Japan Expo Impressions

Looking back on the recent Japan Expo, it was disappointing. I’m surprised, too. I was really looking forward to it. On paper, it sounded great–organized by former Otakon staff and the people who run the huge Japan Expo convention in France, a first year con with prestigious guests, and a solid challenge to both Anime Expo and Fanime, both of which had some problems this year. Japan Expo seemed to be in good position to offer a fun alternative to the two largest anime events in California.

However, due to a combination of frustrating layout, bizarre policies and general lack of things to do, Japan Expo USA is one of my biggest disappointments in conventions this year. I think some of this is due to the convention runners importing their policies straight from the French Japan Expo which, at 200,000+ people, is bigger than San Diego Comic Con. Crowd control and taking care of super famous guests is probably a major focus point for them when a con is that size.

But I don’t know why the con runners would assume that policies designed for a 200,000+ event in Paris would work – or even be necessary – at a first-year event less than 5% of that size in Santa Clara, CA. The most frustrating thought is that some of the biggest issues I found with the con were easily fixable.

Japan Expo USA is one of my biggest disappointments in conventions this year.

Japan Expo in France apparently uses tickets instead of badges–one ticket gets you one entry into the convention, like going into a concert. Once you leave, you can’t come back (unless you buy another ticket). There was so much outcry against this policy when Japan Expo USA announced it that they actually changed it so you can leave and come back on the same ticket. Considering every other convention in California (and probably most of the country) allows people to come and go as they please, I’m glad they changed their policy. Otherwise the convention would have had even fewer attendees than it did.

Registration

Registration was in a nearly invisible back room at the Hyatt Hotel, which is connected to the convention center. But you couldn’t walk inside the hotel to the con – you had to exit the hotel, walk around the hotel building and two walls of the convention center before you reach the “main” entrance. Only people with staff or VIP badges could use the hotel/con center path. Why? If the con could afford to post staff people at that walkway all con, they could afford to give those staff a ticket scanner to allow regular attendees to use the indoor, air-conditioned path.

There was only one “proper” entrance for regular attendees to enter through. And if you wanted to leave, you had to walk halfway down the building to the designated “exit” point, which was far away from the hotel, parking lot, or anything else useful. They eventually moved the “exit” to be closer to the “entrance,” which helped. But what is the point of tracking entrances and exits so closely? Especially when the convention center building has multiple outside doors all along the front side – doors which people ended up using, ignoring the entrance/exit policy. Trying to control people’s movement so tightly is never going to work in a building like that, and it actively detracts from a pleasant con experience.

Autographs

 

If you got one autograph, you can’t get another autograph from the same guest. At all. Even on another day.

The autograph process was so tightly controlled it was silly, although it wasn’t actually funny because it excluded a lot of otherwise interested people who were deemed “ineligible” for an autograph. If Japan Expo decides to keep this policy they need to spell it out clearly on their website. I saw a lot of confused, disappointed people.

–  Only attendees with barcoded tickets could get an autograph because you had to scan that barcode, wait to see if you get an autograph signing ticket in their “lottery”, then get your picture taken. This is so you can’t give your signing ticket to someone else. I’ve seen less security at airport customs barriers.
If you got one autograph, you can’t get another autograph from the same guest. At all. Even on another day.
People who bought a  $100 Premium badge got extra “chances” in the ticket lottery. But those extra chances can’t be used for more autographs. And they can’t be given to anyone else. In truth, the extra tickets seem to be pointless – since Premium attendees can enter the Exhibit Hall (and the autograph ticket line) before everyone else, they got all the first-come, first-serve tickets anyway, so they didn’t need to use their extra “chances.”

Why such a restrictive policy? This convention was tiny enough that there was no need to artificially restrict the number of autograph tickets. Even if they had reached their goal of 12,000-15,000 attendees, there’s no need to restrict people from trying again. If they got bad luck in the lottery, why not let them go to the back of the line and try again? Hardcore fans can wait in line for another shot, while casual fans can move on to some other activity.

I hear that autograph scalping and buying/selling is a thing in France. That may be where these policies originate. Well, it’s not an issue here. People tend to want to get their things autographed because more than a signature, they want to meet the guest in person and perhaps show their appreciation by thanking them, or bringing a particular item to sign that shows their love. The autograph itself is just a souvenir of that experience; it won’t be sold because it’s part of the memory (also there is pretty much no market for buying autographs from anime industry celebrities in the US at least).

