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9 Lives And Counting: Hello Kitty Turns 40

A Hello Kitty balloon floats down Broadway during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York in 2008.
Jeff Christensen AP
A Hello Kitty balloon floats down Broadway during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York in 2008.

Nurses check on the newborns in the Hello Kitty-designed maternity ward at the Hau Sheng Hospital in Taiwan in 2009.
Wally Santana AP
Nurses check on the newborns in the Hello Kitty-designed maternity ward at the Hau Sheng Hospital in Taiwan in 2009.

A Sanrio employee displays a Hello Kitty designed toaster celebrating Hello Kitty's 30th birthday in 2004.
Yoshikazu Tsuno AFP/Getty Images
A Sanrio employee displays a Hello Kitty designed toaster celebrating Hello Kitty's 30th birthday in 2004.

Hello Kitty is portrayed in flowers at an annual tulip festival in western Japan in 2005.
Jiji Press AFP/Getty Images
Hello Kitty is portrayed in flowers at an annual tulip festival in western Japan in 2005.

Jamie Ng (left) and Horlick Ng pose with Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel at Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway during a "Hello Kitty Dream Wedding" in Hong Kong in 2007.
Mike Clarke AFP/Getty Images
Jamie Ng (left) and Horlick Ng pose with Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel at Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway during a "Hello Kitty Dream Wedding" in Hong Kong in 2007.

A nail artist shows off her Hello Kitty nails during the Tokyo Nail Expo in 2009.
Junko Kimura Getty Images
A nail artist shows off her Hello Kitty nails during the Tokyo Nail Expo in 2009.

A Hello Kitty Jewel doll studded with 19,636 crystals is displayed at Swarovski's Hello Kitty collection in Tokyo in 2011.
Yoshikazu Tsuno Getty Images
A Hello Kitty Jewel doll studded with 19,636 crystals is displayed at Swarovski's Hello Kitty collection in Tokyo in 2011.

Hello Kitty throws out the first pitch before a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 2011.
Stephen Dunn Getty Images
Hello Kitty throws out the first pitch before a game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles in 2011.

Sweet Kitty by Osamu Watanabe, 2014, decorations on fibre-reinforced plastic
Japanese American National Museum
Sweet Kitty by Osamu Watanabe, 2014, decorations on fibre-reinforced plastic

Much Loved Kitty by Mark Nixon, 2014
Japanese American National Museum
Much Loved Kitty by Mark Nixon, 2014

Eat Cakes, You Kitty by Brandi Milne, 2014, acrylic on wood
Japanese American National Museum
Eat Cakes, You Kitty by Brandi Milne, 2014, acrylic on wood

Hi Kitty by Audrey Kawasaki, 2014, oil and graphite on wood
Japanese American National Museum
Hi Kitty by Audrey Kawasaki, 2014, oil and graphite on wood

Play Date by Gary Baseman, 2014, acrylic on wood
Japanese American National Museum
Play Date by Gary Baseman, 2014, acrylic on wood

Hello Kitty x Lady Gaga Plush Dress, 2009
Markus + Indrani, styled by GK Reid
Hello Kitty x Lady Gaga Plush Dress, 2009

Hello Kitty Robot, 2004
Japanese American National Museum
Hello Kitty Robot, 2004

Hello Kitty Vintage Phone, 1976
Japanese American National Museum
Hello Kitty Vintage Phone, 1976

Nurses check on newborns in the Hello Kitty-designed maternity ward at the Hau Sheng Hospital in Taiwan in 2009.
Wally Santana AP
Nurses check on newborns in the Hello Kitty-designed maternity ward at the Hau Sheng Hospital in Taiwan in 2009.

Hello Kitty got her start 40 years ago, in 1974. A plush doll from 1976 shows her in her early years.
Japanese American National Museum
Hello Kitty got her start 40 years ago, in 1974. A plush doll from 1976 shows her in her early years.

Simone Legno's 2014 sculpture Kittypatra is on display at the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.
Japanese American National Museum
Simone Legno's 2014 sculpture Kittypatra is on display at the Hello Kitty exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Hello Kitty is celebrating a big birthday this year. In the time since the first simple coin purse was sold in Japan back in 1974, Hello Kitty has become a multi-billion dollar empire — $8 billion worth of products bearing her image sold internationally in 2013. The Japanese company that created the cartoon cat now oversees the production of products ranging from backpacks to lunchboxes to picture books.

A carefully curated survey of goods from the last four decades — as well as Hello Kitty-inspired art — make up a Hello Kitty retrospective at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

"I'm on cuteness overload right now, says Hello Kitty clad museum-goer Julia Boyd (who had just seen Hello Kitty toilet paper for the very first time).

Lots of the women here say Hello Kitty conjures up fond childhood memories of happiness and cheer that they cling to today. But Hello Kitty isn't just about nostalgia; she has also played a serious role as an ambassador.

"We have to think back to a period of time when things that were culturally Japanese were not cool — in fact, when there was a lot of anti-Japanese and anti-Asian sentiment," says Greg Kimura, director of the Japanese American National Museum. "... When Hello Kitty entered the scene, she was immediately adopted by young girls because they sensed in her this connection to Japanese and Asian cultural idiom."

Growing up in Southern California, Kristin Yamuchi was one of those girls. Today, she's enchanted by the Hello Kitty-inspired artworks on display. Standing beside a 12-foot-tall statue by depicting Hello Kitty as Cleopatra, she's in awe. When asked what she could take home from the exhibit if she could she replied: "Oh my gosh, everything, let's be real."

These enthusiasts don't anticipate their Hello Kitty appreciation will wane in the next 40 years, either.

"I really want the Hello Kitty tombstone for when I eventually depart this earth," says Boyd. "That would sum me up so perfectly. Even when I'm 80 years old, I'm going to like this stuff."

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