First-Year Japanese Pop Culture Con Left Brooklyn Feeling Waku Waku

“Waku waku” is a Japanese expression that roughly translates to feeling tremendously thrilled or excited beyond belief. It was in this spirit that Chikako Ichihara, President and CEO of Azix Inc., wanted to develop an event that would provide an inspiring environment, foster imagination, and encourage cross-cultural collaboration. The result was Waku Waku +NYC, a two-day Japanese pop culture convention that took place on August 29 and 30 and spread across five venues in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Expo Center, the Wythe Hotel, Verboten, Brooklyn Bowl, and Transmitter Park hosted exhibitors, artists, fashion shows, panel discussions, a concert, and an artist workshop that fueled the legend of all things J-pop.

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Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi speaks at the opening ceremony of Waku Waku +NYC

“I’m really excited and thrilled to be here,” said Ambassador Reiichiro Takahashi, Consul General of Japan in New York, at the opening ceremony of Waku Waku +NYC. “This is an opportunity for us to appreciate the coolest part of Japanese pop culture.”

Waku Waku +NYC is just what fans of Japanese pop culture and subculture needed since the New York Anime Festival was absorbed – and subsequently eliminated – by New York Comic Con. With fewer and fewer panels dedicated to Japanese anime and manga, and fewer and fewer big names on the J-pop culture scene coming to NYCC, there was a need to give fans something dedicated solely for them. In a sense, Waku Waku +NYC is a mini version of NYCC without all of the American pop culture and comics and zombies. Unlike NYCC, everything about Waku Waku +NYC – from the exhibitors to the artists to the panels to the musicians to the special guests to the food vendors and to the cosplayers – was focused on Japan.

“There is a lot of meaning behind what people see when they watch Japanese anime, so I wanted to bring that back,” says Ichihara. “I don’t want to be exactly the same [as NYCC]; I don’t want to compete. I just want to bring that waku waku feeling by choosing different industries to collaborate.”

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Posing with Domo

One major collaborator was NHK WORLD, which had a considerable presence on the main exhibition floor as well as in the panels. One of the main attractions was the meet and greet with NHK’s official mascot, Domo, where fans could have their pictures taken with the loveable rectangular monster.

NHK WORLD personality Sebastian Masuda, 6%DOKIDOKI founder and one of the hottest stars in Japan’s kawaii subculture, was on hand to conduct workshops at Transmitter Park as part of his Time After Time Capsule project. Waku Waku +NYC attendees, including yours truly and JC•NYC’s Arts and Entertainment Editor Danielle Compono, had the opportunity to create super-cute items that were eventually added to Masuda’s Hello Kitty sculpture in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza.

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Sebastian Masuda

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Creating items to include in Sebastian Masuda’s Time After Time Capsule

Misha Janette, fashion journalist, blogger, and host of NHK WORLD’s Kawaii International, curated the Tokyo Above-Underground fashion show at Verboten on August 29. Janette, who designed costumes for Masuda’s newly opened Kawaii Monster Cafe, selected ten hot looks that are trending now on the streets of Tokyo and styled two models for each look, which ranged from Japanese Gothic to “Sweet Girlie Style.” Designers included Masuda’s 6%DOKIDOKI, Aymmy in the Batty Girls, Tsukikageya, and Grimoire. The styles are quite different, but they share an edginess while giving us a glimpse of how Japanese street fashion has evolved over time.

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Misha Janette (center, with black-and-white skirt) and models from Tokyo Above-Underground fashion show

Of course, Japanese culture isn’t simply about the poppy, cute stuff. The cuisine will always be something that attracts fans of any age or style. To that end NHK WORLD sponsored panels with Chef Tatsuo Saito and Yu Hayami, stars of the popular series Dining with the Chef. Chef Saito and Hayami had a spirited discussion about dashi, one of the basic elements of Japanese cooking, to a packed house.

After the panel, Chef Saito exclaimed how happy he was to see so many young people in the room. “It gives me great hope for the popularity of Japanese cuisine in the States,” he said.

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Chef Tastuo Saito (left) and Yu Hayami of Dining with the Chef host a panel about dashi

NHK WORLD provided a lot of big names, and Ichihara was able to convince a lot of other heavy hitters to take a chance on Waku Waku +NYC.

“It wasn’t easy to get these pop culture creators,” Ichihara says of Takao and Makoto Koyama, the father-son duo responsible for Dragon Ball Z; and Keiji Inafune, one of the leading figures on the games development landscape. “This event is brand new; no one knows me. But I like to think of myself as the ‘Chief Connector’ instead of the Chief Executive Officer, so it worked out.”

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Makoto (left) and Takao Koyama

Ichihara’s company, Azix Inc., is the marketing and event-planning company that brings us Japan Week each year, so she’s no stranger to the stresses of organizing big events. While Japan Week is confined to one space – Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal – Waku Waku +NYC encompassed five venues in Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Because of that, Ichihara needed to collaborate with not only big corporate sponsors such as NHK WORLD and Delta, but with local artists and businesses as well.

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Artists’ Alley

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to reach the community,” says Anne Tamayo, the owner and co-designer of Sushi Designs New York, a company specializing in handmade pillows in the shape of sushi. Tamayo and Mel Maghuyop, who created the first sushi pillow in 2003. They both felt that participating in Waku Waku +NYC gave them more exposure and allowed them to meet customers face-to-face, which is important for an online company.

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Sushi Designs New York

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Author Abby Denson

Brooklyn-based author and cartoonist Abby Denson, author of Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats, and Ramen, presented a talk about traveling in Japan and autographed copies of her book at the Kinokuniya booth.

Community leaders were also key in collaborating with Ichihara and her staff. When presenting the idea of Waku Waku +NYC to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Ichihara had hoped to create a bond that united them by a shared passion for Japanese culture and to create a dialogue between Japan and New York that would let ideas run free.

“Brooklyn is a borough of many diverse cultures with a cool and edgy vibe,” says Diana Reyna, Deputy Borough President of Brooklyn. “Japanese culture is steeped in tradition, but recently it has developed a cool and edgy vibe, too. Having Waku Waku +NYC here in Greenpoint, students are learning the experience of global diversity. Our children are not just playing video games, but becoming the video game software engineers of the future.”

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Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna of Brooklyn (far right ) presents Azix Inc. President and CEO Chikako Ichihara with a proclamation

The Chamber of Commerce connected Ichihara to Maria Ortega, the principal of John Ericsson Middle School in Greenpoint. As a result, Ichihara was able to arrange a Time After Time Capsule workshop with Sebastian Masuda and Ortega’s incoming sixth graders that took place on August 31, the day after Waku Waku +NYC ended.

“I like culture, and I feel that our students are not exposed to enough of it,” says Ortega, whose school’s demographic is majority Hispanic. “I make sure that we have opportunities for our students to go outside of New York City.”

Even though convention attendees didn’t physically leave New York City, Waku Waku +NYC provided a passport to what’s trending on the streets of Japan and in the creative minds of the Japanese. From the organizers to the special guests to the throngs of Japanese pop culture fans who attended, everyone felt waku waku at Waku Waku +NYC.

To see more pictures from Waku Waku +NYC, please visit JapanCulture•NYC’s Flickr page.