I am dismayed that whoever is making the convention policies thinks that staff, press, exhibitors and artists should somehow not deserve even a chance for an autograph. People who paid a lot of money for a booth to show their art or their company, people who go to conventions to gather news and experience to share with others, people who volunteer their time and effort to make your convention a success – these are all people who deserve to get an equal opportunity to enjoy the con’s offerings when they have the time. Staff, Press, Artists, Exhibitors – compared to someone who spent $20 on a 1-day ticket, these are all categories of people who have much more invested in making sure the convention is successful. Making them feel unwelcome to participate is not good for the convention. Many people who have been long time fans are now working at industry companies, or making their own art to sell in artist alleys, or like us, running a blog and podcast to communicate the things they love to a larger audience. Just because we are actually working at something we love doesn’t mean we no longer want to participate in fan activities.

I am dismayed that whoever is making the convention policies thinks that staff, press, exhibitors and artists should somehow not deserve even a chance for an autograph.

I’ve already spent enough time on the backwards autograph policy. Let’s move on.

Exhibit Hall

The exhibit hall opened super early, with Premium badges at 8:30am, pre-sale attendees at 9am and on-site attendees at 10am. Opening so early didn’t seem to carry any real advantages though. Since the exhibit hall was open until 7pm, there was plenty of time to shop and explore. Autograph tickets started early (so premium/pre-sales were able to get most of the first-come, first-serve tickets), but it would have been just as easy to open it all at 10am and 11am instead. I felt bad for all of the booth workers, artist alley and staff who had to arrive so early for a mostly-empty room. Cons usually involve travel, late nights and some kind of breakfast that’s not a convention center burger, so most attendees will roll in late morning, even if they’re staying on-site.

There were also many booths showcasing more traditional Japanese culture, martial arts, and travel.

Overall there was a nice variety of booths, with several familiar sights from AX and Fanime. There were several industry booths–Viz, Funimation, Sega, and Crunchyroll all had nice displays. Animate and Uniqlo were a pleasant surprise, Uniqlo in particular adapted to the anime-centric crowd and brought many anime shirts on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully one day they’ll open up a store in Southern California. Animate is the main chain of anime goods stores in Japan with a lot of exclusive items, so it’s nice to see that they’re building a bigger presence at American cons.

There were also many booths showcasing more traditional Japanese culture, martial arts, and travel. I wasn’t expecting to see Japan’s national tourist bureau promoting package tours and giving away maps of Japan at this kind of event. There was a booth giving away samples of Japanese snacks, and a really large “combined” booth area showcasing traditional Japanese arts like painting, fabric working, even the “art of perfume.” There were also martial arts demonstrations of karate, aikido, and iaido, as well as traditional activities – ikebana, karuta, koto and more. Sadly I think most of the attendees didn’t know what to make of it all. I think most people showed up expecting an anime con – all the traditional Japanese arts and crafts were kind of unexpected and maybe even cool or educational, but not enough of a draw to keep people’s attention throughout the weekend. If the convention wants to draw attention to something beyond anime/manga/games, then they should probably pick one area to focus on and promote heavily. This felt like a “throw everything at the wall” approach, but nothing stuck. By Sunday all those booths still looked untouched and everyone was busy trying to rid themselves of the stacks of flyers and freebies that they brought.

I’m just speculating, but I wonder if they have these kind of booths at Japan Expo in France? It’s possible that there’s not much opportunity to come across ikebana or iaido in Paris. Here, it’s as easy as wandering through Little Tokyo or Japantown. The Japanese community in California is so visible that it’s easy to learn about traditional Japanese arts. Nisei Week and Cherry Blossom Festival both happened recently, also. Traveling to Japan is relatively simple (I bet there’s a lot more involved, flying from France!) and there’s plenty of information easily available online. These booths aren’t fulfilling a particular need at the convention, so I think they will tend to be bypassed unless the convention either recruits attendees specifically interested in these things, or chooses to emphasize it heavily by offering incentives to participate (something beyond free candy or brochures).

Food options were pretty dismal. The convention center cafes had the usual overpriced, ugly burgers and sad salads. The adjacent hotel had a fancy Italian place, a bar and a sushi bar, but I saw most people grabbing something at the to-go cafe in the lobby. Convention attendees usually go for cheap and relatively quick food. It would have been better if there had been some food trucks in the area – there was plenty of room at the front driveway of the convention center. The convention center/hotel options got tiring pretty quickly. It’s definitely not something you want to eat three days in a row.

The lone Information Desk was inside the exhibit hall, but sadly they had almost no relevant information to offer. They had schedules (which were also available on every wall) but no information about actual panel descriptions. They ended up being a default Lost & Found as well, since there was no designated Lost & Found. I lost something at con, and it took five (helpful but uninformed) staffers teleconferencing before someone could tell me that the Info Desk was the right place to go.

