Anime is a popular term for Japanese animation, a very specific art style known for sharp edges, idealized, exotic character designs and complex, mostly mature storylines. This art style has exploded outward from Japan in recent years and is slowly being integrated into foreign markets.
I attended my first Japanese animation convention back in 2003. At the time, it was something new and exciting By that time, I had been a veteran of science fiction conventions for a few years and had generally thought that anime conventions (what the attendees refer to as cons and what they will be called below) would have had the same feel, theme and mood as the cons to which I had grown accustomed.. It did not take long before I learned that my assumptions about the congoing otaku were far off the mark. Otaku is a Japanese word meaning obsessive fan. In Japan, the word applies to devoted fans of anything, including anime, movies, art, clothing and even food. In America, the term is uniquely applied only to fans of Japanese anime and manga (the comic book form of anime from which the style was derived originally). Devotees to other forms of Japanese popular culture are considered otaku only if they are also fans of anime or manga. Interestingly, when the term was adopted by American audiences, it initially referred to those fans of anime that were the most obsessive. Today, it is applied universally to all fans of anime.
Whereas sci-fi fans were very content to sit around and discuss (or debate or outright fight) about their favorite episodes of Star Trek or which Babylon 5 ambassador was the most savvy, anime fans seemed to be there for few reasons: to demonstrate their devotion to their shows through cosplay (costuming and live action role playing of their characters), meet their favorite voice actors (the celebrities of the con circuit) and above all, spend money. Indeed, one of the major differences between sci-fi and anime cons was just how much of the anime con was devoted to dress up and spending money. Unlike others, which often had numerous programmed events and fan gatherings devoted to fan culture, the anime cons I attended seemed to revolve around the Dealer's Room, where vendors and merchants were selling all things Japanese with smatterings of movie, fantasy and fashion subcultures thrown in, and the Artist Alley which is where local and internet based artists and crafters sell their creations, take commissions and interact personally with clients and attendees--- a local counterpart to the Dealer's Room. Sometimes little to no substantial programming was offered. Attendees would queue up outside the Dealer's room from the moment the con opened, hoping to be the first inside, and would happily drag armloads of products and merchandise from that room to their hotel, sometimes traveling across busy streets or as far as a mile on foot, only to come back again and again over the course of the weekend to repeat their buying. Since the emergence of fandom studies, which were often focused on Star Trek fans, much mention has been made of fans choosing to live in a fantasy world. Be it dressing in costume, speaking Klingon, playing games or debating the merits of shows, the fans seem to tie themselves into a world that does not exist in what others consider reality.. Otaku seem to take this notion a step further. Rather than immersing themselves in a world beyond our own that does not physically exist in the real world, otaku glorify and idealize the nation of Japan, focusing their love and fandom on a place in the real world that not only exists but produces the objects of their obsession. Perhaps this is why anime conventions have such large and loyal draws. Even given current economic constraints and the general upkeep of one's daily life, a three or four day jaunt into an immersive environment seemingly tailor-made to their fandom seems plausible and attainable. At the same time, the convention is organized and executed with these fans and their needs in mind.
Otaku fandom is a subculture of American culture that has adopted and adapted Japanese culture and is drawing in legions of new fans every year. In the last ten years, anime and anime themed programs on US television and in stores have multiplied exponentially, generating huge revenues and creating and sustaining a large, diverse and ethnographically viable population that has chosen not to hide behind the stereotypes of fandom, but to make clear and public their intent to add anime culture to their life experience. Congoers and otaku are Americans who have elected to assume a "dual national identity", combining their American values and upbringing with selected qualities they have adopted from Japan. This includes, but is not limited to, taking a Japanese alias, speaking, reading and writing the Japanese language, studying Japanese history and culture, eating Japanese foods and blending American and Japanese customs into their daily lives outside of their fandom. In many cases fandom also has lead to the creation of elaborate and very public alternative identities that are assumed only at the conventions but worn with pride. Some congoers have foregone formal schooling, and yet can speak Japanese at near fluent levels. Others have rewritten their own life stories around cons and trips to Japan, viewing their fandom as the center of their existence. They have ceased to be Americans and have become, according to author and Japanese pop culture journalist, Roland Kelts, Japanamericans. They have entered fan kingdom, or fandom. Fandom encompasses more than just enjoyment of a particular program or movie, it is created when the fan crosses over from casual watcher into obsessive consumer and creator, often perpetuating the object of their obsession or even adding their own creative output to it. Fandom encourages debate, interaction with other fans (the fandom community), creation of fan fiction, art and media devoted to the object of obsession and costume play. Of all the types of fan culture, fandom is the most immersive, the most interactive and the most expansive. (Classic examples include Trekkers and die hard fan communities devoted to Star Wars and Doctor Who.)
But why do fans becomes citizens of Japanamerica, and how do they relate to each other? These are two of the questions that this study addresses. Thus, cosplay is of particular interest here. Cosplay, or Costume Play is a central aspect of all anime conventions. Practitioners---cosplayers---either create or acquire a costume based on a character from an anime program (or video game). Some cosplayers wear the same outfit for the entire con, some change frequently. Particular interest is paid to detail and accuracy of both the costume and the character. This devotion to accuracy can lead people to spend large amounts of both time and money crafting the perfect, and often highly elaborate, costume. Some cosplayers enter the convention tournaments and others cosplay for fun.
This raises other questions I’d like to answer about this population. They concern not only how and why otaku came to this fandom, but where they get the money to perpetuate it, how their spending impacts the rest of their lives and the lives of the local retailers near where the cons are held, and finally, how their everyday lifestyle is affected by the need to maintain the fandom lifestyle they have embraced.
