Thursday, August 04, 2011

The habit of fandom - August Yomiuri column

SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Cultivating the habit of fandom

The scene beneath my floor-to-ceiling hotel windows was epic: A parade of multicolored costumed revelers coursed across an elevated walkway in the midmorning sun, some arm-in-arm, others wielding makeshift swords and other fake weaponry, most with an obvious skip in their step.

The temperature was above 38 C, the humidity numbing, and I watched with awe and a little trepidation. They were American otaku, cosplayers, anime fans and gamers, and they were headed to the Promised Land--in this case, the cavernous Baltimore Convention Center, host of the East Coast's largest anime convention, Otakon--and they were about 31,000 strong. Soon I would be joining them.

As a guest speaker, I have now attended several anime conventions on the East and West coasts of the United States, but each time I am taken aback by the number and variety of the attendees. They are primarily young, to be sure, most appearing to be in their teens and 20s, with a backdrop of middle-aged and older folks donning civilian wear. But they are nearly equal parts Caucasian, African-American, Latino and Asian, and females now seem to outnumber fanboys. There are so many of them, and they are so excited.

Host cities benefit big-time from the cons in otherwise cash-strapped times. A local newspaper reported last weekend that Otakon brings an estimated 11.3 million dollars annually into the city of Baltimore. As I wrote in this column two months ago, the organizers of Sakuracon in Seattle calculate their contribution to that city's economy totaled 50 million dollars from 2006 to 2010.

Even so, anime and other pop culture industry skeptics point to less-than-stellar on-site sales as reasons to forgo paying for booths on the so-called dealers' floor (an unfortunate moniker that makes it sound like a narcotics den). But this seems short-sighted to me.

A majority of attendees may be mainly focused on camaraderie, celebration and showing off, but their passion is rooted in the media that first attracted them to the community. As they age, of course, they will likely have less time and more money. Attending a con may be impractical for them later in life, but the media will still be collectible.

In this regard, the example of the music business is instructive. Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records--which no longer exists in brick-and-mortar form in its native United States--has been quoted as saying the recording industry killed record stores by pricing younger customers out of the market, introducing high-priced CDs without cheaper alternatives, such as singles. An entire generation of music fans thus never developed the habit of visiting record stores. They found Napster, and later iTunes, and they never went back.

Fostering the habit of physical attendance, the habit of cultivating and participating in a like-minded community, strikes me as a shrewd long-term strategy amid revolutions in media and technology.

To that end, the folks at New People, the multistory J-Pop shopping and entertainment complex launched in San Francisco's Japantown in 2009, are about to host their third annual J-Pop Summit Festival on Aug. 27 and 28. New People, the brainchild of VIZ Media founder Seiji Horibuchi, takes a broader approach to the Japanese pop phenomenon, yoking together film, fashion, art, design and original retail outlets, in addition to manga and anime.

"[The J-Pop Summit] is basically a street festival now," New People's Takeshi Yoshida explained to me at a recent meeting in Tokyo. "The [New People] building gives us a platform for the concept, which is to bring together people who have a new way of thinking. Japanese pop culture is a part of that, of course, but it's also a broader vision. Like Japan itself, it's about studying other cultures and creating something different, something fresh, from them."

As an example of the concept, Yoshida cites the burgeoning worldwide lust for fashionable denim from Okayama Prefecture--hardly a predictable source for high-end jeans.

"The people in Okayama bought the denim machines from the U.S. and produced something fresh. It's this way of thinking we seek to celebrate."

New People's two-day J-Pop Summit already boasts impressive numbers: 30,000 attendees in 2009, then 40,000 last year and an anticipated 50,000 to 60,000 later this month. But Horibuchi's ultimate goal, Yoshida says, is to one day beat the annual Japan Expo in Paris, which last month brought together an estimated 200,000 fans of Japanese pop culture, outpacing even the United States' largest convention, Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

Cultivating community by gathering fans seems like a habit worth forming.

Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (, now updated and out in paperback.

(Aug. 5, 2011)


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