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.
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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.
I’ve read that while you were at university you made a lot of money by making and selling soap. Is that so?
Yes, it is applied chemistry, you know! We made soaps, and a bunch of other things, like an artificial sweetener called Dulcin and a soy sauce containing monosodium glutamate, and we sold them. We made a lot of money off those things, and so after college, when I went back to Yamanashi, my pockets were full of money (laughs).
Your experience seems to have been very different from the usual poverty-stricken, postwar image of Japan.
Yes, yes, because I could make many things.
What did you do after you graduated from university?
Well, I worked as a bureaucrat for Yamanashi Prefecture for 11 years. I also helped the governor (Hisashi Amano) to get re-elected. But I just didn’t feel at home being a bureaucrat and wanted to leave, even though superiors tried to dissuade me, because if I worked for 17 years, I would have qualified for a pension. Back then, pensions were only available to schoolteachers and bureaucrats. When I told the governor that I was going to leave the prefectural government and set up a company, he gave me ¥50,000, which is probably worth 10 times more in today’s values, and the vice governor gave me ¥50,000. The head of the local chamber of commerce and the director of the Yamanashi crystal industry association also gave me ¥50,000 each. In addition, the head of the local textile association gave me ¥25,000. Combining all that with my severance allowance, I put together ¥1 million as capital for my new company.
The governor’s family ran a liquor business, so he urged me to sell liquor in Tokyo. I can’t drink! But he still sent me a load of boxes containing 10 1.8-liter bottles. I couldn’t lift them because they were too heavy. So then, I thought that if I couldn’t even carry the products I was supposed to deal in, then I couldn’t be in that business. So I returned my license to be a liquor-business operator, which shocked everybody, because the license was worth about ¥8 million, when the average monthly salary at that time was about ¥20,000. And the governor got so infuriated that he banned me from Yamanashi Prefecture!
You mean that you were banned from entering the prefectural government office?
Yes. I wondered what to do next, and then the memory of my kindergarten days came back to me. That’s why I came up with the gift-giving business. Back then, around 1960, my son was attending an elementary school in Tokyo’s Meguro Ward, so I asked his classmates how many of them had received any gifts on their birthdays, and only three out of 35 said they had. Nobody had never experienced having birthday parties. And the three students who had received birthday gifts all said the gifts came from their mothers. So I thought I wanted to do a business related to birthdays and gift-giving.
Also, because I had received investments from the governor and all those other people, I thought I needed to make sure my company wouldn’t go bankrupt. So, I asked someone working at the Japan Patent Office what kind of patent would be profitable, and he told me that a patent is protected for 15 years [due to changes in legislation, patents are now protected for 20 years], but that a copyright is protected for 50 years. So we started selling glasses, plates and stuff like that, featuring the works of illustrators such as Takashi Yanase and Ado Mizumori.
What was the first character you marketed?
Strawberries. We put strawberry prints on our clothes, tableware and stationery, which turned out to be a big hit. Later, in around 1970, when I again asked some elementary school students whether they had received birthday gifts, most of them said they had.
Was that thanks to Sanrio?
No, no — they also were also getting sweets as gifts as well. But what’s interesting is that they were not just getting them from their mothers, but from friends as well. I think it shows how wealthy Japanese families had become in those 10 years or so. That’s how this business has grown.
How did you start creating original characters like Hello Kitty?
In 1972 or ’73, we started creating our characters. We hired about 20 in-house designers. We did a worldwide survey on which animals were most popular. What people liked most were dogs, followed by cats and bears. Wild animals, like elephants and giraffes, all failed. As for birds, they were not popular, except for owls. Insects, such as butterflies and ladybugs, were non-starters as well. Sea animals were unpopular too, apart from dolphins and whales. No fish. As for flowers, which flowers do you like most?
I don’t know . . . roses?
Yes. Roses were popular, and then violets and daisies. So we introduced three characters: Honey-chan, which was a rabbit character; Kitty-chan, which is Hello Kitty, and Koro-chan, which was a bear. And of the three, Hello Kitty grew.
Hello Kitty has been popular for more than 30 years. Why do you think that is?
