Convention Report: Sakura-Con 2011

by Tom Good, with photography by Tom Good and Sahara Sooter

Sakura-Con Opening Ceremonies

Sakura-Con drew 19,040 fans to the Seattle Convention Center to celebrate cosplay, anime, and Asian culture. Even though this topped last year’s total of around 18,000, the event seemed smoother than ever before. Pre-registration lines were much shorter, event lines were better organized, and getting around the convention center was easy.

The convention started out on a somewhat somber note due to the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. At the opening ceremonies, organizers announced that ANCEA/Sakura-Con had joined and helped to raise money for disaster relief.

Once things really got under way though, the convention center felt like a very happy place. This year’s crowd had a sense of confidence and even swagger that I haven’t seen in the past. If the collective mood before was something like “This is great, and we can’t quite believe it,” then maybe this year’s mood could be summed up as “This is great, and we’re not that surprised, of course it is!”

Guidebook app

Keeping track of the convention schedule got a lot simpler this year thanks to the Guidebook app for mobile devices (which was called “Conventionist” at the time and has since been renamed). This app shows convention schedules and maps, and allows you to mark events you want to attend and get optional reminders about them. I highly recommend this for people with compatible mobile devices.

The @Sakuracon Twitter feed was also active this year, announcing events and even running a contest/scavenger hunt over Twitter with an official Sakura-Con plushie as the prize.

Panty & Stocking cosplay

The biggest new trend this year was cosplay based on the studio Gainax anime series Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt. This funny and raunchy series (think South Park style humor) is about anarchist angels who battle “Ghosts” and can transform their lingerie into weapons. The show’s distinctive visual style looks different from more traditional anime, and the costumes are easily and instantly recognizable. In the U.S. it can only be seen online, so its popularity shows how internet content has become more important to the cosplay scene than television.

Other popular sources for cosplay were Vocaloids, Scott Pilgrim, Death Note, Final Fantasy, and Hetalia.


The K-on! anime was also popular, and some of the voice actors from the show (not pictured) put on a short K-on! “concert” event followed by a screening of the anime. I say “concert” in quotes because although at least some of the singing was real and live, most of the music was not, and band members pretended to play their instruments. This was cute, if a bit odd.


At the raves on Friday and Saturday nights, some very good dancers showed up to display their talents. It’s worth going to these just to check out the various dance styles on the floor, which usually includes some impressive break dancing. I definitely saw some moves I’d never seen before.

Crossplay Panel

I went to a panel about “crossplay” — the practice of cosplaying as a character of the opposite sex, which is fairly common at Sakura-Con. The host explained that crossplay is often viewed with the misconception that all crossplayers actually want to become the opposite gender. That may be true for a minority, he said, but most do it out of a love of the character. He gave helpful hints, safety tips, and makeup advice for both male-to-female and female-to-male crossplay. Most people in the audience at this panel were women who wanted to learn more about how to effectively cosplay as male characters. This wasn’t too surprising since there were more female cosplayers than male cosplayers at the convention in general.

Cosplay Contests

One difference for 2011 was that this year the cosplay contest was split into two events, one for the cosplay skits and another for the cosplay costuming contest. When I first heard about this change, I didn’t think it sounded like such a great idea, because I assumed it could make the costuming portion seem smaller and less important. It actually worked very well though. The costuming contest drew a large audience and had more contestants than in 2010. Mike Warthen from Portland (pictured above) won the Judges’ Choice Award for his elaborate, well crafted cosplay of Red XIII from Final Fantasy, after an inspired performance where he not only showed off the costume, but also roared and acted out the character for the audience. Mike even has a real Red XIII themed tattoo.

Lolita Fashion Show

Designer: Ridi Kitty by Aridia Nicolucci, Model: Kirsty

Sunday’s Lolita Fashion Show featured designer fashion from Apatico, Jilted Coquette, Megan Maude, MintyMix, Pink Tanuki, Ridi Kitty, Scoundrelle’s Keep, and Strawberry Skies, with styling by Lindsey Deuel. (Pictured above: Ridi Kitty by Aridia Nicolucci, Model: Kirsty.)


