Established in 1990, Sanrio’s now 30-year-old theme park Puroland has led the global kawaii culture scene side by side with its parent company for over decades.
In 2019, when their theme park business was facing a downturn, Aya Komaki, 60, became the first female director of Puroland, as well as president and CEO of Sanrio Entertainment. Having successfully reestablished the business in less than two years, it was once again faced with another challenge – the coronavirus pandemic.
Puroland took the lead in the industry to temporarily close its facilities on Feb 22 – a full month prior to the Japanese government’s declaration of the state of emergency.
After closing for almost five full months, the theme park had a pre-opening on July 13 and resumed all facilities the following week, altering its operations to comply with COVID-19 guidelines and protocols.
How did you become the president and CEO of Sanrio Entertainment?
I started working for Sanrio as a new university graduate. After working for about a year, I got married and became a stay-at-home mom for over 10 years. In my 30s, I lost my son in an accident, got treated for cancer, and went through a divorce – all these events really pushed me to become more independent, and encouraged me to go back to working full-time again.
Soon after I started working for a different company, I was called back into Sanrio to work for one of their corporate groups. I was involved in the development of skincare products for adults and explored what it truly meant for a woman to “live beautifully.” At one point, I realized that it wasn’t about the cosmetics, but more about mental health. From there on, I began studying psychology, career counseling, and coaching. In 2008, I launched an internal corporate venture in hopes to provide more mental support for women.
In 2014, I started working for Puroland. By 2019, I was promoted to director of Puroland and the president and CEO of Sanrio Entertainment. There was always a part of me that wanted to support the theme park in some way or another, but I never imagined I would become part of it. In the beginning I was confused, worried, and conflicted – it was like a bolt out of the blue.
Puroland made a full V-shaped recovery within the two years of you becoming the head of the company. What do you think was the primary factor that brought the business back on track?
I believe there are two distinct factors: external and internal.
The external factors were that it was a time when the Japanese “kawaii culture” was shifting its target consumers from children to adults, and more Japanese pop culture was being introduced around the world. Most importantly, social networking services was at its peak, where our own audiences had become our own promoters, too.
The internal factors were that our employees had so many unexpressed ideas and were too shy to say them out loud. What I did was to ask questions like "What do you like about Puroland that makes you want to stay?"which eventually made them feel more confident to express their love for our company. They gradually began to inspire and have more positive conversations with each other.
It was not that I had introduced some type of marketing system, but if I had ever been helpful, it was to create that environment where our employees felt more comfortable to share their thoughts.
How did it feel to have Puroland finally pre-open on July 13 after it had been closed for five months?
It was truly depressing to see it closed for such a long period that it almost made me cry a few times. Puroland without music or lights and no mascots walking around was just very sad. Especially with the absence of our visitors, it was so empty that it almost felt like it wasn’t breathing anymore. Although we still have a few restrictions, I’m extremely happy that we have everything back and it is full of energy again.
Has the pandemic impacted your business policy?
It certainly has. Before the pandemic, our overall performance was doing very well and everyone’s motivation was superb, to a point where we were able to reassure each other that what we had been doing up until now was leading us all in the right direction.
There is a project we had been working on prior to the outbreak, which involved taking our business outside of our closed-space facility. Assuming the numbers of our visitors would continue to increase over the course of the years, we had to find a solution to make it less crowded before it reached its capacity, and we expected it to happen sometime soon. Now we’re having to accelerate the process, as the pandemic brought what we had expected to be “soon” sooner than we had ever anticipated.
Given the circumstances, it is no longer realistic to think a business would continue to do well by solely relying on mobility. Having said that, I think it is necessary to shift toward online and virtual businesses as fast and thoroughly as we can.
What is the ideal way for Puroland to operate in the post-pandemic "new normal?"
Since shifts in consumer behavior are a given, we must think about the different ways in which we can offer our values, especially during this challenging time. We cannot exactly encourage people to move around, and because we have restrictions on the total number of visitors we are admitting per day, to make up to those who don’t have access to our facilities as much as they used to, we are currently in the process of creating new ways to bring Puroland closer to our fans through digitalization. I cannot give out the details yet, but we are also working on a project that involves social activities rooted in the community and supporting women that we are hoping to release in the fall.
Sanrio characters have led the “kawaii culture” for decades. Why do you think they have attracted people from all around the world for so many years?
Actually that is something I have been trying to figure out for myself for many years now. I don’t think it is just about design, and part of it might have to do with Hello Kitty and the world surrounding her. It provides that feeling of comfort; comfort that comes from the idea that it is appreciated across generations, comfort that it is always close to your heart and makes you want to keep it closer – that sense of affinity that is essentially shared by people from all around the world.
Even if we don’t speak each other’s language, our characters have the power to bring people closer. Especially Hello Kitty – I think she has a magic ribbon that allows her to bring people together.
What are your thoughts on “kawaii culture” and how do you think it will progress from here onwards?
It won’t disappear, that is for sure. The culture itself brings nostalgia and an opportunity for people to relive their childhood. It is essential to humanity, as it brings comfort upon people regardless of whether you are female, male, or LGBTQ.
The pandemic has made traveling very difficult, which has impacted our business that heavily relied on inbound marketing. I highly doubt the traveling situation will ever return to how they were before the outbreak, raising the question of whether this will cause pop culture to die out – I think it is rather the opposite. Pop culture and the digital get along very well, so I am hoping that they would essentially help each other to blur borders by allowing us to deliver content faster and to a larger audience. My further take on it is that it will start to speak to people’s sentiments and lifestyles.
Do you personally have a favorite Sanrio character?
I used to say “Wish me mell” because at the time we were trying to promote her, and I wanted our audiences to get to know her better. But the truth is, from Hello Kitty to My Melody to Pom Pom Purin to Cinnamoroll – I love them all. So, my answer to your question is everyone.
Is there anything in particular you keep in mind as a female executive – a combination that is still very rare in Japanese businesses?
I want to keep track of the experiences that made me feel like there was a wall, and I also want to try to do my best to break those walls. Not necessarily for myself, but so that it hopefully helps to improve future work environments for women in the workforce.
I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to have the majority and minority flipped around. Although at the same time, I do not exactly feel I am a minority, at least at our company. In the end, I don’t think gender matters. What is more important is diversity and the flexibility to bring in people that offer different perspectives in order to build a strong team.
Is there anything you wish that the readers knew more about Sanrio?
Many might have the impression that we are a character business company. We do work with characters, but we are not a company that is strictly for characters.
Sanrio’s ideologies are based on the essence of uniting people, which originates to Shintaro Tsuji, the founder of the company, and his experiences of the war. To achieve world peace, we need to get along with each other. To get along with each other, we need to be able to fully express our apologies and gratitude, and having something cute to accompany it with would make it a lot easier. The creation of characters was a result of the company’s philosophy to promote better social communication.
Those legacies and spirits have also been applied onto every project we do at Puroland.
Yukari Tanaka is a freelance writer. Follow her at Twitter: @YukariAT or Instagram: yukariwrites© Japan Today