Tokyo, Japan. December 29th – 31st, 2009.
It’s a mistake to think of Comiket in the way you’d think of most Western anime conventions. Panels and showings aren’t a focus, and while there’s cosplay, it’s not a main event either. The best way to think of Comiket is a gigantic Artist’s Alley, with a smaller Dealer’s Hall off on the side. “And guests?” you might ask. The guests are there in the main halls—many mangaka got their start as doujinshi artists, and many still return to Comiket to sell their books and sign copies for fans.
In recent years, attendance has reached over half a million over three days, and rightfully so. Attendance is free, and any artist trying to break out in East Asia can reserve a space, though they do fill up quickly. To give you a sense of how big Comiket is, Tokyo Big Sight, the convention center Comiket is held at, consists of two wings, the West and the East wing, and each is broken up into A and B halls. Normally, one convention occupies one of these halls, and maybe a few accessory rooms. The Tokyo International Anime Fair, where anime companies from across Japan and various other entertainment industries premier new titles and wares, takes place solely in West A. Comiket, on the other hand, takes up the entirety of both the East and West halls, with the West halls dedicated to fanworks and the East halls for industry and official sellers.
As I mentioned, admittance is free, but as you’ve probably already guessed, there’s no way to see everything you want to or find a specific artist’s table simply by wandering. Luckily, a catalog of circles, the term for a team of doujinshi artists and writers, attending, as well as their table positions, is available for sale in both hard copy and CD (for easy searching!) from convenience stores and Comiket’s website, starting a few weeks before the convention. If you don’t have a specific circle you’re looking for, it’ll give you a sense of what fandoms or pairings are located where in the hall layout, which will be helpful when you’re trying to navigate the crowds. And boy, will there be crowds.
The doors open at 9AM, but people start lining up as early as 3AM, with a huge number of people taking the first train over at 5AM. We aimed to get there around 7:30, and actually managed a fairly good position, thanks to some good old-fashioned foreigner ignorance. We were herded, a bit like sheep, into waiting pens, which then turned into a line as staffers started to lead people in. Once inside the hall, lines instantly started forming at the more popular circles’ tables, with the lines leading outside of the building in some cases. As many circles make it a point to debut their new works at Comiket, this isn’t at all surprising.
If you are attending Comiket without much knowledge of the Japanese language, I highly recommend having someone with you who does. Most sellers don’t know English, or are simply too swamped to turn all of their attention to a conversation in another language (or even really conversations at all; most tables will have the prices of various wares and combinations posted on the wall so that you can have a total ready when you get up to the front). Most will be flattered you know and appreciate their work, but don’t be surprised if you get a bit of a cold shoulder. English-speaking sellers exist, but they are the minority.
One thing I was amazed at was how quiet Comiket is. With the amount of people, you’d expect a much higher noise level, but if the people in my group had gotten separated, one of us probably could have shouted across the hall to someone else and we would’ve been able to hear, at least in the West halls. The East halls, being the location of the merchants and industry booths, were advertising shows and games, so it was much louder and more like what you might expect from a Western convention.
The thing that probably differs the most in regards to Japanese conventions from those in the West is the treatment of cosplay. In Japan, cosplay, especially in public, is looked down upon when it’s not in an accepted time or place. For this reason, Comiket attendees are not allowed to take pictures of cosplayers outside of designated areas (we knew someone the year before who had been accosted by security because he was taking an artsy shot of the building, and a nearby cosplayer thought he was taking a shot of her, so they take the whole no-pictures thing very seriously), and attendees who wish to cosplay at Comiket must change at the convention and register as a cosplayer with the convention. Coming or leaving in costume is an absolute no-no, and this is very strictly enforced, as we found out by accident. We had changed, and were trying to find our way to one of the cosplay areas so that we could take pictures, when we accidentally started heading towards the exit. A poor staffer had to chase us down, apologize, and explain that we couldn’t leave in costume. At this point, we also apologized profusely, asked directions, and then made a point never to make a move towards the door while we were in costume. We also made sure we saw other cosplayers heading in the direction we were planning to go in before actually going.
Since you can’t come in cosplay, and changing in the bathroom is a huge no-no as well, there are rooms set up for changing, which are simply just large open rooms with carpet put down in aisles for people to find space and change in, with a separate space set aside for makeup application. The cosplay areas themselves are essentially pens, with guarded entrances and exits (you have to show the booklet you get upon registering to enter), that quickly transform into a matrix of aisles of cosplayers who have stopped, are taking pictures or are having their pictures taken. For a group of foreigners, we actually got stopped quite often, moreso after we started talking to a few people in Japanese and passersby deemed us more approachable. People ranged from incredibly friendly and excited that we were foreigners cosplaying to wary and stand-offish, but thankfully, more of the former than the latter.
One more thing to mention is that the dynamic and the artists change daily. Day 1 is traditionally dedicated to seinen series and games, Day 2 to shoujo and shounen mega series, and Day 3 to miscellaneous. In years past, Day 3 used to be solely hentai, and it gained that reputation, but these days, as more and more artists apply for table spots, this isn’t as much the case anymore. These are not strict guidelines, but looking through the guide sold before the show will ensure you know exactly what circles are showing up when.
All in all, Comiket is an amazing experience. It’s held twice yearly—in summer and in winter—but I strongly recommend going in winter. If you aren’t used to how humid summers can get in Japan or similar climates, then Summer Comiket may actually harm you, with how many people get packed into so small a space with little to no air conditioning. Either way, bring plenty of water, comfortable walking shoes, and a large bag to hold all of your purchases. But most of all, have fun and keep an open mind about what you can find!