Hello Kitty founder Shintaro Tsuji steps down as CEO aged 92

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Image shows Shintaro TsujiImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Shintaro Tsuji has been at the helm of Sanrio for more than six decades

The founder of the Japanese company that created Hello Kitty has announced he is stepping down as CEO aged 92.

Shintaro Tsuji said he would hand over control of Sanrio to his 31-year-old grandson, Tomokuni Tsuji.

It marks the first change in leadership in the company's six-decade history.

Hello Kitty, a mouthless cartoon adorned with a trademark hair bow, has generated billions of dollars since its inception almost 50 years ago.

The simple line-drawn image has appeared on merchandise including clothing, toys and stationery. It is targeted mostly at young children, but in recent years it has also proved popular with adults.

Mr Tsuji will formally leave his role on 1 July.

A company at a turning point

Analysis by Celia Hatton, Asia Pacific Editor

Shintaro Tsuji started a gift company in the 1960s and quickly realised that the products featuring "cute" designs were his bestsellers.

That led to the creation of Hello Kitty, who has since become an iconic Japanese character.

But Kitty has competition: sales have been dropping inside Japan for years and Sanrio now depends on its increasingly fragile global business.

So, Mr Tsuji's decision to step aside comes at a turning point for the company.

In Japanese tradition, CEO founders strive to pass on their positions to family members. Mr Tsuji's son died of a heart attack in 2013, and so this is why his grandson is taking over.

Tomokuni Tsuji has already pledged to transform the company and to drop outdated ideas. Let's hope he's not referring to Hello Kitty, who is older than the company's new leader.

Tomokuni Tsuji, who is currently a senior managing director at Sanrio, will become the youngest CEO of a company listed on the Topix share index.

He coincidentally shares a birthday with Hello Kitty on 1 November, according to the AFP news agency. But he is 14 years younger than the character itself.

"I want to transform the company to better respond to today's rapidly changing business environment," he told a press conference on Friday.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Hello Kitty-branded products are sold around the world and its image has even featured on a bullet train
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There is even a Hello Kitty theme park in China

Sanrio, whose business has been declining for several years, has been badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Annual net profits fell by 95% in the 2019/2020 fiscal year, according to figures published on Friday. Sales were also down 6.5 % on the previous year.

Hello Kitty-branded products are sold in 130 countries worldwide, with the range extending from prosecco to plimsolls.

It is also licensed for amusement parks and cafés, while last year a Japanese railway firm splashed the image on its bullet train, painted in pink and white.

Although the brand typifies the Japanese trend for "kawaii" or cuteness, the character itself is identified as British because when she was created in the 1970s British culture was fashionable in Japan.