This festival was made for us.
One only has to look at the guest and panel lineups for other larger cons in the San Francisco Bay Area to see that. Anime conventions are made for anime people. Guests are voice actors, writers, directors, etc., and panels are discussing various aspects of anime. Sometimes you’ll get a music act, but the trend is towards US-based acts, usually rock bands. The closest to idol culture you get are vocaloid, anisongs, and the occasional idol anime.
The Kpop industry recognized this and quickly segregated themselves from the otaku niche, instead presenting themelves as a “legitimate” genre of music, so that while fans would be drawn in by the same kind of idol culture hooks that grab all idol fans, there is no pressure to be tied to other forms of media, or to be simply an accompanying song to another piece of media.
Unfortunately for Jpop idol fans, Jpop in America has been inextricably tied to anime, and more importantly, as a sideshow to anime. Songs are recognized for what show they represent, rather than their performaing artist. Which means for Jpop fans who aren’t into anime, anime conventions are a rare avenue to experience Jpop in a face-to-face setting, but also more often than not an intensely alienating experience, as no one around us shares our passion in the same way.
And at first, Japan Expo seemed no different. As I walked around the vendor hall and artist alley for the first time on Friday afternoon, nothing caught my interest at all. “I’m not here for this,” was my mental mantra, growling it out as the local Kinokuniya booth was the only stand with any music offerings, and all of them turning out to be anisongs and Vocaloid. The song blaring out over their speakers was the opening theme to Sword Art Online.
But over the course of the weekend, Japan Expo’s European roots showed their influence. Overseas, the international A-pop community is much, much stronger. The music acts are the higlight out of the guests, with multiple shows over the weekend being packed, and their autograph lines bulging. They’ve hosted Morning Musume, Momoiro Clover Z, AKB48, and this year, C-ute. Paris this year also hosted Dempagumi.Inc and J*Deez, who became guests for Japan Expo USA 1st impact. UFA swapped out Kikkawa Yuu for C-ute. I got so much great Jpop interaction, both with the Guests and fellow fans, that my head is still whirling with it all. I already know I’m not going to get even a quarter of the same level of Jpop content at this weekend’s Sac-Anime, but the rush from Japan Expo is still so strong I’m afraid I won’t be able to fully adjust my mindset. Other than from the efforts of some of the other attendees, if you didn’t give a shit about anime, at Japan Expo you didn’t have to deal with it much, and focus on the glorious Jpop. I salute thee for it, con.
The primary difference between Japan Expo and other conventions is the level of professional involvement. As stated above, panels tend to be informal discussions between the hosts and attendees on any number of fandom topics. Not so with Japan Expo, whose panels were strictly hosted by Guests and industry managment members of such companies as Viz Media, CrunchyRoll, and Funimation. Their panels were more official product presentations and revealings along the lines of San Diego Comic Con. Screenings were strictly official licensed subs, which were vehicles to promote their release by the companies. Later on Sunday, as con staff sought feedback from attendees, I heard a group complaining to the staff about the lack of fan-driven events, suggesting that they include more fandom-topic panels.
The other main suggestion was that the time be extended with late-night events. The con closed promptly every day at 7PM, which meant that for many people working on Friday, there was no point going after their shift, and Friday’s attendance was just absolutely dismal. On the other hand, late night events at conventions are very much fandom-based, geared towards students who can afford to screw up their sleep schedules and party late. Japan Expo was trying to present a family-friendly professional front that would draw in people who might be weirded out by the usual anime weirdness otherwise.
To that end, Japan Expo strove to avoid being 100% anime. Besides the primary presence of music guests, there were entire sections devoted to non-pop Japanese culture, such as Martial Arts, Japanese fashion, Japanese traditions, and advanced origami. A matsuri parade using traditional Japanese instrumentation and clothing strode through the halls every day. One of the biggest draws was a presentation of Samurai weaponry, slicing through bamboo poles in smooth strokes as a representation of destroying a human spine.
