Japan has exported hundreds of things and ideas — from haiku to Hondas, swordsmanship to sashimi — of which it can be proud. Hello Kitty, the expressionless icon celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is another story.

The bland but cuddly cat has earned billions for its creator, Sanrio Co., sustaining commercial success without peer in its market niche. Lately, Kitty has also cultivated a more high-minded profile. Earlier this year, it — she? — was named a UNICEF “special friend of children” to help raise funds for girls’ education programs. Sanrio has said it will use the cat’s popularity to educate fans about gender-based discrimination.

But there are other facets to this rosy picture. As a cultural ambassador, Kitty presents Japan as the ultimate kingdom of kitsch. As for the goodwill missions, someone needs to explain how a cat with no mouth can be a spokesperson for anything — especially girls’ education — and how an image that embodies female submissiveness is supposed to help banish gender-based stereotypes. Kitty is soft and pliable, doesn’t speak and sports a cute bow on her head: There’s your role model, girls!

The issue of Hello Kitty’s potential to embarrass Japan abroad got another twist this month with MasterCard’s announcement that the cat will adorn a new debit card, which a U.S. Sanrio executive said would target American girls aged 10 to 14. The card, offering “Freedom to shop ’til you drop!” according to its hot-pink Web site, has already sparked controversy in the United States. While Sanrio and MasterCard are promoting it as a way to teach children to manage their finances, some parents, educators and consumer advocates say they deplore the use of such an innocent-looking cultural icon to lure children to “spend, spend, spend, buy, buy, buy.”

The step certainly complicates poor, inarticulate Kitty’s image: Imagine trying to be a UNICEF ambassador and a capitalist tool at the same time. Even for a toy famous for being something to everyone, this could prove one contradiction too many.

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