Last year, Manga Planet had the great pleasure to interview two of the members of the Board of Directors of San Japan, the largest anime and gaming convention in the South Texas region. Dave Henkin, CEO and Tanya Argujio, Executive Director, talk about San Japan and how anime and manga are viewed by those living in the southern part of the United States.
Interview with Dave Henkin and Tanya Arguijo of San Japan
Before we begin, we’d love to know more about the both of you.
David: I’m David Henkin, currently 42 years old. I was born in South Carolina and my family moved to Texas when I was a young kid. I have been living there ever since. I love Texas. As for my career, this is my full-time job. I’m a full-time employee, working for San Japan all year round. I have a staff of 15 and they’re all volunteer-based, that’s the Board of Directors that we have. We have hundreds of volunteers who help run the show.
What was your job before San Japan?
David: I was doing odd jobs, for the most part. There were some office jobs. One of the more interesting ones was, I worked for eBay company. It was a business to business and we would liquidate businesses on, put all the stuff on eBay. I was the one in charge of all those auctions. That’s actually how I developed, how to do business to business sales. So I used those skills when I was offered this opportunity, where they told me “Hey, we want to start this group of Japanese animation fans in San Antonio. You know a little bit about business and we’re all fans, so why don’t we start this show, and you’ll be running the business side of things” From business, I ended up taking over the entire show.
That’s interesting, and when did you become the chairman of San Japan?
David: It was about a year into development. When we came up with the idea, it was about a year into it that I became the chairman.
So it was around 13 years ago?
David: Yeah. We started in 2005, and it was in 2008 when we came to the market. It was the first event we had in the San Antonio area.
But were there other events like this one?
David: Yes, there are hundreds of these shows all over the US. Most shows are in the thousands. It’s a bit uncommon to have over ten thousand attendees. The biggest one there is Anime Expo, that one has around 120,000.
But you have small shows in San Antonio, where you have around 1,000 people?
David: Yes, we have a few small ones. But we’re the big one in San Antonio.
When did you get interested in Japanese culture?
David: I got into it late. Most people get introduced as a kid. Back then, I was into American animation for a very long time. But I was introduced to Neon Genesis Evangelion back in my early 20’s. And that completely changed my life. I was immersed into it completely and I decided that I wanted to check out even more Japanese shows. This was back in the 90s so I was consuming as much anime as I could. I started getting into Japanese music and manga. I was like consuming a lot, I didn’t have a set schedule or anything, so I could consume as much media as I wanted.
How did you consume said media, like through books?
David: Mostly through videos, I ended up focusing on a lot of these shows, but Tanya watches more than I do.
Tanya: I watch a lot of anime. I’ve been watching since I was 13-14 years old. I think Sailor Moon started showing right about then, and there’s also Tenchi Muyo. Those were our introduction to anime. Dragon Ball Z also started coming out on tv.
Oh. This was on television, was it the English dub?
Tanya: Yes, it was on tv, they were showing the English dub.
David: There was a very influential show called Toonami and this Toonami was a lot of people’s gateway to anime.
So you saw Neon Genesis Evangelion on Toonami?
David: No, actually this was when video rental stores existed.
Tanya: It was a very popular service for quite some time. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much gone now. The rental stores you could go to and they would bring new movies every month so you could get different VHS tapes.
How did you learn about Evangelion though?
David: A friend just said, “Go watch it. This would change your life.” I was into music rhythm games, for a very very long time so my friend said: “I know you’re into rhythm games and much of that came from anime.” So that started my spiral into Japanese content.
Do you remember the first manga that you read?
David: I think it’s Card Captor Sakura. I bought it in a bookstore called Barnes and Noble and then I just started consuming all of the manga. CLAMP books used to be very popular at the time.
Tanya: I’d say CLAMP’s X (X/1999) for me.
David: During the time of rentals, there were local stores that were focused on anime, so that’s how I was able to buy a lot of this stuff.
So you had a local store that carried these?
Tanya: We did. Unfortunately, these all died out.
Was there a manga that caught your eye back then? Or any manga that had a great impact on you?
David: On the top of my head, there’s Fruit Basket. Great series! And there’s also Chobits.
These were all translated into English, right?
David: This is when TokyoPop still existed. TokyoPop used to license everything. So every manga that would come to America, I would read.
What about Fruits Basket and Chobits for you?
David: The storyline. I wasn’t into Western comics but I loved the storyline of these two works and the characters.
