Yuko Yamaguchi – Business ICON!

Noah Weaver

Bibliography – Yuko Yamaguchi


Yuko Yamaguchi was born in Kōchi, Japan on October 24th, 1955. She began seriously drawing in the later part of her high school years, where she won a local art competition with a poster she made containing a cute pink character. She later studied Industrial Design at Joshibi University of Art and Design. In 1978, shortly after she graduated from Joshibi, Yamaguchi joined the Sanrio design team.

Sanrio is a Japanese-based design company that produces a wide variety of products ranging from stationary, clothes, greeting cards, luxury cars and other works. This billion dollar company centers it’s products around featuring characters that the company has created. Characters such as Keroppi, Badtz-Maru, Gudemtama, My Melody, and most important of all, Hello Kitty grace the gifts. “Hello Kitty represents some 5,000 of the 15,000 available Sanrio products… and about half of Sanrio’s annual sales, which topped ¥139 billion (US$1.2 billion) in 2000” (Sanrio Company, Ltd). 

Despite all the kitty success today, there was once a point when Sanrio designers thought Hello Kitty might be discontinued. “At the end of the  ‘70s, Hello Kitty wasn’t selling much, and Sanrio’s biggest sellers were the Little Twin Stars (Kiki and Lala)” (Sakurai, Kohji). During that period, when Yamaguchi had just joined the Sanrio team, she was working on “non-character” designs, such as logos and heart patterns. The second Hello Kitty head designer had just quit, and despite the kitty’s past years of fame it seemed like her time was up. It was then that Sanrio created a in-house contest to find the next Hello Kitty designer, and Yamaguchi’s name was put on that list.

Yamaguchi, at the time, wasn’t the biggest fan of Hello Kitty. She accredits this to why she was able to eventually succeed with the character. She was able to subjectively look at the “product” without being emotionally attached in any way, making her critiques much more effective. When she looked subjectively at the character of Hello Kitty she found that the general concept of Kitty was that she was based upon being the “symbol of friendship” and that she dreamed of becoming a pianist. Yamaguchi looked at the previous works done with Hello Kitty and found that despite this being her backstory, there were no pictures of her with a piano. Yamaguchi then created an image of kitty gingerly touching her new piano with her family all around her. This story and image won the hearts of the company heads, and Yamaguchi was promoted to be the company’s third head Hello Kitty designer.

What Yamaguchi did to earn her the position of head Hello Kitty designer is what propelled the success of Hello Kitty. It wasn’t drawing Kitty with a piano, it was creating a narrative around her piano, around Kitty first witnessing and experiencing the piano, and the emotions of her family involved. Yamaguchi realized she had to become friends with Kitty, and get to know her, to be able to write her stories. She created a relationship with Kitty and treated her like a friend should, and learned her likes and dislikes, reflecting that in the products Sanrio was producing. At the heart of all the products, Yamaguchi made sure to include an underlying narrative. This narrative, without using words, activated the viewers and caused them to interact and think about the image they were viewing. This drew them into Kitty, and caused them to “become friends” with her as well.

Over the next few years Yamaguchi began taking steps to tweak the character and propel her to even higher heights. She took an active role in going to stores selling Hello Kitty products, and asking customers for their opinions on Hello Kitty; what they liked and didn’t like about her. She also talked to store managers/employees and discovered what statistically was popular. Using this collected data, Yamaguchi then began to change the products Hello Kitty was being displayed upon to match the discovered interests. For example, Yamaguchi once thought that Hello Kitty paired with a black belt would be the favored product, but upon talking to multiple store clerks she learned that the pink belt sold 3x more than all other belts (Tuxillaplanet). By getting active with the people who she was selling to, Yamaguchi was able to improve the product of Hello Kitty greatly.

