It seems necessary to present an introduction from the most macro-viewpoint of national culture before getting to further the nitty gritty details of the Otaku niche. Here are my explorations of the outermost layers of US American otaku culture.
Mixing Pot vs. Salad Bowl Cultural Ideas
Many Americans learn in primary school that the nation is a “Melting Pot” of peoples. The metaphor relates how the cultural identities of incumbent immigrants are assimilated into the national identity, which is also impacted by the addition. The cultural identities “melt” like ingredients into a soup, maintaining many original tastes but also adopting more strongly the flavour of the base itself-the American national identity. The “broth” is also affected by the inclusion of these ingredients. This cultural idea has been part of how Americans define their culture for over a century. More recently, and particularly after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an alternative idea of a “salad bowl” has become popular in academic conversations about cultural identity. In this model, different “ingredients” or cultural identities exist separately and juxtaposed to each other, still maintaining their unique identity while being an active part of the whole.
Anime Con Culture Overview
Much of the history related here I’ve learned through countless conversations with Anime Con “elders” (often only 40 or 50 years old) who recount consistently similar oral histories and stories about the rise of Anime Cons.
In the 1970s and 1980s, science fiction conventions often incorporated anime into their programming. Despite the fact that offering anime gave the conventions an additional draw to their membership, anime fans at sci fi cons were often ostracized, and their viewing rooms were often placed in an out-of-the-way corner or off a rear corridor of the venue. This act of “othering” is a common phenomenon in the crafting of group identity: we are this, because we aren’t that. Exclusion, therefore, is an exercise of community building. At sci fi cons, anime was included for drawing on similar themes (technology, robotics, etc.) but excluded for being outside the relative norm.
As anime became more popular and their isolated viewing rooms filled, many of these anime-fan black sheep came together and split off the parent sci fi convention to form their own, smaller but independent anime conventions. The 1990s saw an anime boom as Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z (and later Pokemon) were shown on major network/non-cable channels. These shows’ popularity were even more bolstered by syndication on the Cartoon Network programming block “Toonami.” In anime con culture, the “Toonami generation” refers to this group of anime fans who were introduced to the art form from these popular 90s shows.
Anime cons have since become an edifice in US popular culture. The largest cons have over 30,000 attendees, and almost every city has an anime con on the East Coast. According to animecons.com, there are more than 150 anime cons in the US scheduled for 2015.
I posit that these cons are gathering points for an unique cultural identity, the Otaku, which is a third-cultured mix of Japanese and US American cultures. The Anime Con serves as a homebase for these third-cultured individuals. A noticeable majority of anime conventions are education-oriented nonprofit organizations, and these cons are hosted by lay-people who often have no professional event planning experience. The staffers are volunteers, who put in hundreds of hours of planning and execution to pull off one-to-three-day events. The largest East Coast convention, Otakon, is a three-day event with over seven hundred volunteer staff that hosts more than thirty thousand members. While the event pulls in millions of dollars each year, the only paid staff are the outsourced accountants and the lawyers of the non-profit Otakorp incorporation.
All anime cons follow the same structure: con-goers can meet famous Japanese and American guests, attend lectures, concerts, dances, and workshops, as well as buy licensed and unique fanwork wares in the (“dealers room” and “artist alley”) markets. Anime conventions represent the best of both Japanese and US American cultures: Japanese ingenuity and embracing of novelty with US work ethic, Japanese collectivity and team work with US ambition and self-motivation, Japanese fanaticism and American inclusivity.