So you finished the whole series? Wow.
David: Yes, it’s just so easy to pick up a book, in 4-5 minutes, you’re hooked. You want to know more about the story since most of the volumes have already been translated, it’s easy to just go ahead and read the book.
So you had easy access to all this stuff?
Tanya: There are still pretty large sections of anime and manga in a lot of bookstores. There are also a lot of resale stores that focus on anime and manga.
That’s nice to know because in other countries you can’t find manga in the shelves of bookstores. It’s very hard and even if we do, TokyoPop and Viz manga are quite expensive.
Tanya: I first moved to a city that had more access than I was used to; in my old place we can only watch what was on the local television or what the video store had, but it was very rare that they had any anime and manga. Nowadays, in my small town, which is quite far from the city, even the libraries are starting to bring in manga because the kids are interested in it. They’re bringing in new volumes every month.
David: I work with the local city library and they do a demonstration, it’s a manga library and people just come to this small quiet room to read books.
You do this at the event as well?
David: Yes, this is something that we do at the event as well.
Tanya: It’s one of our quiet zones. In case you need a moment to relax. because there are so many people.
So you have mentioned that you consume a lot of Japanese content. Aside from anime, what kind of Japanese content are you into?
Tanya: That’s still his first love.
David: I got into music games and then I discovered anime. I got into the music and then tried to get as much as I could by buying the OST CDs and such. So every time I go to Book Off, I purchase 40-50 CDs.
That’s a lot! So who’s your favorite artist then?
David: Japanese artist? That changes all the time. Right now it’s Do As Infinity. It’s a dream to have them over and meet them in person.
Are you reading any manga right now?
David: I’ve, unfortunately, scaled back tremendously. But whatever Tanya’s into or currently watching, I’ll watch a few episodes.
Tanya: I’ve introduced him to almost everything. I try to keep updated on what’s out and I do have my favorites like Overlord, Chihayafuru and Skip Beat, both the anime and the light novels.
David: She reads all the time. At times she has anime playing in the background as she’s reading whatever manga she’s currently into.
That’s quite some multi-tasking over there.
David: Yeah, it is.
So is there anything in particular that you’re reading right now?
Tanya: Currently, I’m reading the Overlord light novels.
Are these novels currently released in English?
Tanya: The first few novels are. I think we’re still waiting on the last two novels.
Where do you read these novels?
Tanya: Amazon. I have a Kindle so I can read through that. I’m also reading Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? both the novel and the manga.
So all these are on Amazon?
Tanya: Yes, it’s very easy because they keep their digital content in their file service, so you don’t have to just read it on your Kindle.
It is very convenient when it comes to manga. Let’s talk about your event, how did you form your team?
David: It started when we were friends. Before we started San Japan, there were a lot of conventions across the state and we met each other through friends. We were like, “there’s nothing like this in San Antonio, so let’s do this.” Basically how we started is, we were fans of these fan events and in San Antonio, recruitment that we did was for ten months. We approached people that had shows we found interesting and asked them to collaborate with us. Often they brought in friends and family to help in the situation. All these staffers, they like helping the show, they like the core ideas behind all of this. A lot of them have been on board for 5, 7 and even up to 10 years.
Tanya: I started as an attendee of San Japan. I came to San Japan just to enjoy it. In one of San Japan’s game nights, they host small events around the year, just for fun, they were calling for volunteers and I volunteered to go and see what it’s all about. I slowly worked my way up the ranks to where I am now, as part of the Board of Directors.
When did you start volunteering?
Tanya: It was 4 years ago. I started as one of our lower staff arrangers, then I became a manager and then I became a director.
How many people did you have in your Board of Directors?
Tanya: In the Board of Directors, there’s only five of us.
David: And there are an additional ten to fifteen people who work all-year-round.
So this is their day job?
Tanya: No, they all have their day jobs on top of this. The only one who has this as his day job is David. I have a normal job at a restaurant. We put our passion into this event on top of our jobs.
David: The Board of Directors put in around a thousand hours, for free. They love the mission, they love the idea for this event. And the show itself, the volunteer count expands to around 500 people who help us out and put the show together.
Tanya: We have hundreds of volunteers who work amazing number of hours just to make sure that everybody has a good time.
And since you’re one of the talent scouts, so to speak. What were your challenges when you started?