I have absolutely no clue (laughs).
On the other hand, Sanrio as a company has not always been profitable. For example, investments in your indoor theme park Sanrio Puroland in western Tokyo have weighed heavily on the company’s finances. Yet you have always maintained that you will not let employees go no matter what.
Because our company had money from Yamanashi Prefecture, I always thought we should not violate any laws. Also, to keep us from going bankrupt, we needed to pursue our copyright business. No matter how great your products are, if they can be copied, you can go bankrupt because you are driven into price wars. So the key is not to be copied. And I always thought the most important thing was not just to make money, but also to have fun. Since I lost my parents early on, all I could turn to was my friends. I hate being lonely. So I’ve wanted to live amicably with everyone around me — and especially my employees. How do you make employees happy? You give them money by dividing the profits (laughs). We once decided on the amount of bonuses by rolling dice.
Really? You are not joking?
No. I would stack up the money we made and roll two dice. We had about 50 employees back then. You might think you can’t predict the total amount of money to be given out, but you can. If everybody throws two dice each, the combined total is most likely to be 7 — like 2 and 5 or 3 and 4.
But now you have gone public with shares listed on the stock exchange, and you have 2,000 employees and businesses in more than 60 countries, how do you practice “living amicably” in such a mammoth operation?
Well, we don’t do anything special, but in building Puroland, we installed nearly 2,000 lighting devices on the ceiling. Each of them weighs at least 5 kg. If any one of them fell, it would kill someone. The manufacturers of the lighting equipment said they guaranteed their safety — but who would believe them (laughs)? So we have put two layers of wires around the screws on the lights. The director of Puroland checks all the wires and screws every three months, because we are worried an accident would hurt employees on the site. Our top priority is our employees.
I think your stance on putting employees first, rather than shareholders, has been very common among Japanese companies. But many top managers of Japanese companies now face pressures from various stakeholders. How do you regard the management styles of other Japanese companies these days?
I have been running this company for nearly 50 years. I’m the founder, the owner and wanman (taken from the English phrase “one man,” and used in Japanese to mean “autocrat”). Well, I’m not that sure about the last label (laughs), but at most other companies, presidents are sarariman (salaried workers). If you are a sarariman, you must raise the company’s performance so you can impress the kaicho (chairman) and sodanyaku (top advisers) who made you a boss. If they don’t perform, they are told off. The barometer of their performance is sales and profits. In my case, no matter what the profits and sales are, I feel happy if I can pay salaries to my employees. To me, making everybody live amicably, and everyone being friendly to each other, is more important than making profits. So the problem is sarariman presidents. Our goal is to build a good reputation rather than making profits. I hope Japanese people will strive to keep their reputation as well. To be more considerate and friendly to people is much more valuable as a human being.
Hello Kitty has gained worldwide fame, and has also exported the Japanese culture of “cute” worldwide. However, some people, especially foreigners, think it is strange for mature adults to carry around Hello Kitty goods, which were primarily meant to be for children. Do you think the culture of adults toting “cute” character goods is unique to Japan?
Americans didn’t have a concept of “cuteness” among their characters. Well, Snoopy falls into that category, but Charlie Brown or Lucy are not cute at all. Sanrio has emphasized kawaii (cute) in its characters, but we have just released a character called Kuromi-chan, which is more of a koakuma (wicked person). She is mischievous, but the character is quite popular. So we are trying to create characters that are not cute. But in America, many characters tend to have “contemporary” looks. I hear that kawaii first caught on overseas in France, where a group of Japanese were at a party and when they saw a Kitty-chan product, they shouted “kawaii.” So people (in France) saw that and mistakenly thought that Japanese tend to shout “kawaii” when they are emotionally touched. That’s how kawaii became a boom. Then the kawaii boom moved to London. Later, two or three years ago, the boom finally reached America, where people thought, without really understanding the meaning of kawaii, that you must say “kawaii” when you are happy. That’s why, at Yankee Stadium in New York, when (Yankees’ outfielder) Hideki Matsui hits a home run, runs past the first, second and third bases and finally approaches the home base, spectators shout: “Kawaii! Kawaii!”
