Thirty-nine years ago in Japan, Hello Kitty, the global emissary of cuteness, made her public debut. She appeared on a plastic coin purse priced at 240 yen, or about 80 cents.

She had been invented the previous year, in 1974, by the Sanrio company. "According to our own research, the most popular animal character was a dog, then a white cat, and the third one was a bear," recalled Shintaro Tsuji, Sanrio's founder and CEO. "Snoopy already existed as a dog character—that's why we went for the second most popular character. We asked the artists to design a character based on a white cat."

Tsuji would eventually become a billionaire, thanks to the reach of Sanrio's "three concepts of friendship, cuteness and thoughtfulness." These qualities Hello Kitty has embodied for four decades; there are now more than 400 lesser Sanrio characters alongside her, including Bad Badtz-Maru, Keroppi, Tuxedo Sam, and my own favorite from back in the '80s, the lazy little pig called Zashikibuta.

Japan was much on the American mind in the late 1970s and early '80s. Its economy was the envy of the world: Its auto industry was exploding, likewise the memory chip industry, and each day tens of millions of cassette tapes were clicking snugly into their Sony Walkmen. American companies began to emulate Japanese management techniques. The infatuation spread over the culture: A taste for green tea, raw fish, edamame, and wasabi would soon become very nearly as American as apple pie.

The elegant outer-space soap opera Super Dimension Fortress Macross blew the mind of every red-blooded American dork. Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake and Rei Kawakubo were making entirely new, beautiful, dramatic things to wear that seemed far more refined, to a certain sensibility, than anything coming out of Italy, England or France, let alone the US: simultaneously more austere and subtler, yet wilder in imagination. In 1983 Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra collaborated with Japan's David Sylvian on "Forbidden Colours." This was the theme song from the film Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, starring the gloriously handsome Sakamoto alongside David Bowie, then too at the height of his beauty.

The craftsmanship in all of these things was superb. Transcendental, even, with their limitless perfectionism, their eye to the most delicate minutiae. Many young American designers and artists felt, as I did then, that Tokyo was the epicenter of all elegance. Those of us who lived in downtown Los Angeles shopped at Yaohan in Little Tokyo, goggled at the ruinously expensive books and magazines at the Kinokuniya in the New Otani Hotel, bought vintage paper goods at Little Tokyo Art and Gift, and dined at the (relatively affordable) Suehiro Cafe, where we tried to learn how not to make a mess of eating sushi. We learned something of Japanese visual history and cinema, about woodblock prints and "the floating world", and maybe even read Sei Shōnagon (who, I believe, wrote the world's first listicles, in the eleventh century).

It was in this atmosphere that Hello Kitty influence took hold and grew. Sanrio's designs from this period were (and are) entirely delightful, from the gaiety and subtlety of their palettes to their unexpectedly clever and perfectionistic functionality, their slightly unhinged approach to English composition, and the sense of aimless play, of friendliness and pleasantness, in which these beautiful and funny little characters greeted the world.

[Collection of the author]

Even so, they're things you can buy in a shop, and it is super-odd to see things that you can buy (or once bought) in a shop on display in a museum—for example the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo, which is where last week I saw the Hello Kitty Weekly Memo pad I bought decades ago, in a lucite case.

[Collection of the author]

[Collection of the author]

Where does all this leave the museum gift shoppe, one wonders.

Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty is part of Hello Kitty's 40th anniversary celebration in Los Angeles, to be followed by the first Hello Kitty Con at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, and a Hello Kitty 40th birthday party to be held at the Line Hotel in Koreatown.

Fittingly, the JANM museum exhibit is divided into two parts: one part commerce and one part art. The product part of the exhibit was curated by anthropologist Christine Yano, author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific (Duke University Press, 2013); the art exhibit upstairs was curated by Jamie Rivadeneira, owner of the retail shop JapanLA. (Rivadeneira also curated the Hello Kitty pop-up exhibit at Royal/T, Culver City's late, lamented tea shop/gallery, five years ago.)

