Insights On Local Pop-Culture Conventions – Interview with Neo Tokyo Project

Jason a.k.a. Crimson. Promotional Photo for Razer. Photo taken by The Art of Mezame

Pop-culture events have been popping up around Singapore for a good number of years. There is a rise in the quantity and quality of events these years, as the community gets more and more active. With the more exciting changes we see year to year, we decided to interview one of the earlier movers of pop-culture activities in Singapore, Jason Koh from Neo Tokyo Project to let us have a better understanding of the history and development of the local pop-culture community!

QN: Hi, could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Jason: I’m Jason better known as Crimson in the cosplay community, and I head Neo Tokyo Project, an integrated pop-culture marketing agency in Singapore.

QN: Could you share with us a little more about pop-culture?

Jason: Pop-culture simply means any form of consumed mass media that is currently in the public’s popular consciousness. In Singapore, this includes anime, comic books, games and manga.

One of the greatest expressions of pop-culture fandom is cosplay, which is something we also indulge in because we make costumes ourselves.

Crimson’s Heathcliff (Sword Art Online) Cosplay. Photo taken by Darkon Lore

QN: How did you get started in pop-culture?

Jason: Well, that’s going to be a long story.

NnG: Maybe the origins of it?

Jason: I loved playing computer games as a kid. I recall the first game I played on the PC was Ultima 1. It’s a really old RPG with stick-figure graphics and stuff.

Ultima 1 from Wikipedia, StrongStyleFiction

NnG: But it was nice at that time.

Jason: Yeah! So basically I started out with gaming. Then along the way I picked up geeky stuff like playing Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering. I spent a good number of years hanging out at Comics Mart in Serene Centre, skipping school (laughs) and playing card games. I played lots of games, collected lots of comic books. Basically, all my hobbies have been some form of expression of my love for popular culture, an expression of fandom. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I studied Mass Communication at Ngee Ann Poly, and Communications at Wee Kim Wee School at NTU.

This was followed by a good number of years working in the media as a freelance journalist, photographer and multimedia manager, and it’s those skills that have brought me to where I am right now. I picked up blogging, and have since turned that blog into a platform with which I can inspire like-minded people – people who love games, love anime, love comic books, love pop-culture – to work together to develop their skills and to apply those skills to service the companies that produce their favorite products.

QN: Since you mentioned Dungeons and Dragons which were considered “geeky” at that point of time, do you think they could be considered “pop-culture”?

Jason: I think that the definition of pop-culture changes with every paradigm. So what might be popular at a certain point of time might not be as popular later on. Geeky activities really came to the fore with the rise of Internet startups and successful technopreneurs. They called it the bubble. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, it wasn’t “hip” or “happening” to be a geek at all. But because of the rise of the Internet, with Internet cultures and geekiness gaining traction, more and more successful people were coming out and actually saying they had geeky hobbies. Whatever used to be classified as outlandish and non-mainstream suddenly become the new mainstream. Case in point, it’s cool to watch Marvel movies these days, and if you don’t know who Thor is, who Loki is, who Captain America is – then you probably have been living under a rock!

Thor and Loki by MushStone@DA 

Singaporeans are kiasu (afraid of losing/losing out). They want to be in the in-crowd with their peers. It’s actually a good thing that pop-culture is now so accessible and visible, because it also means that there are greater opportunities for us and for the companies we service to engage with their audiences.

QN: What makes the pop-culture scene so unique and interesting?

Jason: I have been involved in quite a few communities. Before I was involved in cosplay, I was a part of card gaming, comic book collecting and toy collecting forums. There was also an IRC channel called #SGMA that was pretty active back in the day for local enthusiasts, and that was many, many years ago. The thing is, pop-culture’s really come a long way. Right now, one of the greatest and most visible expressions that we see is when people dress up as their favourite characters – in cosplay basically. It’s become an increasingly prevalent activity, with many events springing up out of the blue easily without a word every other month.

As for us, we run International Cosplay Day Singapore as a community event. This event takes place at *SCAPE each year with an emphasis on the positive effects of pop-culture and of cosplay especially. We want to encourage greater solidarity and friendship among local and international cosplayers. At the same time, we run Doujin Market, which we abbreviated into Doujima. It’s an opportunity for young artistic talents in Singapore to explore new ways of getting their art out to the public, to find ways to popularise their work and to showcase themselves. God knows we need more support for local communities.

QN: Is there anything developing in the local community that is especially unique to Singapore?

Jason: Uniquely Singaporean? