Comiket, where otaku come to share the love

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

The Tokyo International Exhibition Center, better known as Tokyo Big Sight, boasts an area of more than 80,000 sq. meters of exhibition space. It’s the country’s largest convention center and will host wrestling, fencing and taekwondo during the 2020 Olympics.

Not many events can claim to be too big for Tokyo Big Sight, but Comic Market, which is commonly shortened to Comiket, is getting close.

“This summer approximately 590,000 people attended Comiket 84,” Naoki Satomi, a publicist for the Comic Market Committee (CMC), tells The Japan Times. His group is in charge of the twice-a-year event for fans of amateur manga (dōjinshi) and anime. The August gathering was the second in a row to see a record-breaking turnout following the one in December 2012, he adds.

The new record is also noteworthy because it was reached in a span of three days beginning Aug. 10. The Tokyo Motor Show held at Tokyo Big Sight last month attracted 900,000 attendees, but that event ran for 10 days. In terms of visitors per day, Comic Market easily tops the largest automobile event in Japan.

Many fans of Japanese pop culture recommend attending the Comic Market at least once. Guests are in for a smorgasboard of Japanese subcultures: fangirls decked out as cartoon characters, indie bands performing anime theme tunes and, of course, tens of thousands of manga otaku (geeks) lining up to buy new dōjinshi by their favorite amateur artists.

“Comiket is the kind of place where you can find anything, literally. There’s original manga, anime, games, music and parody works — we cover everything,” Satomi explains ahead of Comiket 85, which will take place Dec. 29-31. “And if there is something that we’re missing here, chances are that people will get creative and make it by themselves.”

Comic Market centers on sales of noncommercial, self-published manga publications known as dōjinshi. The inaugural event took place Dec. 21, 1975, at a small venue in Toranomon, and was attended by around 700 people. There were 32 self-publishing groups, or “circles,” which provided their own publications for sale.

“The number of participants went from 700 to 1,000, and it kept growing,” says Kahoru Yasuda, a co-representative of CMC who used to attend Comiket in the 1970s.

There were 51,000 applications from circles hoping to secure a booth at Comiket 84 in August. Of those, only 35,000 were granted permission to take part due to space limitations. More than 11.4 million publications were delivered to the venue for the event, of which 8.7 million were sold by the end of the three days.

While Satomi doesn’t credit Comiket for giving birth to cosplay (he points out that science-fiction fans in the United States were the first to introduce the practice), the event is also regarded as a kind of mecca for cosplay lovers. Comiket 84 saw more than 6,000 people per day dress up as their favorite characters at Tokyo Big Sight. Of those, more than 4,000 were reportedly women.

The most astounding fact about Comiket, however, may be the fact that the entire event is operated by only eight full-time employees from the CMC, although thousands of volunteers are hired during the busy seasons of the year.

“We simply don’t have the manpower to organize Comiket more than twice a year,” Satomi explains, adding that it is also impossible to extend each event beyond three days because of the number of volunteers (more than 3,000) involved.

“Besides, our goal is not about making a profit. We see the attendees, the circles and us organizers as being equal partners,” says the CMC’s Dan Kanemitsu.

It would be possible to hire more people, hold Comiket more often or even make it more business oriented, “but that would be like inviting more Hollywood studios to the Sundance Film Festival,” Kanemitsu says. “It will change the original intention of the event.”

Hence, the address of CMC headquarters remains secret from the public, as is its phone number and email address. Most inquiries must be sent to the organizers by post. “If we were to receive 50,000 inquiries from circles every day, we wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Satomi explains.

The offices of Comiket’s organizers are stacked with anime and manga, piled up in stacks on the floor. In a way, the appearance of the space gels with the organizers’ claims that they are simply manga fans themselves: It looks more like a teenager’s messy room than a finely tuned headquarters.

Yet, regardless of the way things operate at CMC, Yasuda takes pride in the fact that Comiket has always run relatively smoothly over its 38-year run.

“No one has been physically hurt in an accident during our events, which we intend to see continue,” she says. “There’s been a spirit of helping each other among the attendees. When there is someone that doesn’t know the rules (of the event), those around him or her will teach them.” Lines can sometimes stretch the whole way around the perimeter of Tokyo Big Sight, but the event is always orderly, she says.

It has also been a tradition for Comiket to organize a successful blood drive during the event, to which around 500 people donate each day. Since there aren’t many events that can gather half a million people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, the Japan Red Cross has commended CMC with a formal letter of appreciation.

But the expansion of Comiket and the ever-growing number of visitors is also bringing new challenges for the organizers.

One is the increasing amount of attendees from overseas. While these guests are welcome, CMC says it only has translators on site for English, Chinese, Korean and German. Visitors from other places, including Thailand and South America, have been on the rise, according to the organizers.

“We have had many Spanish speaking visitors, and we would like to get some volunteer translators if possible,” Satomi says.

Another area of concern has to do with the content of the self-published periodicals being sold, which include sexually explicit materials. Satomi acknowledges a certain percentage of circles sells such works, but Comiket states in its guidelines that artists taking part must abide by a set of regulations that are in accordance with the law. Anything that infringes laws on pornography and child pornography is banned from sale. Since the recent tightening of the law on such materials by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, frequent checks have been conducted on site.

Satomi adds that since the publications are sold over the counter and face to face, there is less chance of inappropriate material being purchased by younger customers.

But Kanemitsu adds that as long as the publications don’t cross a line, CMC is willing to respect the artists’ freedom of expression.

“This is a place for self-expression,” Kanemitsu says. “We would like to keep that atmosphere.”

Comiket made headlines last month when it was learned that animation and media giant Disney will join Comiket 85 as a corporate participant for the first time.

While the idea of Disney joining the event may seem to go against Comiket’s spirit of amateurism, expect the animation giant to get the same treatment as an indie artist: a booth to promote its movies and magazines. Ultimately the public will decide where it wants to spend its money.

However, the public isn’t spending too lavishly when it comes to the artwork at Comiket.

“Of the 35,000 circles that sell their publications, less than 20 percent go home with a profit,” Satomi says. Participants tend to look at the event more as a giant flea market. A culture has formed around it, which means many artists have enriching experiences rather than profitable ones.

“We’re often asked why these circles join Comiket when they know they will lose money. They could do the same thing online for far less cost,” Kanemitsu explains. “The reason is simple. It’s because Comiket is a place anime and manga fans can actively share their common hobby and express themselves.

“Comiket is a matsuri (festival) with a unique ecosystem” in which anime and manga fans feed on each other’s works, share inspiration and fall deeper in love with the art form, he says.

Comic Market 85 will take place at Tokyo Big Sight Dec. 29 till Dec. 31. The event opens at 10 a.m. but closing times vary. Comiket is free. For more information, visit www.Comiket.co.jp/index_e.html.


Comiket by the numbers

• 100,000 copies of telephone book-size catalogs (1,400 pages for Comiket 84) are published for each event.

• Because of the vast amount of paper used during each Comiket, the organizers have been asking for donations toward nature-conservation charities. Attendees provided about ¥1.01 million during Comiket 84, and more than ¥60 million altogether over the past 20 years.

• A combination of the summer temperature and the heat emitted by thousands of manga fans sometimes creates what is known as a “Comiket Cloud.” This is an in-house fog created when the heat and humidity meets the air-conditioned rooms of Tokyo Big Sight.

• Of those who participated in Comiket 84 in August, 42 percent were male and 58 percent were female. The average age for males was 31.4, for females it was 32.7.