Rivadeneira commissioned dozens of original works from artists known and unknown for the exhibit. There's a submarine designed by Paul Frank, and a big shocking-pink Gary Baseman painting; both of these artists, long and visibly influenced by Sanrio, now returning their contributions to the source.

The whole exhibition is quite fun. Jamie Rivadeneira, the "commercial" retailer/curator, appears to have a far better grasp of what Hello Kitty is about than does the scholar/curator Yano, though the sheer volume of product on display will give the student of popular culture, as well as the Sanrio lover, much to admire and consider throughout the exhibit.

When I met her Rivadeneira was wearing a black and white dress printed with images of Kittypatra, the 12-foot fiberglass sculpture of Hello Kitty as Cleopatra that appears in the exhibit. Rivadeneira sells the dress at her shop, and Sanrio carries it as well. The blurring of the lines between commercial and museum work in this exhibition gets eye-crossing. Yet Rivadeneira herself so clearly knows and loves Hello Kitty's strange allure that it becomes difficult to say exactly what the problem with that overlap is.

I asked her to tell me about her feelings about the relationship between art and commerce.

"The message of Hello Kitty is so positive, such a big part of Japan, that it makes sense to educate people, like: Hey, this is why there are so many Hello Kitty fans: it's more than just consumerism? It's a message and a feeling and like, a love for something that people experienced as a child, and can give to their children, so I feel like it's more of a special message."

Much as I would like to argue with that, I can't.

Yano's book, Pink Globalization, is terrible, unfortunately. She attempts to maintain a decorous intellectual distance from her "lowbrow" subject matter, an approach that proves fatal to the book's intelligibility; sympathy and identification have been traded away for a boatload of jargon. There is talk of "unabashed commodity fetishism in its classic Marxist formulation" and people raise "skeptical Adorno-arched eyebrows of disbelief" in there.

The root of the problem is that Yano shows real contempt for the people and things she's trying to describe and explain.

Here's one example among many, regarding the transcripts of interviews Yano conducted with Hello Kitty superfans that appear in the book:

Some readers may feel that the fan interviews I quote here represent an overload of sentiment, a barrage of capitalist frenzy, a besotted attachment to a commodity. Without apology, I agree, and suggest that these readers skip over the interviews themselves and head to the conclusions I draw from them at the end of the chapter... Most fans I spoke with concur that their desire for such feline acquisition goes far beyond rational explanation into the realm of insatiable hunger.

Just to be clear: Here is a book that says, in the book, "Don't read what is written in here! Skip to the good parts, which are my opinions."

But the most disastrous (and most comical) gaffe in Pink Globalization is the author's horrified discovery of a "site of fervent anti-Kitty sentiment" that "speaks in dead seriousness—the Christian right." Internet aficionados will be surprised to learn that Yano is here speaking of the Christian moralists of the Landover Baptist Church, the well-known satirical website (" Hello Kitty - Satanic Jap Hate-Cult Exposed!"). "Dead serious" is the one thing that those Landover Baptists are giantly not.

Hello Kitty is a character who does not inhabit narrative, only product. That is in sharp contrast to Snoopy or Bugs Bunny, personalities with particular attributes. The way Snoopy dances with his nose up in the air when he's overjoyed, his tenderness toward Woodstock, his determination and imaginativeness—all are fixed characteristics that add up to something like a "person." And Bugs is very nearly the archetype of the ideal American: brave, optimistic, funny, wisecracking, kind. Endlessly resourceful, full of cheek and vim.

By contrast, Hello Kitty is a cipher. Her personality consists simply in friendliness, prettiness, gentleness. She has a backstory, mind you: a family, including a twin sister Mimmy, a pie-baking Mama, and Papa and grandparents, and even a boyfriend, Dear Daniel (they get married once in a while, like Barbie and Ken). This is in part because the merchandise is the context; the Hello Kitty merchandise came first, much of it in the form of toys. And because toys are to play with, they are partly empty vessels for you to fill with your own ideas, stories, desires. That's why it's relatively difficult to describe the personalities of Barbie or Bratz dolls. They can be anything you like.

