Volunteer-powered anime convention finds friends everywhere
Interview conducted by Bruce Rutledge,
Several years ago, Sakura-Con became the first anime convention in North America and the second worldwide to receive the Japan Foreign Minister’s commendation. That’s because the volunteer-powered nonprofit made an effort from the start to blend in with the Japanese community in the Pacific Northwest and build strong ties. But to hear longtime Sakura-Con Chairman Christopher Louck and Publicity Director Mira Utz talk, it was the community that won the prize for them. We sat down with those two to discuss anime, Japan and what it’s liketo run an all-volunteer staff of 1,000. Excerpts from the discussion follow.
Sakura-Con is in its 21st year. What were the early days like?
Mira: One of our original founders, Rick Wall, ran an anime cafe in Tacoma that was the center for starting all this. He had a lot of foresight about where we could go. At first it was called Baka Con because people thought it was a fool’s errand and no one would come. But 300 people came, and he immediately said we need a new name. He was already thinking about inviting Japanese guests.
Chris: He had a lot of Japanese friends who could get guests to come. Sometimes he’ll still show up and hang out a little bit.
Chris, when did you start coming to Sakura-Con?
Chris: In 2001. I lived in the exchange student part of Central when I was going to college, so there were a lot of Japanese kids and they wanted to go to the anime convention. I learned about it that way. I went as an attendee one year, and the next year I was on staff. I worked security, the information booth and registration.
How long have you been chairman?
Chris: I think it’s been six or seven years.
You just keep getting re-elected?
Mira: I’ve been on the board since 2005. It’s been a long time! I started out with a couple of volunteer jobs too. I was a volunteer coordinator. I was also an attendee. I came because my daughter wanted to go. I sewed her first costume.
Since the early days, the Con has blown up from 300 people in Tukwila to 20,000 people a day at the Washington State Convention Center for three days over Easter weekend. What sort of changes have you seen?
Chris: We see more obscure cosplay now. It’s almost like a challenge or a game. Can you recognize which character I am from which series? And if you do, then you get me really well. Cause it might be one character that wears one outfit in one episode of a series!
Mira: People are more knowledgeable. It’s easier to get anime. It’s streaming on the Internet. It used to be something you did among friends.
Chris: Yeah, people would do subtitles with their VHS tapes and distribute them to their friends. But with online streaming, the next day or sometimes the day that it airs in Japan, they’ve already translated it online for people to watch. You don’t have to wait for a company to get it and license it. You can get it right away now.
Mira: People have more knowledge of the breadth of the various offerings.
Was there any resistance to having the Con get so big?
Chris: Some of the people wanted to stay where we were and just cap it and be done. They didn’t want to go to the convention center; they didn’t want it to get big; they wanted it to stay a small thing. We’re getting close to the same kind of choice. Do we grow outside of the convention center or do we just stay where we are, refine what we do and cap it?
If it’s just about being big, we’d do turnstile numbers so the numbers would look three or four times as big as they actually are by counting people every single time they come into the building. Some do. That’s how they get 60,000 to 70,000 people at an event that only holds about 20,000.
In many ways, Sakura-Con seems different from a lot of anime conventions. For example, you’re family friendly.
Chris: We had to fight to keep the kid atmosphere. That was how it started, but there were a lot of people who wanted more adult-centered material. Because we’ve been family friendly and because of our educational component, we’ve had to be very careful about what kind of things we have and when they are and who can get to them and make sure this is still something that you can take little kids to.
Mira: We want parents to have tools. We think of it as “all ages.” We have a rating system that we publish. Because anime isn’t a genre, it’s a medium. It covers everything. (We keep our programming within the bounds of what would be shown in a typical movie theater.)
Chris: We also have mature ID stamps, so kids can’t just walk into a room and see whatever they want.
Mira: We require an adult to attend with all minors. We were started by a group that included parents on the original Board, so we’ve always been focused on including kids.
Also, you are well-connected to the Japanese community and cultural institutions here. Is
that normal for an anime convention?
Mira: It’s not necessarily. Part of it is just the region we’re in. We have gardens and associations that do martial arts and tea ceremony and cultural arts right here in the Pacific Northwest. They don’t necessarily have that at other conventions. I came to the board with experience as a community liaison, so I wanted to go to events and talk to people and let them know they have a place. It’s an anime convention but it’s not necessarily what they might think. We are very sincere about living up to the nonprofit that we are. We really want to be educational beyond just the media. We can’t do that on our own; that’s why those community connections are really important to us.
