Detroit anime convention celebrates Japanese culture

Steven Sonaras
Special to The Detroit News

From the so-called “Gamergate” scandal, which earlier this year made many feminist game developers subject to harassment from sexist video gamers, to the highly publicized (and unsuccessful) attempt by the self-named conservative activist group the “Sad Puppies” to hijack this year’s Hugo science fiction awards, the world of geekdom has never been in so much turmoil.

Things have even turned violent in some cases. Last weekend five were injured and one man was killed at ZombiCon in Fort Myers, Florida.

These occurrences are by no means unique to geek gatherings, but given that so much of the pop culture that inspires these conventions features stylized violence and sexuality, organizers and attendees alike must often take extra care to ensure safe behavior.

Youmacon, which occurs this weekend at the GM Renaissance Center and Cobo Center, has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to protecting its attendees from sexual harassment and violence. The Japanese pop culture and video game convention celebrates its 11th anniversary this year, and founder and chairman Morgan Kollin says the event’s original safety policies have always been rigid enough to ensure a comfortable experience for a diverse group of fans.

“We’ve always been about diversity, because we’re all geeks and nerds here,” Kollin says. “We’re one big community. We specifically have a zero tolerance policy for harassment. We don’t tolerate bullies or bigots or people who are there to have fun at someone else’s expense.”

Exploring Japanese anime culture

Youmacon (pronounced yo-ma-con) is essentially Comic Con for fans of Japanese pop culture, a subculture within the United States that attracts an even more fervent following than American superhero comics. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese-style comics and artwork), conventions like Youmacon practically qualify as unofficial holidays, ones that cosplayers (costume wearing fans) often spend all year slaving away at the sewing machine for.

In addition to the standard celebrity meet-and-greets and people watching, Youmacon boasts a broad array of all-ages games and events, including exclusive attractions such as the annual Charity Masquerade Ball, an authentic Japanese-style “maid cafe,” and live action versions of the classic Nintendo games “Mario Party” and “Donkey Kong.”

If your experience with anime is limited to “Speed Racer” reruns, you might be wondering why thousands of Americans go to so much trouble to read or watch difficult-to-obtain material scripted in a foreign language. For Ann Arbor-based manga artist Jeff Gallagher, a celebrity guest at this year’s Youmacon, the appeal is that Japanese manga and animation tend to deal with sensitive concepts not often explored in Western pop culture.

“There are some subtle things in anime and manga that I was never able to find in the stuff that was available for American readers,” Gallagher, author of the popular manga series “MegaTokyo,” says. “There’s a lot of material in manga that has these subtle details and attitudes that really spoke to me enough that you’re willing to try to learn Japanese or go through the trouble to get things translated.”

Setting cosplay rules

Many of Youmacon’s estimated 18,000 attendees last year were dressed to kill, brandishing fake swords and firearms, but the event has stringent rules about what kinds of prop weapons cosplayers are allowed to bring into the convention. Kollin says all fake weaponry will be inspected by guards at the front gates in order to prevent real firearms or other harmful weapons from entering the premises.

One unique Youmacon feature, a Japanese-style “maid cafe,” solicits costumed volunteers who serve food and beverage orders to the attendees. If that atmosphere sounds like it might invite cat-calling and other inappropriate behavior, Kollins assures guests it’s not meant to be “Hooters for anime fans.”

“If seeing people dressed nicely or in frilly dresses gets you hot and bothered, well, more power to you,” reads Youmacon’s online FAQ. “There will be no flashing panties, kissing, or otherwise acting like a bizarre otaku strip joint.”

Kim Lazaroff is a Detroit-based anime fan and cosplayer who will be presenting a panel titled “Cosplay Positivity” at this year’s gathering. Lazaroff says she aims to educate cosplayers about harassment in an effort to make cosplaying a safer and more fun experience for all.

“My panel will be discussing a variety of topics that all connect to cosplay and body positivity,” Lazaroff says. “It will be discussing issues surrounding bullying, harassment and even racism in the cosplay community. I will be sharing experiences and letting people know how to deal with harassment and bullying so that they can have an amazing con experience.”

Lazaroff says she has been the victim of harassment at conventions before, from rude comments about the accuracy of her costume to sexual remarks about her appearance. She says even at a convention as secure as Youmacon, cosplayers still should follow a few general rules to ensure their safety.

“If I had to list some tips they would be: ignore the negative comments from people, try to stay in a group if you can, don’t be afraid to speak up if you see someone harassing others, cosplay is not consent, and lastly, stay positive and be nice.”


8 p.m. Oct. 29 - 6 p.m. Oct. 31

Free Thu., $30 Fri., $40 Sat., $20 Sun. $60 three-day pass.

Tickets available at the door.

Cash only.

Cobo Center and Renaissance

Center, downtown Detroit