Pop Conventions and Real Communities

by Roland Kelts

   Commercial outlooks for Japan's Pop Culture invasion of foreign lands in 2008 have thus far been pretty bleak at home and abroad: declining DVD sales in the United States, otaku abandoning a gentrified Akihabara in Tokyo, the profitless cribbing by fans worldwide using Internet and mobile technology, and a generation of young Japanese who remain apathetic about their nation's image -- not to mention ominous economic news from nearly every country in recent months, pushing culture to the margin as people find ways to endure.

Anime DVD giant Geneon USA folded at the start of this year, and ADV, another massive U.S. importer, distributor and producer of Japanese animation, last month announced massive cutbacks in its number of planned North American releases.

But we're in February now, the second month of the year, when activities that were formerly dormant begin stirring. The so-called cons, anime- and manga-oriented conventions in the United States and Japan, are about to launch even more ambitious efforts in '08--partly because they keep entertaining larger legions of fans.

Earlier this month a two-week program titled "Japan: Culture and Hyper Culture" took place at the august Kennedy Center in Washington.

Last year, after I addressed the Japanese Embassy and the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) in Washington, DC, I had lunch with Kennedy Center Program Manager David Kim. He described to me his vision of a Kennedy Center program that would build a bridge between Japan's cultural archetypes -- noh and kabuki theater, ikebana and even butoh dance -- and its 21st-century icons: manga, anime, fashion, robots and technology.

It sounded grandiose then. It remains so. And it worked.

Kim and his colleagues at the Kennedy Center managed to create an audacious and unprecedented staging of Japan's cultural forces. The program featured more than 30 artists, writers and performers, traversing classical Japanese crafts and funky current fashions in a two-week extravaganza. The lineup included some of the best-known and most honored names in their diverse fields.

More importantly: The event was designed to foster communities. As Kim explained to me last year, the Kennedy Center needs younger visitors. With manga, anime and fashion on the agenda, they got them.

What I find fascinating about the explosive success of the anime conventions in the US (each year, most of them draw larger and more diverse crowds) is that they are fostering communities in real time and space. Whereas the Internet is actually damaging sales of Japanese Pop products as fans find free downloads and file shares, the conventions and expositions are enhancing the products' appeal -- even as they bring people together off line, a considerable achievement in our increasingly atomized age.

North American anime and manga conventions embody the interactive nature of Japan's pop culture, which has been a component of its appeal in Japan for nearly four decades. In Japan, so-called doujinshi-ka (fan artists) make and exchange art work with professional manga and anime artists and meet at conventions in Tokyo and elsewhere. In the US, costumed fans arrive to meet or reunite with other costumed fans. Artists, writers and voice performers freely hobnob with customers and producers. The idea that Japanese pop culture may be helping Americans come together in real-life communities seems to me another trans-cultural exchange worth celebrating.


By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space

JAPANAMERICAN EYES is a special column for Japanese Writers' House Newsletter.


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