Otaku experience themselves as living and interacting in a fantasy world that they both choose and prefer to the world in which they actually live. They have merged with idealized Japan, a place that is every bit as fantastic as Middle Earth. It is this fantasy that draws them in and offers them an escape at these conventions.
While not exactly Akihabara and Shinjuku as they exist in Japan, these conventions carry all goods otaku crave, all the culture they have come to identify with, packaged in just the manner to excite their senses and imagination and add to their feeling of participation. It is the ideal of modern Japan, not a reality that conventions embody, created for and sustained by what fans desire. Japanamerica, and particularly the conventions, become the world that congoers want, not what they have, and thus they shape the lives they actually live.
Research Design and Methodology
My primary research will be conducted at the following conventions: Anime Boston (Boston, MA May 2009), Anime Next (Somerset NJ, June 2009), Anime Mid Atlantic (Hampton Roads, VA June 2009), Otakon (Baltimore MD, July 2009) and the New York Anime Festival (NY, NY September 2009), with follow-up work done at Nekocon (Virginia Beach VA, November 2009) and Katsucon (Arlington VA, Feb 2010). These conventions, while somewhat interconnected in terms of visibility, vendors and guests, are part of different regions and have different attendees, artists and local talent. Most of these conventions are fan run and organized, meaning that they have close ties to their fans and local communities.
Each of these conventions has an estimated draw of 3000 to 7000 attendees. Between all seven conventions, the subject pool can easily range from 21,000 to 49,000 potential interviewees. Questionnaires will be passed out to anyone willing to take one. During the cons, the researcher will be situated in the Dealer’s Room or Artist’s Alley at a table with signs advertising the questionnaires. Furthermore, at Anime Next and Nekocon, ads will be placed in the con program informing attendees of the study and questionnaires. Anyone who wishes to take one may approach the researcher and ask to fill one out. Samples will thus be random and reflect the gender and ethnic makeup of the con as a whole with no bias/preference given to a specific race or sex. Upon collection of the data, subjects for in-depth interviews will be chosen based on whether they express any feelings about the effect on their lives because of fandom, dissatisfaction with their daily lives or that they possess a strong sense of multicultural identification. These in-depth interviews will be given on site (preferably), at another con the subject is attending (for most attend multiple cons in a year) or, if necessary, via email. Ideally, five to seven candidates will be selected for interview at each con, bringing the pool of in-depth informants to roughly 35-49 people.
The bulk of the research will be conducted through anonymous questionnaires. These multipart surveys will be used to gauge impressions of con attendance, collect data for statistics involving time, effort, expense and enjoyment of the convention, and will further aid in selecting subjects for the in- depth interview sections. Optimally, in-depth interviews will be conducted at the conventions at the convenience of the participants. This will minimize the need to keep records and/or contact the participants and will insure preservation of their anonymity. When identity must be established, it will be done only with regard to the alias or "con name" each participant assumes at the cons, and any email or screen name the participant may elect to give. Attendees are very internet savvy, and many of them practice the concept of keeping multiple emails, screen names and aliases to separate their identity within the fandom community from their identity with the outside world. No reference will be made to the real name or other identifying characteristics (address, phone number) of the participant. Con aliases are a near universal aspect of attendance, with one person often possessing one or more based on specific cons, their regions or their themes. These aliases are very public, often used with pride by their owners in both real life and on the internet, and they allow the occasional shy otaku to suddenly become very outgoing and personable, and to give boosts of confidence to their real life personalities. Otaku also use these identities to gain a stronger sense of unity with their fandom.
This study is dealing with the habits and behaviors of fans of Japanese animation while at a convention. These fans are often very vocal in their fandom, and are always willing to talk, debate and even argue among themselves. As such, any risk associated with speaking to a researcher will be minimal, as I am not asking them about any specific instances of debate or for any personal information. These fans do not engage in illegal activity, do not view their fandom as taboo or negative (indeed, most fans wear their fandom with pride) and are often happy to talk about why they attend conventions, in hopes of either legitimizing their fandom or to attract new fans. They do not perceive such discussions as risky to themselves or to their “other” lives. There is no association of physical, physiological, economical or mental stress with the types of questions put forth in the questionnaire or in the interview. Likewise, the only gains associated with this study involve personal validation of their fandom, legitimacy when the study is published and pride that they were involved in it. Fans do gain pride when their fandom is recognized, and as such often like to be a part of the recognition.
Candidates for the in depth interviews will be asked to sign a consent form (see Appendix III) and informed that at any time they can opt out of the interview. As with the questionnaires, no personal identifying information will be gathered at the interview. The purpose of the interviews is to gain more information about behaviors at the con, beyond simple yes or no answers. Interview questions will allow for the researcher to get a better feel of how con attendance impacts the daily lives of the attendees, their feelings and practices. Upon completion of the gathering and analysis of raw data, and of writing the thesis, all questionnaires will be shredded. Interviews will be analyzed and the files deleted. Follow up interviews will not be conducted unless the same interviewee is encountered at a later convention, and chooses to take part in one.
During the course of the research, hard copies of the questionnaires will be stored in a locked file cabinet at the home of the researcher’s parents. Any audio recordings taken of the in-depth interviews will be stored in a protected flash drive that will be on the researcher’s person at all times during the conventions or otherwise stored with the hard copies in the same locked cabinet. The materials will be viewed only by the researcher and his faculty advisor for the purpose of writing the thesis.