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Tekko brings Japanese pop culture and its fans to Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, April 5, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Cosplay is a big part of the annual Tekko convention
Steven Pascoe
Cosplay is a big part of the annual Tekko convention
Cosplay is a big part of the annual Tekko convention
Cosplay is a big part of the annual Tekko convention

We're so pickled in American pop culture, from birth onward, that we sometimes forget — so is the rest of the world. American pop culture is kind of ubiquitous, to varying degrees.

But there are other exporters of pop culture out there, and the one that seems to be growing the fastest — even here in the States — is Japan.

One way to measure it locally is to see the astronomical growth of Tekko (formerly Tekkoshocon — tekkosho means “steel mill” in Japanese), now in its 15th year. Put on by the nonprofit Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society, the convention fills Pittsburgh's biggest room, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for a four-day weekend every year. This year's event is April 6 to 9.

When it started in 2003, it drew 600 people to the Monroeville Convention Center, says Jack Varney, one of the festival's organizers. In 2016, there were 7,800 visitors from 27 states. VisitPittsburgh says it brought

$4.7 million in spending to Downtown Pittsburgh, including hotels and restaurants.

This year, they expect 9,000 people and $5 million in business.

“This is Christmas for the anime super-fan,” says Varney, who took early retirement from Hewlett-Packard to help promote Tekko.

Because a lot of the big draws in Japanese culture — anime (animation), video games, manga (comics) — are things that fans can enjoy at home, what brings them together in Pittsburgh?

“The thread that's holding it all together is the cosplay (costumes),” Varney says. “You can't get that online.”

Comics/pop-culture conventions used to be all about the vendors and special guests. People dressing up as their favorite characters was kind of an amusing sideshow. Now, for many people, it's the main event.

The huge variety of characters in anime and manga allows almost infinite possibilities for self-expression, so costumes are a particularly important part of Tekko.

This year, for the first time, there's even a Cosplay Repair Station, in case your giant robot power-suit blows a gasket.

To expand the convention's appeal, there's a new 18+ section of panels, guests and events, for stuff of a more, shall we say, R-rated nature.

There's also a thing called “Chibi Tekko,” which goes in the opposite direction.

“Tekko for the younger crowd, 12 and younger,” Varney says. “A panel atmosphere — learn about Japanese culture and history” through crafts, games and activities.

Of course, there's lots of panels, special guests, vendors, fashion shows, costume contests, even music. The Japanese band Magic of Life will be doing their first-ever performance in the United States at Tekko.

Mike Machosky is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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