Programming

Surprisingly for a con with so many high-profile guests, there were not that many panels overall. There was a grand total of 1 small live panel room, 1 main stage (used for concerts, masquerade, and large panels), 2 video rooms (one TV, one movies), and the “hall stage” in the exhibit hall (used for panels, concerts and demonstrations). They had opened submissions for fan panels but ended up canceling all of them. Personally having more panels would have helped make the con feel busier. There were long stretches of time where there were no interesting panel/screening/performance options. I saw a lot of people hanging on the edge of the Hall Stage area because they apparently had nothing better to do. Even the con schedule devoted 1/2 of its space to list autograph signings, martial arts demos and cosplay gatherings. It really seemed like slim pickings.

There were some cool panels though (even if there weren’t many panels overall). The drawing battle between fellow mangaka Yusuke Kozaki and Felipe Smith was really entertaining, and played to a packed room. I was finally able to see Wolf Children, which has been screening at cons all summer. Viz and Funimation had an assortment of panels where, even after announcing new licenses and projects all summer, they had new surprises (and giveaways) to announce.

I can only imagine how Sadamoto felt, inking his drawing while two people talked about him in a foreign language, all in front of a live audience. Awkward doesn’t begin to cover it.

We stayed late on Sunday to go to the Yoshiyuki Sadamoto panel, which was overall disappointing. After a video intro and a short, awkward audience Q&A, Sadamoto spent most of the panel inking a drawing with his back to the audience, while his translator and Carl Horn (US manga editor for Evangelion) discussed Sadamoto and Gainax’s past work. I don’t know actually planned the panel to go this way, but it didn’t work well at all. The translator had a hard time understanding the audience’s questions and gave sometimes unrelated answers, then he became really negative and insistent about his opinion of Gainax during the “discussion” portion. I would have like to see what kind of questions Carl Horn would have asked Sadamoto – he has decades of experience to draw from, and would be a more knowledgeable moderator. I can only imagine how Sadamoto felt, inking his drawing while two people talked about him in a foreign language, all in front of a live audience. Awkward doesn’t begin to cover it. The audience was not allowed to take photos or video during any portion of the panel. We were shown the completed drawings (there were 2) at the end, and everyone left the stage. It all just seemed pointless! I wonder if those drawing will ever be displayed, or will they sit in a storage unit? Was there any purpose to them at all?

Since the Exhibit Hall closed at 7pm, all panels and programming also ended at 7. Everything shut down and everyone left. Really, past closing there was no reason to stay in the area unless you had a hotel room. The sudden ghost town effect was apparent (it wasn’t even dark yet). I feel like having a movie screening or concert at night is a good way to encourage people to stay and be social as a community. The convention starting and ending so early just left people adrift.

Masquerade

Japan Expo is the first con I’ve seen that has multiple masquerades. Some cons run a separate hall cosplay contest and masquerade, and AX used to have a Chibi Masquerade separate from the main Masquerade. Japan Expo basically did a full Masquerade on both Saturday and Sunday – you could even participate on both days if you had different costumes. Both shows ran very smoothly (if short) and had interesting entries. Judging results were announced later at the cosplay stage – the downside of this is that only the cosplayers competing bothered to show up to listen. I think announcing results at a pre-specified time is a nice way to solve the dilemma of how to pass the judging time for a bored audience, but it would be good to somehow encourage the audience to show up as well. On Sunday, Gameshura Ouendan got the audience to cheer for cosplayers, which was a great way to get people excited on an otherwise pretty quiet Sunday.

Closing

 

Where does Japan Expo fit within the schedule of cons in California?

I wish I could have enjoyed Japan Expo more. There were some highlights, but ultimately they were overshadowed by the frustrating experiences I had with door policy, autographs, lack of programming, and lack of attendance. Japan Expo has a lot of resources to draw from for guests, but if they are unwilling to learn from this year, they will keep the same policies and end up driving away potential attendees. They certainly did not reach their attendance target, and I spoke to vendors and artists who were disappointed in how small the con was – not anywhere near what was projected when they signed up for such expensive booths. I wonder how many will return for another Japan Expo.

Perhaps the real question is where does Japan Expo fit within the schedule of cons in California? We are so spoiled for choice here, there is basically something happening almost every month (and more often than that in summer). AX and Fanime have figured out their audiences. Sac-Anime draws a younger crowd energetic enough to have a biannual con. PMX focuses on lolita brands and music. And ALA is content to be the relaxed party con. Comic Con and Wondercon are able to draw big guests and bigger numbers. How is Japan Expo going to make itself a must-see event? For me, I’m taking a wait and see approach. More than any guest announcement, I’m going to be more impressed if they can take criticism and address issues effectively

–Kate “Iroha”

Leave a Reply