David: One of the challenges then was the access to the information that we have now, it didn’t exist. We had to learn everything. There was a point where everything was going wrong. We had to tear it all apart and do it all over again. We crashed and burned several times. We faced different issues throughout these years. Once we got a core solid team and had an idea of what we were doing, we did a test run in 2007 so we could get a grasp on how to do this. We just built on our knowledge and experience over the years. Now we have these fandom organizations, which we frequently collaborate with each other, as it’s a lot easier now. These hundreds of groups all work together to help make better fan events.
So the first time that you did this, you had no experience doing it?
David: No, none at all. It was through trial and error. At first, we always saw the side of the event as the attendees. The backside of it, it was far different from what we’ve experienced as attendees of events. The paperwork, the organization and the business side, all of it.
Tanya: Also, it’s learning how to explain what we are. Because many groups here don’t completely understand fan conventions
David: Fan events are very interactive, unlike their expo counterparts. On the Japanese side of the conventions, they do stuff like this as part of their jobs, so it’s quite different from conventions that were started by fans.
David: Right. I learned about the ticketing system and the handshaking type of events and I must say that it’s very structured. And ours is still in the stages of improvement. We do try our best, but we’re still fans at the same time
In connection to that, what aspect of your event do you think is still going to expand?
David: Well, on that topic, it’s the Japanese content that we want to expand on.
Tanya: It’s bringing on more direct content and not so much waiting for the Americanized version.
In general what kind of manga do your attendees prefer?
David: I would say, shonen. The women also tend to gravitate towards shojo. When they get too enthusiastic at times, it does get too much to handle.
Tanya: But they’re not that bad.
But these female audiences also consume shonen manga.
Tanya: One thing that I’ll say about the American fandom is that the interest is much wider. While I enjoy the BL (boys’ love) side of everything, I also read Gundam and anything that has a good story. The art tends to draw me in first but the storyline keeps me hooked. Shonen Jump manga titles are usually great but I do enjoy the oddballs that pop up like Goblin Slayer. That one came out of nowhere but I enjoyed that one a lot. I’m looking forward to when the light novel gets translated.
Right now, what’s hot in San Antonio?
Tanya: Demon Slayer, is probably the most exciting one that everybody’s loving right now.
Do they read the manga or are they just focused on the anime?
David: What tends to happen is that the anime comes out and it gets a huge following, so they go back to the manga then read through those.
Tanya: The pattern is because of the American filter, we get the visuals before we get the light novels and manga a lot of times. Because when it starts to get popular visually in America, they’re like “Oh! We need to translate these materials!” In the case of Overlord, when it first came to America, only one or two of the books were translated and when it became very popular, all of a sudden, all of the books came out translated.
How do you think Japanese manga fans and fans from your area differ?
David: I think that it’s still difficult to find legal copies of these materials. Crunchyroll has a very popular service and I know that Viz has its service, which is mostly digital. I think there’s this issue of getting the word out. I’ve been to Japan and they have these anime and manga ads everywhere. There, even though manga is one of the bestselling items, getting the word out is very difficult, like how to advertise until the property gains traction like Naruto or Dragon Ball Z. Until it gains that kind of level, it’s not going to be very big over there in terms of manga.
Tanya: Also, a big part of the difference is because, in America, it tends to be the younger ones who are manga and anime fans versus older people. In Japan, it’s pretty much acceptable for all ages. In America, it’s the mindset that cartoons are for children. So even though you try to explain that this is not child-appropriate, a lot of people don’t understand that it’s meant for a wide range of ages. People would be all like, “why is he reading a comic book, it’s for children.” It’s starting to become a little more acceptable with the rise of popularity in comic books, and manga is being pulled along with that. That’s the biggest difference, in Japan it’s very much acceptable to read manga, while in America, it’s still a child’s thing. I still have family members that ask when are you going to stop watching cartoons.
How was your event last year?
David: It was great. That’s the great thing about our staff. We grew 10% this year.
Tanya: We hope for a 5% growth every year, we’re not expecting giant leaps. 5-7% are fantastic numbers for us and we grew 10% this year, so we were all very excited.
David: Because long-time staffers were on board so we were very shocked. Like everything’s falling into place. It was very obvious that the tens of thousands of hours that we collectively put together in this show paid off.
So you have an exhibition booth and you have programs…
Tanya: We also have panels and fan events. I have submitted panel proposals before. As a fan, I can submit panels and stuff. You do have to go through an approval process to make sure that you do have something to talk about.
So fan panels and then industry panels too?
David: Of course.
