in front of the recently renovated Sanrio store in Tokyo's shopping hub of Shinjuku.
"There are lots of brands created for shoppers by French and American companies, but there are only a few available for foreign shoppers coming to Japan," he said. "We get phone calls from foreigners who say they want to buy Hello Kitty goods because they have come to the home of Hello Kitty. So we renovated the shop in Shinjuku, mostly for Chinese and European customers."
The statue of the world-famous mouthless feline is made of ceramic tiles, Tsuji points out, "so it won't get dirty if visitors touch it." Now visitors can pose and make their grinning "V-signs" with Kitty-chan (as she's known in Japan and beyond) for pictures in memory of their visits to Japan, he proudly says.
The giant statue seems to symbolize a Japanese culture that Tsuji has spent half a century promoting: a culture of nurturing and maintaining friendships through gift-giving.
But not just any gift will do — they have to be adorned with and convey pleasant feelings of warmth, cuteness, elegance or coolness. As a result, Sanrio characters that do just this now decorate everything from stationery to electronic dictionaries and humdrum slippers.
Born into a distinguished family that operated restaurants and inns in Yamanashi Prefecture, Tsuji says he spent a tough and lonely childhood after his mother died when he was 13 and left him in the care of bullying relatives.
That's why, he says, since he established Sanrio's predecessor in 1960, he has constantly striven to make "communication" part of his business.
Today, he believes, the culture of gift-giving and conveying nice feelings through goods has transcended national boundaries — noting that it has become a norm worldwide.
Nowadays, in fact, it is global customers receptive to such sentiments who are compensating for Sanrio's sluggish sales at home. In fact, out of the ¥44.3 billion in sales the company racked up in the six months through September last year — a 3.9 percent dip from the same period the year before — revenue from overseas operations (including direct sales and licensing deals) amounted to ¥10.1 billion. That was nearly 30 percent up from the same period the previous year.
Lately, however, Sanrio has come to be seen not just as an exporter of goods — but an exporter of "cute culture," due to publicity surrounding the now 34-year-old character Hello Kitty.
But while some of the overseas celebrities the world's paparazzi love to snap carrying Hello Kitty paraphernalia — as well as designers and artists who incorporate Hello Kitty in their works — seem to treat the cuddly cat character with a sense of kitsch or even a kind of punk sensibility, there is no sense of irony or embarrassment on the part of Sanrio officials, including Tsuji.
Indeed, Tsuji's business savvy and adventurous spirit is reflected in the company's bold moves to expand its clientele beyond its core market of young women. So, in January, Sanrio for the first time introduced a line of products for men: specifically including black-and-white Hello Kitty underwear and T-shirts.
Besides being the godfather of the feline superstar, Tsuji — at 80 years old — is one of the longest-serving presidents of any of the listed corporations in Japan. He is also a prolific writer of fairy-tale stories. In his 2006 book titled "Umi no Meruhen (Fairy Tales of the Deep)," he wrote about a boy who, after losing his childhood love to a fatal illness, was reunited with her through a sea-turtle guide.
But Tsuji is not only a business magnate and fantasy author, but also a film producer, with one movie he financed about Vietnam War orphans, titled "Who are the DeBolts? And where did they get 19 kids?," having won an Academy Award in the best documentary feature category in 1978.
Despite the many calls on his time, the multitalented Tsuji recently took time out with The Japan Times for a very rare media interview (he says he doesn't grant interviews with domestic media because if he gives time to one, the others "feel jealous").
The vivacious, sharp-minded father of one and grandfather of two shared stories of his childhood and how that experience led him into his business. He also talked about the sense of responsibility he feels for his employees — and his secrets of maintaining long-lasting friendships through life's ups and downs.
I understand that you were born into a quite wealthy family, but your mother died when you were young, and you had some tough years after that. Is that closely connected to who you are today?
Yes, to some degree. My mother died of leukemia, I think. I attended a kindergarten in Yamanashi Prefecture that was affiliated with the Tokyo-based Toyo Eiwa women's university. The university was founded by the Canadian missionary Martha J. Cartmell, and several kindergartens bearing her name were opened. I went to the Cartmell kindergarten in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Was it a Christian school?
Yes. Back then, it was one of very few kindergartens attended by the children of foreign expatriates. The children were all escorted there by their maidservants, and while they attended classes, the maidservants waited, and they would take the children home when the classes were over. I forgot most of what I learned there, but I remember having birthday parties. It was around 1933, and everyone wore kimono. Nobody back then knew the birthdays of their children. Japanese didn't have a custom of celebrating birthdays or holding birthday parties. I was deeply moved by such events. The teachers would hold a party every month, celebrating the birthdays of students born in that month. Also, we had Sunday School, because our school was Christian. Because students came from wealthy families, we would all bring rice, vegetables, old zabuton (floor cushions) and stuff like that, and we donated them to beggars, who used to live along the river banks. They looked so happy when we gave them those items. The two things — the birthday parties and gift-giving to beggars — were a big shock to me.
What happened to you after that?
When I entered what is now Gunma University, the war was approaching its end. Many people were getting tired of the war. Those who entered the literature, economics and education departments were drafted immediately. If you got into the medical department, you would be spared from the draft. So medical departments were very hard to get into, with 30 times more people applying than their admission quota, and it was practically impossible to get into them. Also, I was more of a literature-oriented guy, and I was once even suspended from school for writing romantic fiction stories.
Why? Was that considered indiscrete?
Only because I wrote love fiction! In those days, junior high school students were not allowed to write love stories. After all, it was an era of militarism. So anyway, I wanted to study literature but that meant I would be sent to the war. However, I was quite good at math, so I decided to go and study chemistry. In chemistry, you mix one chemical with another, and — bang! — something new is born out of that. I found that sort of romantic. So I entered the chemistry department.
I went to university in April 1945, and in August that year World War II ended. As soon as I entered the university, it was turned into a technological center for the Imperial Japanese Navy. The students were ordered to research parachutes. We conducted tests on the sturdiness of the fabrics used for parachutes. The fabric had to be able to allow some air to pass through it, and so we looked for the best material. We concluded that habutae (a smooth, glossy and finely weaved silk cloth) would be the best. Then one day, a piece of cloth was passed to us, and we were told to examine its quality. We thought it was the best cloth we had ever tested. It was nylon, and it was used in the parachutes of Americans who became our prisoners of war. At that point, we realized that we were no match.
Our teacher at the college was a lieutenant-commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy. One day, he called all of us together and ordered us to listen to the Gyokuon hoso (literally, "Jewel-voice broadcast," meaning Emperor Hirohito's radio address at noon on Aug. 15, 1945, in which he announced Japan's surrender). I couldn't quite hear what was being said. Then we went back to our classroom, where the lieutenant-commander had shot himself to death. My college days were like that. That's how our war ended.