TOKYO — For an expressionless little white fur ball, Japan's Hello Kitty puts up a mean fight in the cultural jungle.
Once the defining measure of girls' craze for cuteness within Japan, the pop feline today can be found staring out from the handbags, sweat shirts, notebooks, and now debit cards of children and night-clubbing art students alike around the globe. And as she marks her 30th anniversary, Hello Kitty's combination of Mona Lisa mystery and saccharine sweetness has become an unlikely symbol of the shift in Japan's global reach from cars to culture.
Hello Kitty - which earns $1 billion a year for its owner, Sanrio Co. - isn't alone among Japanese cultural creations in finding an audience in the West. In recent years, Japanese characters such as Pokémon and the fantasy series Yu-Gi-Oh! have become staples of children's entertainment. Japanese horror films - think "The Ring" - are international hits. Anime - animated flicks - and "manga" comics have made inroads, appealing to global audiences with their Dickensian plots and appealing style.
Nobuyoshi Kurita, a professor of sociology and pop media at Musashi University in Tokyo, says the newfound yen for all things Japanese underscores a global move from a materialistic to an information culture. "Stereos and cars used to be considered symbolic of modern Japanese culture," he says. "But now it's animation."
According to Mr. Kurita, the next stage will be "expressive" culture, where fashion and cosmetics lead the way - and where Japan already exerts a powerful influence in Taiwan and China. Though pop culture trends in the Asia and the West remain fairly distinct today, he says, "in 10 or 20 years' time, I expect East Asia to become the full-blown opinion leader."
For now, Hello Kitty is on the vanguard of the Japanese cultural image abroad. Part of her charm, says Yo Kato, producer of the 30th anniversary Kitty Exhibition in Tokyo, is her malleability. "She has no mouth and no expression, which enables people to assign their own interpretation - be it as a cute item or as something cool," he says.
The exhibition, which features works by everyone from fashion model Ai Tominaga to Lisa Marie Presley, is a tribute to that flexibility, with installations including a Hello Kitty UFO, a Kafkaesque Kitty de Milo statue, and a Kitty tattoo gallery. Mr. Kato estimates the number of visitors at 100,000 visitors so far and says he been approached to take the show to New York, London, and Paris.
Susan Napier, an expert on Japanese culture at the University of Texas in Austin, agrees that part of Kitty's appeal is the fact that "she's just so amorphous." Because the Japanese origins of the character have been obscured, Hello Kitty has been able to transcend cultural differences and become universal.
Beyond Hello Kitty, a literary culture in Japanese anime and manga offers an alternative to the homogenized - and predominant - Hollywood fare, she says. And children who grew up with video games are said to identify with the animated characters of a nonrepresentational world.
Japanese animation has also built on a key advantage: giving its recent characters far less of an identifiable national character than, say, those generated during animation's 1950s golden age in the United States. "The lack of national character in the settings and characters that appear in anime enable it to be well received in Western countries," says Kurita.
For many, their first taste of Japanese anime came with the groundbreaking dystopian 1988 classic "Akira," by Katsuhiro Otomo. While the early fans of manga and anime were generally science-fiction aficionados or early adapters of Internet culture, the word has now spread to the degree that "anime is poised to go, perhaps, really mainstream" in the West, Napier says.
Anime received a significant boost in profile when Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" won the First Prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002 and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, a distinction normally given to a Disney film. Anime has also featured in highly popular US productions, with sequences in Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" and Linkin Park's video for "Breaking the Habit," which won the MTV Viewer's Choice Award this year.
One little-noticed characteristic of Japanese pop culture is the social message sometimes involved. Akira, produced at the height of Japan's economic bubble, was interpreted as a polemic against the destruction of social values and the enslavement of man to technology.
Many of Miyazaki's films have an environmental theme, and portray the damage caused by industrialized societies on the natural world. The popularity of one of his early films depicting cute yet mysteriously powerful forest-dwelling creatures named "Totoro" helped reinvigorate the environmental movement in Japan, according to Professor Kurita.
The vacuous Hello Kitty even has a social conscience - despite criticism that she encourages submissiveness and infantilism in women. She was recently named "UNICEF Special Friend of Children" in the US to help raise funds for girls' education, while in Japan she is associated with blood-donation groups and fundraising for the early detection of breast cancer.
But Kitty isn't all hugs - there's also some serious money involved. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimates the size of Tokyo's anime industry alone at 1 trillion yen (about $9 billion).
Kurita says Kitty's original designers probably didn't realize they were creating a character that is a fortuitous match for many elements of traditional Japanese culture, including simplicity and a strange allure that invites individual interpretation. "These elements still underlie [today's] high-tech, industrial society," he says. "I think the basis of Kitty's appeal for many people is as a tonic for the weariness they feel with [that society]."
• Sanae Kawanaka contributed to this report.