San Japan has, in less than 10 years, grown from a humble gathering for local anime and manga fans held at a downtown hotel into a major pop culture convention. More than 17,000 people are expected to participate this year.
The three-day San Japan 8-Bit, the eighth edition, began Friday morning as thousands of fans of anime, manga and general pop culture swarmed the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center for registration.
The attendees – many in their teens and 20s costumed as their favorite anime character – participated in a variety of programmed activities in the convention center and the nearby Grand Hyatt and San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk hotels.
S. David Ramirez, director of community relations, did not have a projected financial impact or cost for this year's San Japan immediately available, which hosts more than 300 dealers, artists, celebrities, speakers and other special guests. But by noon Friday, a few hours into the first full morning, registered attendance had already broken 10,000 people, Ramirez said.
The Alamo City Comic Con, which has a more broad topic/fan base, drew more than 35,000 attendees over the course of the three-day convention in 2013.
Last year's San Japan drew more than 14,600, surpassing the then-projected attendance estimate of 12,000. The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau did not have attendance numbers for 2013, but had a projected attendance of 9,500 for the 2012 event and 6,800 for the 2011 edition. Ramirez said those projections were surpassed each year.
"We had Zero to Anime in 2008 and had 900 people show up and here we are, this morning, breaking 10,000 already," said Ramirez between answering phone calls, texts and questions from attendees and participants. "Just the fact that we've been able to grow so much in eight years, compared to other comic conventions around the nation, we're incredibly blessed to be in San Antonio and have such a strong community behind us."
San Japan's expansion from the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter into the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the adjacent hotels was a result of its gradual growth. Organizers initially set aside blocks of rooms for activities and overnight guests at the Grand Hyatt, and those would quickly sell out early on, Ramirez recalled.
"So, we thought we need more room for everyone to see and do things and stay. We then added other hotels like the Marriott Riverwalk and LaQuinta Inn. For next year, we're looking at having as many as five or six hotels for room blocks," he said.
A staff of about 12 people work on organizing year-round on a San Japan, from coordinating with nearby hotels and businesses to booking guest artists. Come event time, 300 to 400 volunteers work all around the event venues. Ramirez said the show is professionally run, full-time, but with plenty of help and input from local fans.
"By the time we're done with this show, we'll be wrapping up contract work for the 2018 show," Ramirez said. San Japan does have the convention center booked through that year.
"Exhibitors, people like that, started moving in Thursday afternoon, but layouts and planning have been going on for months and months. We're already looking at layouts for 2018," he said.
Ramirez said a lot of the little things that have gone into planning a San Japan is because of work and encouragement from the local anime/manga community and its supporters. Some of the work yields discounts and complimentary admission, and other perks, for contributors. For example, some local artists produced a map of the convention center and participating hotels that depicts the activities they are hosting.
"We didn't have to pay full price for this because this comes from fans who want to be part of the show," he said. He also said organizers take pride in that community members, living and working in or near San Antonio, help run nearly all of the activities at San Japan in one way or another.
Ramirez added San Japan organizers are supportive of the area business community and want to give back however they can. A list of an array of businesses can be found for free on registration tables for attendees, in the official guide, and on the event website.
Some event proceeds go to charity organizations each year. This year they'll be going to San Antonio Pets Alive.
A few businesses saw a steady influx of San Japan attendees and volunteers Friday morning and early afternoon. A few costumed attendees could be found in the Starbucks at Rivercenter Mall during lunch.
"We saw a good sized crowd this morning. Lots of young people, very energetic and in costume," said store manager Rodney Nesbitt. "They paid us a visit, gave us business and we really appreciate that."
Nesbitt said he and colleagues enjoyed seeing the uniqueness of the event first hand in their cafe.
"You see a lot of people in costume who are commenting about their character and costume whereas in a more formal business-type convention, you'll see people in business attire, very formal and serious," Nesbitt said. "It's fun to see this."
An employee at the Game Stop at Rivercenter Mall, who did not want to be identified, citing corporate rules, said the store had a steady flow of San Japan attendees wanting to buy or sell games or purchase other supplies.
*Featured/top image: Aella Guerra talks on her cell phone as she waits for her friends to arrive. Photo by Scott Ball.