For most in Japan, April marks the start of the new working year. But for the anime and manga industries, it all begins in March.

Last weekend, the second annual AnimeJapan trade fair overtook Tokyo Big Sight, with more than 120,000 total attendees (a spike of 10,000 over last year’s tally), 2,500 of whom were business representatives from Japan and overseas. This weekend, March 28 and 29, will see the first-ever “Otaku Summit,” a special edition of the biannual Comics Market (Comiket), featuring manga-fan artists from 18 countries and held at Chiba’s Makuhari Messe.

AnimeJapan is the union of two events, the former Tokyo Anime Festival (TAF) and The Anime Contents Expo (ACE), whose initial split was caused by a rift over ex-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s controversial censorship drive in 2010. The first TAF I attended in 2005 targeted industry insiders — domestic studios, networks and media. But AnimeJapan has evolved into a hybrid that is part overseas-style fan convention, part trade fair, and far more globally conscious.

“Yes, we are really trying to transform AnimeJapan into the world’s best anime event,” says general producer Yuji Hirooka of Bandai Visual. “We are actively inviting more foreign visitors. We are also trying to make it more enjoyable for different kinds of visitors, like fans, businesspeople and even families. We want to meet their different needs.”

At AnimeJapan, three stages hosted a steady series of performances and presentations throughout the two days of public access, and a separate area was allotted to family activities like games and sing-alongs. Amateur cosplayers, once banned, roamed the floors.

“It was much more fan-friendly than I expected,” says Bamboo Dong, managing editor of Anime News Network, an online English-language information portal. Dong, based in Los Angeles, was attending her first AnimeJapan.

“I was surprised to see as many cosplayers as I did, both Japanese and foreign, milling around the booths. I expected most of them to stay in the photography areas. (And there was) a big emphasis on the actual production of anime, a lot of reverence for creators, which is a level of celebrity I don’t really see at the comic shows here (in the U.S.).”

Last year, several complaints about the lack of business opportunities led to the reinstatement of the business-only day prior to public access. Tokyo-based Rob Pereyda, founder and chairman of production company, Henshin, LLC, thinks that this year’s event produced measurable results.

“There was more overall polish in the execution specifically aimed at ‘going global,’ ” he says. “(The changes this year) clearly translated to more business being done at the show. Atmospherically, there was a flavor of ‘taking action’ in the air, through alliances, mergers, acquisitions — and expanding partnerships.”

Japan’s 40 year-old Comiket, held every winter and summer, is the largest of its kind in the world, drawing over half a million manga-fan artists and their readers to Tokyo Big Sight. But it remains largely insular. This weekend’s Comiket Special, the sixth installment of a smaller, more experimental event staged in the spring, with its focus on hosting an international Otaku Summit, is a first.

The idea of reaching out to overseas manga otaku (fanboys and fangirls) was hatched by the fledgling International Otaku Expo Association (IOEA), whose director, Kazutaka Sato, and coordinator, Dan Kanemitsu, have been working for three years to turn concept into reality.

Kazutaka was on vacation in Paris with his wife in 2010 and happened upon France’s Japan Expo, the largest overseas showcase of Japanese pop culture. He tells me he was shocked to see the Metro teeming with foreign cosplayers. “Even at the Champs Elysees,” he says. “They were everywhere.”

The four members of the IOEA have made over a dozen trips to overseas otaku events in the past two years to reach out to non-Japanese participants. The association, Kanemitsu stresses, will only come into being once this weekend’s event is underway.

“It doesn’t really exist until (the summit) happens,” he says.

The biannual Comiket events organize their fan artists into “circles” that sometimes consist of a single artist, a team of artists, or artists and their friends and family members at a table bearing their work. In 1975, the first Comiket drew 32 people. Now, its scale is massive: 3,700 volunteer staffers look after 36,000 artist circles and more than 500,000 attendees.

By contrast, this weekend’s Comiket special will host roughly 6,000 circles, anticipating an attendance of 50,000.

“We’re a marketplace first and foremost,” says Kanemitsu. “But the smaller scale (of Otaku Summit) allows us to try different things, like special concerts, seminars, interactive features, presentations by and for foreign participants. We cherish diversity.”

“Diverse” is not a word often associated with Japan, and certainly not with the manga and anime industries. In 2015, it remains nearly impossible for non-Japanese artists to work for Japan’s manga publishers or anime studios, and equally difficult for those parochial and cash-strapped businesses to hire them. But these two events show that “taking action” is in the air, however idealistic they may be.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.