As in previous years, Sakura-Con had a wide variety of concerts, competitions, fashion shows, panels, dances, anime screenings, and many other events to choose from. But the convention is more than just a series of entertainments over a long weekend, it is a focal point for a creative and vibrant cosplay subculture in the Pacific Northwest, and serves as an inspiration for that scene all year long. Many cosplayers start planning for Sakura-Con months in advance, making costumes, coordinating meet-ups, and planning what to wear each day of the convention (some even change into multiple different costumes in a single day).

Growth can bring challenges. When a scene grows, it can become diluted and lose some of the original spirit that made it special. But this has not been a problem for Sakura-Con. The culture consists of people who naturally want to create and participate and make things more interesting. As the convention grows, it attracts more and more people like that, who then create even more fun.

The Vocaloid characters fit naturally with this culture of creation and participation. They are mascots for software used for creating music, and have inspired countless fan-made songs, stories, videos, 2D and 3D animations, remixes and mashups, and even whole new versions of the characters created by fans. The fact that they look cool and have interesting costumes can’t hurt either, of course.

Year after year, when I’ve asked attendees what they like best about the convention, most people give very similar answers. They don’t name a specific event or activity, instead they say it’s the Sakura-Con culture itself, with its welcoming and friendly atmosphere, that they like the most. People come to Sakura-Con to see their friends and to make new friends. It’s a self-sustaining circular process, where people come to the convention to get to be around the type of people who would be there.

Many unofficial activities have become traditions, such as the practice of giving high-fives to both friends and strangers on the escalators, and the “glomp circles” and offers of “free hugs,” where it’s acceptable for strangers to hug each other just for fun. All of these things show the friendliness and openness that is so characteristic of the culture.

The whole time I was there, people kept offering some kind of assistance or kindness. Some offered to help me carry things, others handed me food or brought me a drink during a photo shoot. People helped me with photos, and during the Lolita Fashion Show another photographer even suggested that he could loan me some of his spare equipment so I could get better shots. (I happily accepted his offer.)

It’s quite amazing to be surrounded by an atmosphere like that for several days. Cosplayers work hard to get ready for the convention, then create a whirlwind of activity during the convention, and still somehow have the energy to go around volunteering to help people out. Being around people like that is inspiring, and that’s another great reason to go to Sakura-Con.

In Jane McGonigal’s book on gaming, Reality is Broken, she says that “All good gameplay is hard work. It’s hard work that we enjoy and choose for ourselves. And when we do hard work that we care about, we are priming our minds for happiness.” And that, it seems to me, is what cosplayers do: hard work they care about, priming their minds for happiness. If reality is broken, then cosplayers might be busy fixing it.

I’ve recommended Sakura-Con for years, and it just keeps getting bigger and better. It has definitely become a not-to-be-missed event.

Tips For Next Year:

  • As always, pre-register.
  • Use the Guidebook app to keep track of the schedule (if you have a supported mobile device).
  • Plan to stay long enough on Sunday that you can enjoy the later events, like the Lolita Fashion Show.
  • The convention unofficially starts (in the sense that people are already there and having fun) the day before it officially starts. Convention veterans call this “Day 0.” So if you’re not from Seattle, it’s more fun to arrive as early as possible on the day before the convention, so that you’ll have some extra time to explore and meet people.
  • If you’re cosplaying, be sure to bring some supplies for quick emergency repairs, like tape and super glue.
  • If you’re traveling from Portland, Amtrak is a great way to get to Seattle without having to deal with driving or traffic, and you’ll probably see some cosplayers on the train.

I hope to see you at Sakura-Con 2012.

See the full collection of Sakura-Con 2011 photos