Wednesday, August 26, 2015

LOOKING EAST / Otakon: Driven by passion for otaku culture

Photo by Takamasa Sakurai
One of many booths featuring U.S. otaku events at Otakon in Baltimore

By Takamasa Sakurai / Special to The Japan NewsFrom July 24 to 26, I was invited to participate in the 22nd Otakon in the United States.
The event, held in Baltimore, is a member of the International Otaku Expo Association (IOEA), for which I serve as executive office director. I attended Otakon in 2010, 2011 and 2013 as well. It is probably the oldest among the otaku events in the country.
A big part of Otakon is how it’s planned and managed by volunteers. Longtime anime and manga fans working in various fields are joined by many young people, showing their respect for the Japanese pop culture that has greatly influenced their identities. The event venue is filled with their love for otaku culture.
Because of that style, Otakon is highly praised by many Japanese guest artists and others who participate in the event, which attracts 30,000 visitors.
Among the hundreds of volunteers for the three-day event, I’ll write about interpreters.
The organizers provided two volunteer interpreters for me and some other IOEA officials. One is an American man who works for a local Japanese company in the character business, the other a Japanese university student who lives in the United States with her parents.
They were both participating in Otakon for the first time, just like the American woman who had been my interpreter for the 2013 event. The assignment was probably part of on-the-job training for these beginners since I’m familiar with the main staff members and the Otakon venue, as well as its neighborhood. The American woman who had worked for me the previous time was interpreting for a Japanese guest musician this time.
I’m very grateful I had interpreters with me all the time at the event venue. I’d say it’s a rare favor at otaku events overseas. I particularly enjoy chatting with them all day long.
Everything looks new when participating in an annual event for the first time — so how do these interpreters feel and react when seeing otaku people and why? These questions are a precious opportunity, since I’m engaged in a lifelong pursuit of cultural diplomacy activities. After I returned home, the interpreters sent me e-mails thanking me and saying they learned a lot. We stimulated each other very much.
I always need something that brings me back to my starting point. For example, many people cosplay at Otakon. It’s nothing surprising for me now, but it wasn’t when I first visited the event. More than 10,000 Americans who love Japan’s anime and try to look like their favorite anime characters come together at this single event with great enthusiasm. I want to recall how I was moved by and thankful for it when I first visited the event and think about the meaning of this phenomenon again.
I felt this year’s cosplaying quality was higher than before. In the past, many cosplayers seemed satisfied with simply dressing as their favorite characters. Today, they can easily see photos and online images of other cosplayers across the world — which probably makes them want to try for even higher quality in their costumes.
I also gave a lecture at the event about the origin of Japanese idol stars, which is believed to date back to the popularity of ukiyo-e woodblock printing during the Edo period.
We also gave a session to explain the IOEA to the organizers of otaku events who came from across the United States as they admire Otakon. These people had set up their booths to publicize their events.
We founded the IOEA to build a global network of otaku events by sharing the same interests. Many participants at the session were sympathetic to the aim — some even submitted membership application forms on the spot.
Otakon is packed with the goodwill of many, who use a bit of their time to do what they can and act for other people, cultural activities and the world’s bright future.
(The next installment will appear Sept. 12.)
Sakurai is a content producer who uses events and seminars to engage in “pop culture diplomacy.” Follow him at

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