For the attendees who were purely anime fans, I’d like to think they left with a little bit of appreciation for the rest of Japanese culture, but there were definitely some who were bored because of the lack of fan-based events, the professional and industrial atmosphere harshing on their anime fan community buzz, leaving them to just passively watch the guests and to do their obligatory cosplay things.
But for us idol fans?
Most every convention in the US involving idols has resulted in stories of how the staff did not expect idol fan behavior, acting in unintuitive ways to manage lines and access to idol events. Not so with Japan Expo, who were operating off of the Paris Model, with 14 years of learning how to deal with idol fans. Honestly, for the most part, the logistics department of Japan Expo was a dream. The few times they didn’t manage the lines, fans organised themselves, and to the con’s credit, staff quickly adopted the same model, instead of interfering and wasting the time and effort early-arrivers put into camping. We could count on line management for all of the concerts and big events to be consistent and plan plan accordingly, without worrying about being screwed over. Even Jpop Summit, which did a pretty admirable job of line management, had a mess-up towards the beginning of the festival.
The autograph process required attendees to line up at a separate desk to register for the session, (which could be done at any time before the session, which was great) upon which they would be given a ticket granting access to the actual autograph line. It was a process that minimized the event of people fruitlessly lining up and running over time before they could get an autograph, as the registration process could estimate when a session was “sold out.” Even better, once the line had emptied for less popular guests, the staff let passer-bys get an autograph on a whim, as well as even letting devotees go for seconds, neither having to waste time on the registration process, which would become moot for an empty line. There was one staff member in particular handling the autograph lines that first appeared to be very anal and a stickler for rules, but was indeed quite flexible once the system had done its job. With the exception of Sadamoto, the most popular guest at the con, I believe that everyone had more than ample opportunity to get autographs from the guest of their choice, a stark contrast to previous cons.
The entrance process was also different from most cons: rather than a badge system, you printed out a barcode ticket. Instead of having to escort anyone out without a badge, staff simply limited the number of entrances and exits to the convention center entirely, and attendees had to be scanned on their way in and out. It was nice not having to make sure a badge was visible at all times and just wander about the venue as is, but I can see that system being a hassle for cosplays without pockets or a bag to hold the ticket in. That also meant that people digging through their stuff to find their ticket held up the sacnning lines. Perhaps the con could sell the usual badge pines to hold the ticket in, barcode easily on display, as an optional solution.
This led to my biggest gripe of the con, though: the location of entrances and exits. The entrances directly from the parking lots and the hotel were barred to non-Premium attendees, and there was only one exit on the far side of the convention center, meaning that to get to and from my car, I was pretty much walking around the entire convention center/hotel complex. It makes a little sense for the scan system, but I feel like at least one more entrance/exit could have been used, (probably the hotel connection entrance) as well as allowing each entrance to be an exit as well, instead of force them to be one-way gates. However, as I was not privy to the staff’s decision making process, I can see why they would choose the system they did. Perhaps they wanted to ensure that guests could move from their hotel rooms to their events without disturbance. It was an inconvenience, but far from a deal breaker. What with how well their logistics were, otherwise, I’m okay with this one minor negative.
A few last details to note: Japan Expo held two masquerade events, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Perhaps it was to fill in an empty time slot in the Main Hall, and they seemed to fill in the time on both days, but I wonder if having two is expected or needed for larger conventions, or if it just splits attendance. On a cosplay note, one thing I immensely enjoyed was the cosplay first aid table. They had a table with common fixing supplies, such as duct tape, glue guns, and needle and thread in a myriad of colors. I definitely used that table more than a couple times during the weekend, and am extremely grateful for it. All cons should have one!
Even without the Jpop events, the great organization of this con makes it one to watch out for. The staff have an eye for what the attendees want and how to give it to them, and have the experience to avoid most growing pains. If anything, they treated the con a little too big for the actual attendance. But that just meant more for the people who did show up, especially us Jpop fans. I highly recommend attending next year. They can only get better.
And with that, we’ve gotten all of the nitty gritty details out of the way. Next we’ll have the true account of events, and boy I can’t wait.