Image: Hello Kitty
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
Kimono-clad Hello Kitty holds her certificate received from Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Tetsuzo Fuyushiba, left, at his office in Tokyo on Monday. Fuyushiba appointed the popular cartoon character as ambassador to welcome tourists from China and Hong Kong.
updated 5/19/2008 10:45:41 AM ET 2008-05-19T14:45:41

Hello Kitty — Japan's ubiquitous ambassador of cute — has built up an impressive resume over the years. Global marketing phenom. Fashion diva. Pop culture icon. Now the moonfaced feline can add "government envoy" to the list. The tourism ministry on Monday named Hello Kitty as its choice to represent the country in China and Hong Kong, two places where she is wildly popular among kids and young women.

Officials hope that tapping into that fan base will lead to a bigger flow of tourists into Japan, and closer toward their goal of attracting 10 million overseas visitors every year under the "Visit Japan" campaign.

Last year the number of foreign tourists traveling to Japan hit a record high of 8.35 million, up 60 percent since the government began the marketing effort in 2003.

Arrivals from China and Hong Kong, who accounted for 16.5 percent of visitors to Japan last year, are poised this year to become the second-largest group of tourists after South Koreans.

At a press conference, Sanrio Co. President Shintaro Tsuji called Hello Kitty's new appointment "an honor" and pledged to "work hard to attract many visitors."

Japan's other goodwill tourism ambassadors include Korean singer Younha, Japanese actress Yoshino Kimura and Japanese pop/rock duo Puffy AmiYumi.

Although this is the first time the tourism ministry has tapped a fictional character for the role, the foreign ministry in March inaugurated blue robo-cat Doraemon as Japan's "anime ambassador."

Designed in 1974 by Sanrio, Hello Kitty first appeared on a plastic coin purse. Her image today has become one of the most powerful brands in the world, adorning some 50,000 products in 60 countries.

In China, Kitty-fever has already broken out.

A multi-million-dollar musical featuring Hello Kitty opened earlier this year in Beijing and is in the midst of a national tour. "Hello Kitty's Dream Light Fantasy" is then scheduled to travel to Malaysia, Singapore and the U.S. over its three-year run.

According to her official profile from Sanrio, Hello Kitty lives with her family in London. It does not mention how often she visits Japan.

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