But something happened to Hello Kitty after her simple introduction. Aiming for a plain lowest-common-denominator appeal, the Sanrio designers—unconsciously, it seems—had tapped into a richly evocative, concentrated image of total unforced cuteness and prettiness. Hello Kitty became not a personality, but a sort of avatar; an extension of what you might like to project about yourself. She came to be something not only to play with, but to wear.

And wearing Hello Kitty has always, since all the way back in the '80s, sent a particular message. Or several messages, rather. One is an inward message, from the wearer to herself, a totemic message of sweetness and comfort. Wearing Hello Kitty makes one feel kind of safe in a childlike way: nothing can hurt or scare you when you have your Hello Kitty watch on, or your keyring or your cute socks.

To the outside world, wearing Hello Kitty shows that you like cute things (like: yes, I am very cool, or very rich, or very sardonic, or very goth, whatever but STILL I love cute things, so!). There is a great appeal, too, for fans in signaling their love of Hello Kitty to each other. One of the superfans interviewed by Yano put it this way:

"[S]ometimes you just kinda look around at the [Sanrio] clientele... and I'm like, 'Oh my god, they're like me!' Like the girls in there, you can tell we like the same things outside of Kitty... Tiffany and Co. seems to be really in with Kitty people, with Sanrio people. And designer bags like Coach or Louis Vuitton, that kinda thing, Prada... Like, I like Lilly Pulitzer clothes 'cause they're bright and pink, and I see a lot of people [at the Sanrio store] with this same thing that I like. Or like, Juicy bags, Juicy Couture is very pink and feminine, and so it's just weird."

(I'll say! But also: YEAH.)

Yano asked her: "If you were to describe your type of people or this type of people, besides pink and feminine, are there any other adjectives that you could think of that could sort of get at that?"

"I think you can't be an unhappy person and like Sanrio," she replied. "'Cause I don't think people who aren't happy with themselves and happy with life would like it. It's bigger than the Kitty; it's something about the way you are. It's not just about Kitty, it's about being able to get what you like in life and be happy with it."

When Greg Kimura took the helm of the Japanese American National Museum in 2012, the institution was running a $500,000 deficit. "We’re going to have to do more broad, innovative, bold, sexy programming to get people in," he said. And Kimura has been as good as his word; his exhibitions so far have featured the Dodgers baseball team, the history of tattoos, and depictions of Asian Americans in U.S. comics, as well as what might be reckoned more predictable exhibits, such as an examination of Nisei soldiers in the Second World War. The public has responded very favorably to this populist approach, by all accounts; there's already enormous buzz around the Hello Kitty show, at 20 bucks a pop.

Kimura is elegant, dark-haired, not too tall, wearing a dark suit, a blinding white shirt and a gorgeous (and very obviously Japanese) patterned tie. He is a native of Alaska, and a yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese-American, who holds a degree in theology from Harvard and a doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University.

I got a chance to talk with him during a pre-exhibition press event in the exhibit hall—a spacious, high-ceilinged, warmly lit space expertly transformed into a tidy, pink Sanrio palace by designer Sam Mellon, who has managed to create a calm, refreshing experience from what must have begun as the chaos of thousands of brightly colored, pretty things. There are countless lucite cases, displays both vertical and horizontal containing tiny figures, buttons, candies, barrettes or jewels. There is a huge wall display of dozens of Hello Kitty backpacks. A series of red bows on the floor leads you into rooms containing paintings or cuddly toys, or dresses, or Swarovski-encrusted minaudieres. The experience reminded me a little of visiting the Victoria and Albert museum in London, which is likewise brimming with stuff everywhere. Here though, it's the produce of an empire, rather than its plunder.

The atmosphere around Greg Kimura was rather giddy, in part because of the beautiful and weird setting, and in part because many members of the press in attendance (a packed crowd, representing everyone from MTV to NPR to Xinhua to Agence France-Presse) so obviously were, or had been, Sanrio fans themselves, like me. That made the experience weirdly familiar for many, I think, evoking nostalgia along with delight and surprise. One supercute blogger even wore a red Hello Kitty bow in her hair.