So do you think a lot of people don’t know what kawaii means?
No (laughs). But kawaii refers to gestures as well, and such kawaii qualities seem to be appealing to adult actresses and fashion models in America.
American characters — such as those from Sesame Street and the Pink Panther — are more contemporary. We at Sanrio have four different types of designs. We use “formal” designs for landscapes and such. The second type of design is “cute,” which features red, white, pink and orange, creating a warm feel. Then we have “humorous,” which tends to feature blue, and has a sporty and intriguing image. The last one is “contemporary,” which features black and white and purple. We mix these different elements in our designs, but have ended up mostly with the cute design. We have created a total of 450 characters so far, but only about five of them have survived.
It sounds very difficult to have a long-lasting character.
Yes. Plus, the characters won’t grow without Puroland, though Puroland only makes about ¥100 million a year, because it places too much emphasis on entertainment.
Changing the subject, you are very active despite now being 80. What keeps you so healthy?
Nothing special. I eat anything. But I have high blood pressure, so I take a lot of drugs to lower it. I have a health screening every month.
What’s your typical day like? When do you start work?
Well, we have 150 stores that we own. Then we have 150 outlets in department stores. Then we have another 40 in supermarkets. We do relatively well overseas, but our domestic sales are struggling. Our domestic sales are helped by foreign visitors, who buy Kitty goods as omiyage (souvenirs), and grandparents who are retired and receive a steady pension income. These elderly people are stingy to their sons and daughters, but they splurge on their grandchildren (laughs). So grandpa, grandma and foreigners have been saving Sanrio.
Anyway, I directly receive daily reports from each of the 40 most important stores (out of these 340 outlets) via e-mail. The e-mails start coming in at around 9 p.m., and through 11:30 p.m. They contain the stores’ sales figures for that day compared with the same day last year — and information such as whether they had any special customers, and whether they have met their daily targets or not. They come from all over, from Hokkaido to Kyushu. I look at all the e-mails, and reply to them, though I can’t touch-type (laughs). Sales people also e-mail me, so the e-mails come until 2 a.m. or so. I take a bath after all that, which means I can’t go to bed until at around 4 a.m. At 9 a.m., stock markets open, so I get briefed on the economic situation and Sanrio’s stock prices, have breakfast at about 10:30 a.m., and then come to work around noon.
Sounds like you have a long working night.
Yes. And on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I make it a habit to go to Puroland. People say I shouldn’t drive, but I do. I have about 140,000 kms racked up on my car. The meters have started to get broken, so it’s dangerous (laughs). Plus I’m a speed maniac (grin).
So you rest on Sundays only. What do you do on your day off?
I service my family (laughs). I accompany my wife doing shopping and all that. At night, I play pachinko, because my grandson likes playing pachinko.
Do you really go to pachinko parlors?
Yes. Do you know pachinko? It’s a good stress release. My grandson, who attends Keio University, is a pachinko maniac. He needs money to play pachinko, so I go with him. I don’t want him to be involved in anything dangerous, so I guess it’s OK to go playing pachinko with him.
You say your business is about social communication. Do you have many friends?
Yes. I have a friend I’ve known for 74 years! I meet him every month, and he serves as our auditor.
What’s the secret of true friendship?
Try not to do something that your friend does not want you to do. And don’t loan or borrow money between friends.
When money is involved, friendships tend to get ruined. Even among brothers and sisters, there is a lot of bickering over money. Most often, they fight over inheritance money.
A friend of mine is still fighting with his siblings, long after their father’s death. When his wealthy father died, my friend got real estate as an inheritance, while his siblings all received stocks and other financial assets worth the same amount as the value of the real estate. Then the land value soared. The siblings started demanding that my friend sell the land as soon as possible and divide the difference in value among them.
That sounds quite tough. Maybe you can’t resolve such problems with Hello Kitty gifts (laughs).
Yeah (laughs). Human relationships are very difficult. The key is perseverance and self-sacrifice. To live calmly, you must suffer. I’m lucky because I can write away (the stresses) by writing fiction at night. If you have one passion like that, it helps, I think.