It’s currently all over the internet – the shock revelation that Hello Kitty, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is not a cat.
The surprise discovery was made by anthropologist Christine R. Yano from University of Hawaii, who was “corrected” by Sanrio who told her that Hello Kitty was not a cat – because she’s never depicted on all fours, for one thing, and in fact she even has a pet cat (Charmmy Kitty). You can read the full story here.
What interests me greatly about this is that Shinto and Buddhist priests also insist that Inari Okami is not a fox – despite the fact that the fox is the symbol most commonly associated with Inari, and that plenty of laymen see Inari as a fox.
Why do their respective authorities insist that Hello Kitty and Inari are not cats and foxes? It seems to me that in the minds of the authorities on these two “personalities” (one being the creator, the other being the priests), the “personality” they represent somehow transcends the status of being a normal animal. In the case of Hello Kitty, she is not considered an animal because she is also a little girl with human qualities. In the case of Inari, it’s because the fox is considered to be merely the symbol of Inari – perhaps in a similar way that Charmmy Kitty is definitely a cat, and is the pet of Hello Kitty. Perhaps in both cases, a mere animal is too “lowly” for these characters. This maybe understandable for Inari, who is clearly worshipped as a divinity in Japan, but one cannot dismiss Hello Kitty’s importance in Japanese society. She is everywhere in Japan – her image is probably more ubiquitous than Inari’s foxes ever have been. And many have suggested that in this way, Hello Kitty has become something of an idol.
It’s also worth considering that in traditional Japanese mythology, neither cats nor foxes are considered 100% positive. Foxes are seen as tricksters and sometimes downright dangerous, while cats were considered unlucky in Buddhism because they were said not to have cried when Buddha died. Both cats and foxes are attributed with shape-shifting powers, and both are thought to transform into a kind of supernatural being once they reach a certain age, often indicated by gaining more tails. Anthropologist Karen Smyers (author of The Fox and The Jewel) has also pointed out that foxes are quite cat-like in both appearance and behaviour, more closely resembling cats than canines, in fact. Even Inari’s stylised fox statues look somewhat feline, with their high pointed ears, raised paws and upright tails. It could be this somewhat eerie image of the fox and the cat that makes both Sanrio and the priesthood alike distance Hello Kitty and Inari from their totem animals.
It may also be significant that both Inari and Hello Kitty are pure white – a very auspicious colour in Japan, generally lucky when it occurs in an animal, which is frequently used to represent the sacred. Perhaps another indicator that Hello Kitty has been assigned a little more “divinity” than we might at first think?
It seems to be yet another link between Gods and Mascots, and an interesting one at that.