The culture of cuteness in Japan is well documented, but if you’re looking for a visual representation of what exactly makes the country ‘cute’, look no further than Sanrio.
This Japanese entertainment company was first established in 1962 by a Japanese businessman named Shintaro Tsuji. Initially selling rubber sandals as his main product, Tsuji began adding cute painted cartoon characters onto these sandals and saw his sales increase as a direct result. He was shrewd enough to immediately pick up on the mass appeal of sweet, small, adorable details for the Japanese population – otherwise known as kawaii (which means ‘cute’ or ‘loveable’).
Tsuji decided to focus on creating his own set of characters for Sanrio, and once he began working with a team of his own in-house designers, it didn’t take long for Sanrio to grow hugely in popularity. Nowadays the Sanrio brand is loved worldwide, with a huge range of merchandise and products including school supplies and stationery that feature a charismatic cast of characters, predominantly anthropomorphized animals, and a few objects too. Sanrio items also extend to food, where Japanese snacks can feature a popular Sanrio character on the packaging. There’s even an aesthetic specifically centered around Sanrio itself, known as Sanriocore.
Compiling a list of Sanrio characters could take us a while – there are over four hundred different characters in the Sanrio universe, after all. Some of our favorite Sanrio characters include My Melody, Tuxedo Sam, Kuromi and more! But we’ve gathered up some of the most popular characters here. Let’s meet the key members of the Sanrio gang, and get to know Hello Kitty and friends' names!
List of the Most Popular Sanrio Characters
Sanrio’s most famous character — and arguably the world’s most well-known kawaii cat – is Hello Kitty. She’s been around since her first appearance in 1974, thanks to her artist, Yuko Shimizu, and this character’s white-whiskered cat-like face with a tilted red bow and no mouth to speak of is still instantly recognizable across the world.
Surprisingly enough though, Hello Kitty is not actually a cat! According to her well-documented character profile, her full name is Kitty White – and she’s a British schoolgirl in 3rd grade, which makes her age around eight or nine years old. Along with her twin sister Mimmy and her parents Mary and George, Kitty lives in London and even has her own pet cat named Charmmy Kitty. In 1999, Kitty’s official boyfriend, ‘Dear Daniel’, appeared on the scene: he has the same bobtail-like appearance as Hello Kitty, though he also has a spiky hairstyle and is often depicted wearing a suit jacket.
So why the confusion about Hello Kitty being feline or female? Well, Sanrio has a motto of ‘social communication’ and wanted this to be reflected in the brand name of their new character. There were talks of using ’Hi Kitty’ before ‘Hello’ was landed on – so it’s actually a name of greeting. As for her cat-like appearance? That’s just because she’s a cartoon – we’re not supposed to think she’s a cat!
Because Sanrio focuses on the power of kindness, this is Hello Kitty’s overarching message. In fact, she’s so beloved and respected that she’s been a U.S. children's ambassador for UNICEF since 1983.
Little Twin Stars
This pair of Sanrio’s beloved characters are brother and sister: a boy named Kiki who has short, bright blue hair, along with a girl, Lala, who sports a cloud of long pink hair. Both dress in long white gowns, have bare feet, and are often depicted holding hands as they share a close sibling bond; there are usually stars featured in some capacity too.
First introduced as a duo in 1975, the Little Twin Stars were born on Christmas Eve on Omoiyari Star, also called the Star of Compassion, and are a mystical pair of twins who wondered what life would be like on Earth. Eventually, their Mother-Star and Father-Star granted them permission to travel the long journey to Earth so they could learn how to be the best stars possible.
Keroppi the male frog, with large eyes, pink cheeks, and a V-shaped mouth, arrived on the Sanrio scene in 1988. Keroppi lives with his parents and siblings on an island in Donut Pond and has plenty of other frog friends too.
Keroppi has a sweet, innocent personality that’s firmly established by his wide eyes and a slight smile. There’s no wonder he’s a firm character favorite!
Perhaps the most unexpectedly popular in the list of Sanrio characters is Gudetama, otherwise known as a depressed egg. Pronounced ‘goo-deh-tama’, the name comes from the Japanese for ‘lazy’ and ‘egg’, and that’s pretty much the encapsulation of this character: an anthropomorphized egg yolk that is constantly tired.
Gudetama is one of the newest arrivals to the Sanrio family, arriving on the scene in 2013. Its popularity is apparently due to its relatability. Though we may not all suffer from depression, we all understand the struggle, turmoil, and the idea of being simply too exhausted to do anything!
A female red panda named Retsuko is the star of Aggretsuko, a Netflix original anime series. Resuko, whose name translates to ‘fierce child’ in Japanese, is 25 years old and hates the office job she’s stuck in at the accounting department of a trading company in Tokyo. As a result, she heads straight to a local karaoke joint after work each day and finds catharsis in singing her heart out to death metal songs. This day-to-night transformation even changes her physically too!
Notable Sanrio Products and Treats
So how do all these Sanrio characters actually exist in the real world? Well, there are seemingly an infinite number of Sanrio items for Hello Kitty and her friends to feature on. There was even an update for Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch that allowed players to access digital Sanrio items through Nook Shopping to decorate their islands.
At back-to-school time, the shelves are stocked with Sanrio character backpacks, extensive stationery sets with binders, stickers, notepads, and keychains, and all manner of other school supplies.
Once you’ve started looking for Sanrio, then you’ll suddenly see these kawaii cuties everywhere: as plushies and stuffed animals, on the packaging for candies and sweet treats, and everything from fridge magnets to waffle makers, gold charm bracelets to iPhone cases.
As the brand has grown, there are bigger, more adult-focused Sanrio products available too, like gaming chairs, makeup lines, clothing, and jewelry. There are often collaborations with other brands: memorable Hello Kitty partnerships have taken place with Vans, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Mac lipstick, while assorted Sanrio characters have collaborated with global brands like Doc Martens and Häagen-Dazs.
For Hello Kitty, in particular, the franchising opportunities seem inexhaustible. The first ever Hello Kitty convention was held in Los Angeles to celebrate the character’s 40th anniversary in 2014, which welcomed over 25,000 fans. There’s a themed resort on Japan’s Awaji Island called ‘Hello Kitty Smile’, a Hello Kitty beauty spa in Dubai, a Hello Kitty cafe in Irvine, California, and there’s even a 52-acre Hello Kitty theme park due to open in 2025 in China’s Haitang Bay.
For all things kawaii, Sanrio fans can head to Tokyo’s Sanrio Puroland. This indoor theme park in the west of the city has plenty to entertain its 1.5 million guests each year: there are rides, musical performances, restaurants, gift shops, and character meet-and-greets every day.