The cultural groups when we first started meeting people didn’t necessarily see how they fit. I appreciate their courage in giving us a chance and letting us show them how they can fit. I think that’s why we got the (Japan Foreign Minister’s) commendation. We were the only anime convention in North America to get it, the second in the world to get it. It’s prestigious, but it is less a reflection on us and more a reflection on the community that supported us.
Chris: That’s what makes Sakura-Con different from other conventions. It’s not really about individual people. Regardless of who’s doing what, the convention still feels like the same convention. The people who are directors have the job of making sure that stays that way. Even when it gets bigger, it still feels like Sakura-Con; it doesn’t feel like some big nameless anime convention.
Mira: One thing that’s difficult to do as you get bigger is to preserve fan content. You’re taking a risk giving someone their own panel. Maybe it will be a success or maybe it won’t. Maybe it will violate rules. That’s a process, and it takes time. As some conventions get bigger, they don’t have to do it as much. We have the intention to continue to do that as much as possible. A good example is our mascot contest. It would be so much easier to just hire a really great artist — because we know so many! — but I think it’s worth that extra effort to say, let’s make a contest of it. We want our members to feel that the convention belongs to them.
And you are completely run by volunteers.
Mira: We have about 1,000 volunteers. Our board of directors is all volunteer. We have bylaws that set up how we do that. And the voting members are the staff.
Chris: It used to be that every year you would get a whole new board because all the positions would be up for re-election, but it was really hard to get things to continue. You’d start working on something, and then someone else would take over your spot.
Mira: We wanted a more strategic board.
Chris: With two-year terms so that you can actually get some stuff done.
How does Sakura-Con compare to anime conventions in Japan?
Mira: American Cons are different from Japanese ones. There are rules about who can cosplay and who can’t at big events in Japan. Comiket is a whole different animal.
Chris: They are more demanding in Japan too. A lot of Japanese guests get concerned about American conventions. They are used to Japanese ones where a fan will tell them to draw something with a specific haircut, look and outfit. I tell them, everyone will be happy to see you. They like the drawings, but they won’t be as specific about what they want.
Mira: I think it’s a different social dynamic too. People come and have an instant affinity for each other. You’re wearing a costume from something that I love. It’s almost like taking you back to the playground. You have cool sneakers. I have those cool sneakers. Let’s be friends. There’s a certain diminishment of social barriers that happens. People can feel a sense of belonging, and we’re proud of that.
Stepping away from your administrative role for a second, what part of Sakura-Con makes you the happiest?
Mira: The fangirl in me has been very satisfied. We got to meet people who made some of the things I absolutely love and appreciate. Also, meeting other people with similar interests has been important to me. Being involved in Sakura-Con has led me places in my life that I never thought I’d go. If someone would have asked me prior to Sakura-Con if I would have lived in Japan, I would have said that will never happen. But through my work with Sakura-Con, I learned about the JET program and made friends who encouraged me. It was a life-changing experience.
Chris: When I went to college, I was homesick a lot, so I played anime on VHS. And I got to meet the Japanese voice actor for Ranma. I got to spend an evening just sitting with him and talking to him. That was something that I never thought I’d be able to do. The guests to Sakura-Con don’t know what kind of impact their work makes on the people who watch it. Sometimes the work that they do has a huge impact on somebody. A show could be something that gets you through a tough time. Or something you use to celebrate with or something that leads to good memories. It must feel good for them to hear how much their shows mean to us.
Presented by the Asia Northwest Cultural Education Association (ANCEA), Sakura-Con
is the oldest and most well-attended anime convention in the Pacific Northwest. Member attendance for Sakura-Con 2016 was over 23,000, with most members attending all three days. ANCEA is a State and Federal 501c3 nonprofit corporation, and the annualconvention is run by over 1000 volunteers.
March 30th – April 1st
Venue: Washington State Convention Center,
705 Pike St, Seattle
Elmira Utz is the Director of Publicity for ANCEA/Sakura-Con and has served in that position since May of 2005. She and her husband live in Tacoma and have two daughters. In 2012, Ms.Utz joined the JET program and moved with her two daughters to Komatsu, Ishikawa Japan, where she taught English in a local High School for 18 months. Ms. Utz is currently a coordinator at Tacoma Community College in the student services department. Her hobbies, aside from her interest in Japanese culture and media, include music, writing, painting, history and theater.
(Photo: Elmira (right) and her daughter)
Christopher Louck is the current Chairman of ANCEA/Sakura-Con and has been involved with Sakura-Con for a long time. His professional job is teaching and he has worked at elementary, middle, and high schools teaching art. He lives in Puyallup with his wife, son and daughter. In middle school, a Japanese friend introduced Christopher to Anime. Since then, Anime and Japanese culture have been a passion of his. He loves being a part of something positive like Sakura-Con.