I step into a local Japanese restaurant in downtown Baltimore, starving from a full day of walking. The scene before my eyes immediately takes me in - it usually wouldn’t be odd to see a man in his early thirties drowning sake in a corner, except that this one is dressed in a bright yellow Pikachu suit. His companion is wearing kitten ears and a fluffy tail pinned to her dress. Standing in front of me, clusters of brightly costumed people are waiting to be seated - looking as hungry as I am. For one weekend each year, this is a common sight in Baltimore, as local restaurants struggle to accommodate members of Otakon 2005, the largest Japanese anime convention on the East Coast. I’ve never been to a convention of any type before Otakon, but this year I decided to join some high school friends at a small reunion and to see what this extravaganza is all about.

Otakon’s name comes from the Japanese word “Otaku”, which in slang refers to an overly obsessed fan of anime or manga. However, the Otakon is not only about anime; people from all age groups and professions gather here to participate in countless events centered on Japanese video games, fashion, food, and pop culture. Many members cosplay (costume-play) to look like their favorite anime or game characters. Cosplayers from Ah My Goddess to Zelda make their pilgrimage through the gargantuan convention center to attend countless screenings, panels, and workshops. Most of my friends disappeared to the concert hall-sized video game room about twenty minutes after we arrived.

For an event all about things Japanese, there were surprisingly few Japanese, or even Asian members, among the 23,000 people who attended. In fact the demographic make-up at Otakon was very representative of the American population. Having grown up in China, merely some six hundred miles from Japan, I ironically found myself quite ignorant about Japan and anime compared to the Americans I met at the convention. Although these folks live across the world from Japan, many of them speak fluent Japanese and have visited the country in the past. I often could only shake my head in response as they discussed their favorite Japanese games and artists.

Through my inquiries about how the other Otakon attendees obtained so much information about Japanese culture, it quickly became apparent how dramatically Japanese cultural exports such as cartoons and games have changed the lives of American youth. These exports especially permeate the children’s entertainment industry in the US. A quick glance at TV Guide reveals that the Saturday morning cartoon line-up on WB consists of back-to-back episodes of Pokémon followed by Yu-Gi-Oh and Megaman. Another look shows that the most prominent advertisement on Cartoon Network’s website is for the September premiere of Naruto. Even the sole non-Japanese videogame console, Microsoft’s Xbox, depends on Japanese software companies such as Namco and Konami to supply popular games.

Besides children’s entertainment, Japanese presence in American pop culture extends as far as Hollywood and MTV. American film makers are increasingly incorporating anime styles into action films such as Kill Bill. Additionally, US releases such as The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2005) were taken ŕ-la-carte from their Japanese original counterparts, and remade for an American audience. In music, recording artist Gwen Stefani praises Japanese street fashion in ‘Harajuku Girls’, a song that is the centerpiece of her new album. Needless to say, the growing presence of Japanese influences in the American entertainment industry has made many people more curious about Japan. There are dozens of anime conventions across America, such as the annual Anime Boston event. Anime is also popular in Europe, although far fewer Japanese cartoons are incorporated into European children’s programs.

As I walked to my gym class earlier this evening, I realized that although Japan’s economy is going through a slump, Japanese culture is still being disseminated overseas on an ever-larger scale. Today, Japanese names are not only seen on electronics or video game covers - they are making their way into all aspects of our daily lives. My ponderings quickly dissipated when my Italian karate sensei demanded 25 pushups. I winced and reprimanded myself - why didn’t I register for Dance Dance Revolution class instead?

Naruto the manga was first published in 1999. Its popularity is often compared with Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z.

Anime comes in as many genres as you can think of. Sci-fi, romance, sports, and even adult anime are all popular among fans.

Yunyan Jennifer Wang (’05) is a fourth year student at Brandeis University majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in German Language and Literature.

Did you know? (Fact Box)

Cosplaying as anime characters is usually restricted to conventions and cosplay events. Gothic Lolitas, however, are prevalent in the Harajuku district in Tokyo all year round. It’s considered an underground cultural movement.