I started by asking Kimura the obvious question: how is a deal like this made? Here is a museum exhibition of goods manufactured by the exhibition's sponsor. Who pays whom; is there a revshare deal?

There's a bright line of separation between Sanrio and what the museum does. We are here to tell a story. But it's not as though we are recreating the wheel... there was the Armani show, there was the Harley-Davidson show [at the Guggenheim]. But I was most influenced in my thinking about this show when my wife dragged me kicking and screaming three years ago to the Met, to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit. Now, I am not a fan of fashion; when we went there were lines wrapped around the building outside, and we became members of the Met so that we could wait in the VIP member line, and it still took us an hour to get in. But I was really glad that I went to it, because I learned something.

I'd always pooh-poohed fashion as an art form, I'm much more into fine art or even contemporary or pop art. But I was able to see the connection between fashion, the art world, modeling, portraiture—it was all this very interesting sort of mix. And beautifully done: the exhibit itself was a piece of art. I was heavily influenced by that exhibit, and thought, what could we do here that would be something of an analog to that?

So when the opportunity came along for us to partner [with Sanrio], it was a no-brainer.... But we have to maintain the integrity the museum as an institution, in our disinterested and dispassionate position as a curator of aesthetic and cultural things.

We talked a bit about the hysteria that had arisen in September around reports of Sanrio's sensational claim that Hello Kitty is not a cat. "This is a token of how closely connected people are emotionally to Hello Kitty... this exhibit doesn't try to answer that question; we don't want to. We want people to tell us who she is."

She's a kitty!

"She is! Okay. My five-year-old daughter tells me she's maneki-neko, and I never argue with my five-year-old daughter."

He continued: "I was talking with a colleague of mine who is the head of a religion department in Los Angeles: is Hello Kitty a cat? And she said, it raises these questions: Is it the inventor or creator who gives something meaning, or the interpreter? It raises all these hermeneutical philosophical sort of questions. So she's starting to use Hello Kitty as an example of this in her scriptural interpretation classes."

A lot of people discussing Hello Kitty, in Yano's book and elsewhere, struggle to define the idea of "cute", which is widely agreed to be Hello Kitty's central characteristic. For me, a cute person or a dress, a character or object, or toy or a puppy or kitten, has an immediate appeal that asks nothing in return. It is happy, sweet, it somehow exists in this dark world, unsullied, disinterestedly lovely, and fun, and it will be that way with or without you. Just something lovely, that is it, doesn't know it, isn't smirking with self-satisfaction, doesn't want to sleep with you or extract your credit card number.

It's literally harmless. When in fact harmless is the very best thing we can be. Very hard to be it! That should go without saying, but it does not. That quality is serious and rare and legitimately precious. It also makes certain people go a little crazy, like the ultra-fanatical Hello Kitty collectors Yano interviewed in her book who spend hundreds or thousands every month on Hello Kitty things.

Maybe that's not so surprising, because you can sense at some deep, disquieting level that it would be possible for the world to be beautiful and simple, for there to be peace. But it's not; there's not. So maybe it's simply a matter of pushing the button over and over, to feel that peaceful sensation again.

Yano quotes Sanrio creative manager Dan Peters on what Hello Kitty means: "all things cute, innocent, and the wonderment of life." This is what Hello Kitty from her earliest incarnation has represented: the simplest kind of prettiness, delivered in absolutely the gentlest, nicest way.

Beauty, real beauty, creates a sense of awe, a heart-contraction, that may coexist with terror or tragedy. But cuteness is as thoughtlessly safe as it is thoughtlessly lovely: fragile, it vanishes instantly with the merest breath of fear, discomfort or unhappiness.

Here, perhaps, is part of the reason why Hello Kitty is one of the cutest and most appealing characters ever invented. So simple, so pretty! All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain why she is ordinarily depicted as having no mouth, but I think it's mainly a signal to the viewer that Hello Kitty asks nothing of us. She doesn't need to. She merely is.

[Top image by Jim Cooke; photographs by Maria Bustillos]