Yamaguchi wanted to expand Kitty’s audience and discover how she could touch Western audiences. She took a trip to America in the early 2000s and studied the American markets, malls, and customer patterns. It was in one of these California shopping malls that she saw the creator of the Julius Monkey, Paul Frank, doing signed autographs, so Yamaguchi figured she’d get in line to wait for one, despite not knowing who the man was. She later discovered who he was and found out he liked Hello Kitty. She then mailed him a letter introducing herself and wondering if he wanted to work together on a project, Frank responded and offered for her to come to Los Angeles. The two worked together and released Paul Frank’s Hello Kitty Collection (Sakurai, Kohji)

This collaboration, or “collab” sparked multiple other collaborations with brands like Kiss, DC comics, Vans, Where’s Waldo, and much much more. Kitty has even collabed with horror film company Sadako. This branching out, allows for Kitty to reach people beyond the standard young-girl group that she’s associated with. It allows for all Hello Kitty enthusiasts who are young, old, male, female to experience and express the joy that Kitty brings them. Yamaguchi guides the helm when it comes to these collabs. She states “When it gets designed, if it’s not cute, it gets cut” (Sakurai, Kohji). Yamaguchi makes sure that Kitty doesn’t lose who she is with these collabs; she has to benefit, otherwise that is just not good business.

When asked about her relationship with Hello Kitty, Yamaguchi states that “In the 1980s, she was my friend, in the ‘90s, she was my alter ego, and since 2000, she has been my business partner” (Sakurai, Kohji). By treating Kitty as a friend, alter ego, and business partner, Yamaguchi was able to analyze the vast possibilities for Hello Kitty, and understand how she’s not just a product but a real friend that people can connect to. These varieties of understanding, alongside how Yamaguchi connected to her customer base, and other designers illustrate her resourcefulness and creativity when it comes to strengthening a brand. It is no small statement to state that without Yamaguchi, the Hello Kitty brand would be nowhere near as popular or successful that it is today.


Works Cited


Tuxillaplanet. “Creative Woman, Yuko Yamaguchi, Kitty 2014 12 30.” Youtube, 9 May 2017, 


A 8. “Asian Brand Biography Sanrio Part 1.” Youtube, 2 May 2009, 


Sakurai, Kohji. “Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [1/2]: Featured News: TOM 

Shop: Figures & Merch From Japan.” Featured News | TOM Shop: Figures & Merch From Japan, 1 Jan. 1964, www.otakumode.com/news/53856f4a935d07d66400069c/Interview-Third-Hello-Kitty-Designer-ko-Yamaguchi-1-2

Sakurai, Kohji. “Interview: Third Hello Kitty Designer Yuko Yamaguchi [2/2]: Featured News: TOM 

Shop: Figures & Merch From Japan.” Featured News | TOM Shop: Figures & Merch From Japan, 1 Jan. 1964, www.otakumode.com/news/5386fbcd676cc1f76400010c/Interview-Third-Hello-Kitty-Designer-Yuko-Yamaguchi-2-2

“Sanrio Company, Ltd. – Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background 

Information on Sanrio Company, Ltd.” Reference for Business, www.referenceforbusiness.com/history2/53/Sanrio-Company-Ltd.html

Sijia, Sonia Yeo. “Hello Kitty’s Lead Designer Tells the Origin Story of the British Schoolgirl.”

TODAYonline, 21 June 2016, www.todayonline.com/lifestyle/hello-kitty-lead-designer-tells-origin-story-british-schoolgirl

Discussion — One Response

  • Katie Butler 03/31/2020 on 4:53 PM

    Noah, your discussion on Yuko Yamaguchi was really interesting to read. Hello Kitty is one of the most universal symbols of pop culture. You see her on notebooks, food, toys, I believe I’ve even seen her face on an airplane.
    It just comes to show that something designed to be cute actually turned out to be one of the most powerful, timeless, and influential cultural titans the modern world has ever seen. When I think of something universal, Hello Kitty achieves any standard I could think of: easily accessible, recognizable, and timeless. I never realized how long ago the legacy of Hello Kitty really began.
    Something interesting to consider: what is your take on brands like Lisa Frank? Do you see the level of range in terms of a recognizable brand? So many of Lisa Frank’s products seem to emulate the cute, recognizable, out of the box traits that Hello Kitty has led for all these years. Do you see a universal audience in the same way that you see it in Hello Kitty’s following? Is there a similar cultural impact carried by her designs?
    Overall, such a fascinating and informational post to read!

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