Do you also have butler cafes?
David: We do have a maid cafe, we also have one of the largest in-event arcades. We focus a lot on gaming and also tabletop gaming. We call ourselves a Japanese anime focused event.
Tanya: Japanese anime is 80% of our event is anime and Japanese-centric and about 20% is more towards gaming.
Do you also have film screenings as well?
Tanya: Sure we just screened the latest Uta no Prince-sama movie during the last event. And we have screening rooms available 24 hours.
David: We’re pretty large. Our event takes place in 2 hotels that are right across from each other. We have a large amount of programming throughout the event.
Tanya: And we go for 24 hours. From Friday 10 AM we go until Sunday at 7 PM. We have panels that go throughout the night. The 18+ panels happen late at night. We have burlesque shows and many different things that you could attend. So during the last year, they had a My Hero Academia sleepover where they were in costume and brought their sleepwear and watched in the theater and had cereals.
That’s so cute.
Tanya: It’s a lot of fun and there’s something for everyone.
These are organized by the fans themselves, like meetups and stuff?
David: Yes we do have those. Three rooms just for meetups.
Tanya: And then we have rooms for side meetups where they can take group pictures for different cosplays. You can organize cosplay meetups so everybody can take pictures of the different costumes. So you’ll see a My Hero Academia one, Sailor Moon, Cells at Work, One Piece. Any title that you think multiple people will come for. There was a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure one.
David: Since we take place in a very scenic area, they love to take pictures in the area.
Tanya: There’s a lot of water in the area. It’s a really beautiful area, we’re very lucky. There’s a bunch of green areas.
David: There’s a park behind us.
So these attendees tend to spill out to these areas?
David: We pretty much take over a 4-block radius.
Tanya: And our city very much likes our event so they offer our attendees special discounts as long as they present their badges. They can go to restaurants and get 10% off their meals. So they tend to venture out of the con halls. It’s fun because a lot of times they’re in costume so people are like, “What’s going on?”
You get how many visitors in a year?
Tanya: We get about 20,000 unique sells, while turnstile is around 50,000.
When you brought in manga artists before how was the reception?
Tanya: We tend to get a really good reception because we don’t often get that many manga artists to come out. They tend to be very popular with the crowd, especially if they’re willing to go and do a live drawing panel. We have many aspiring artists.
So how do you decide which guests to invite?
David: We pretty much set a theme. For example, our theme next year is supernatural.
Tanya: Because it’s our 13th year, we decided to go with it as our theme.
David: So we’re looking at Tokyo Ghoul and Demon Slayer as the two properties that we want to push.
Tanya: Maybe even Parasyte.
David: These are the shows we want to focus on. We’d love to have more horror manga.
Tanya: We tend to spill in the fantasy world as there is never enough dedicated horror. So we end up going the route of Goblin Slayer and Overlord because they’re a little darker. But those aren’t horror manga.
What’s your future vision for San Japan?
David: Once we grow into the new section, we’re almost taking over the whole convention center. You see cons with 30,000-40,000 attendees; that’s the kind of growth we want to have.
Tanya: We also would want to have a good 20-30% of our guests to be Japanese. So that’s our end goal. Right about now, we’re only doing about 10%. So we’d like to grow that.
I see. So that’s why you’re attending all these events in Japan and stuff like that.
David: Yeah. We get these types of requests all the time to bring certain Japanese guests to our event. We’d love to. Some of the fans are convinced that it’s just so easy to bring them over and it’s like the US-style where you could send an email or just talk to the right person and have them come over to our show. Here, it’s far different.
What do you think of the Manga Planet service?
Tanya: I think it’s very feasible, bringing it to ours on the south side of the United States. It sounds like a great program that can introduce more.
Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you both!
Tanya: No problem. It was nice meeting you too.
Have you been to San Japan? Share with us your experiences on our Twitter account @mangaplanet!
If you’re interested in reading more of Manga Planet’s interviews, be sure to read our exclusive interviews with K-BOOKS Akihabara Hon-kan Manager Mr. Moritsuka, K-BOOKS Ikebukuro Chara-kan Store Manager Mr. Natori, Chairman of DoKomi Andreas Degen, former Production I.G. scriptwriter Yasunori Kasuga, The Golden Age of Decadence artist Yutsuki Inumura, After School! artist Umiharu, Kou Oushirou of MANGA.CLUB, and the RAYZ OF LIGHT Rōdoku Geki Cast.
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