Singapore's anime instinct: Japanese pop culture is still an attraction

Singaporeans cannot get enough of Japanese pop culture, going by the number of anime, manga and cosplay events taking place this year

Japanese cosplayer Hideaki Kobayashi, who dresses in sailor suits, performing at MinnaCon. -- PHOTO: MERVYN LIM
Japanese cosplayer Hideaki Kobayashi, who dresses in sailor suits, performing at MinnaCon. -- PHOTO: MERVYN LIM
Ms Joanne Phua, 26, played the character Manaka Laala from anime Prism Paradise in the same competition. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Ms Jaslyne Chia (right), 37, played the character Major Motoko Kusanagi from anime series Ghost In The Shell in a cosplay competition at the DBS Marina Regatta last Sunday and emerged the winner. With her is the robot Tachikoma, which she made herself. -- ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Fans of Japanese pop culture are in for a bonanza this year.

At least six large-scale events inspired by Japanese pop culture are here or will be coming in the next few months.

Just this month alone, there are at least three such events such as the ongoing Gundam Docks At Singapore exhibition, and anime and cosplay festival Funan Anime Matsuri 2015.

And rounding off the month is CharaExpo 2015, a two-day festival featuring card game tournaments, appearances by renowned manga creators and cosplayers and even professional wrestling matches. The event is making its first foray outside of Japan.

Fans can look forward to upcoming festivals such as Cosfest at Downtown East, International Cosplay Day Singapore at *Scape and Anime Festival Asia at the Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The proliferation of such events - there are at least 10 this year - caters to a growing appetite here for anime, manga, electronic games and other elements of Japanese pop culture.

Mr Shawn Chin, the founder and managing director of local events and entertainment company Sozo, which organises Anime Festival Asia, says he does not see new entrant CharaExpo as a competitor but rather, an event to be "added on to the Japanese pop culture calendar of events in Singapore".

He says: "The popularity of Japanese pop culture is gaining traction and flourishing here in Singapore.

"This is because there is already a strong market for anime, cosplay and gaming that is created by fans and cultivated by long-standing events like Anime Festival Asia."

One of the most established festivals for Japanese pop culture in the region, Anime Festival Asia started in 2008 and the turnout has catapulted from 27,000 attendees in that year to 90,000 last year.

Mr Chin says 30 per cent of attendees last year were from other countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan.

The festival has branched out to other South-east Asian nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia and debuted in Thailand earlier this year.

Highlights include maid and butler cafes - all the rage in Japan and where wait staff dress up in cute costumes and treat customers like masters - and the in-house Anisong concerts, where J-pop singers fly in from Japan to perform popular songs from anime series.

Another major player in the market is the annual Singapore Toy, Game & Comic Convention, which started in 2009 and is usually held in September. It brings together toys, games, comics, anime, manga and collectibles from both Eastern and Western cultures. More than 40,000 flocked to the two-day event in each of the past two editions.

The cash registers have been ringing at these events too. At the Anime Festival Asia, a visitor spends an average of $100 on merchandise, Mr Chin says.

Life! reported earlier this week that sales at Gundam Docks At Singapore "has broken the record in Asia, with a sales volume of five times more than any Gundam-related event held in Asia", according to the organiser.

In celebration of the 35th anniversary of the robots from the Gundam series, exclusive merchandise is on sale at the exhibition, which runs till the end of the month at Takashimaya Square.

Big boys aside, passionate fans have also banded together and started smaller scale events.

Last Saturday, more than 400 people attended MinnaCon 2015 at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), an anime, comics and game event organised by the National University of Singapore's Comics and Animation Society and NTU's Visual Arts Society, with the support of the Singapore Cosplay Club.

In its third year, the event has expanded to include new segments such as anime song performances, says MinnaCon's publicity director Neo Duan Kai.

The event aims to "provide a little something for everyone" in the community, he adds.

"People who are interested in cosplay may not necessarily be interested in gaming and vice versa, so it's been really heartening to watch the event grow and people with different interests meet and interact with one another."

This year's key draw was kooky cosplayer Hideaki Kobayashi, who dresses up as Sailor Grandpa, a bald, bespectacled man in his 50s with a bushy grey beard and dressed in a sailor outfit typically worn by teenage girls in Japan. He has been featured in international media for his costumes and was making his first appearance in Singapore.

Cosplay remains one of the most colourful expressions of Japanese pop culture worldwide. Popular manga and anime series that have spurned countless cosplay manifestations include Gundam, Final Fantasy, Naruto and Dragonball Z.

Even events that have nothing to do with Japanese pop culture are embracing the trend.

The DBS Marina Regatta has included a cosplay segment in its programmes since 2013 and a DBS spokesman says participation has grown from 250 last year to close to 350 this year.

He notes that "cosplay's dynamism and emphasis on imagination and craftsmanship, and the fun and colour cosplayers bring" compelled the bank to include it in its programme.

Among this year's activities were a cosplay competition and cosplay chess performance curated by local pop culture marketing agency Neo Tokyo Project, the folks behind International Cosplay Day Singapore, a comic book, anime, games and cosplay convention that has been held since 2012.

In the past two years, turnout for the fan-led event has also grown five-fold, to more than 5,000 people last year.

Mr Jason Koh, Neo Tokyo Project's co-founder, says Japanese pop culture has been around since the late 1990s when anime was screened on television and gaming consoles.

He says: "While there were numerous gatherings and mini conventions throughout, they were restricted to in-groups. It wasn't until the late 2000s that we saw a commercial pop culture convention hit Singapore shores. This generated awareness not just among hobby groups and enthusiasts, but also among the mainstream public and curious dabblers."

But the increasing number of Japanese pop culture events also means growing competition.

Mr Takaaki Kidani, chief executive officer of Japanese producer of collectible card games Bushiroad which is the organiser of CharaExpo, says he had planned for the convention to be held this month as he did not want it to coincide with similar major conventions that are held later in the year.

And he picked Singapore because of its accessibility and passionate fans. "Many Japanese companies are interested in Singapore and the South-east Asian market. That is why many venture markets and companies come to Singapore to establish a Japanese business culture here."

He expects a turnout of more than 20,000 people.

Besides wrestling matches from New Japan Pro-Wrestling wrestlers, fans can rub shoulders with the names behind popular anime, manga and games such as manga artist Yoichi Takahashi and character designer Akio Watanabe.

The burgeoning number of such conventions is music to the ears of Japanese pop culture fans here who are mostly aged below 40.

Secondary school teacher and cosplayer Tessie Tan has attended most of the events and plans to check out CharaExpo.

The 28-year-old says: "More events means more opportunities to meet other fans. I get to see and buy official merchandise and fan-derived works."

For property executive Sabrina Goh, 25, Japanese pop culture was a part of her childhood during which she watched anime such Naruto and listen to J-pop acts such as Ayumi Hamasaki and GO!GO!7188.

Now a seasoned cosplayer - she has participated in 10 cosplay competitions since 2012 - and the lead singer in homegrown J-pop band Ryuusei, Ms Goh sees her love for the culture as a "second childhood of sorts".

She says: "We may not really understand the deeper meaning of the shows and stories till we are older. There are many good values which can be learnt from these shows, such as determination, teamwork and even just plain inspiration. That is probably why we enjoy it so much."

Additional reporting by Samantha Goh

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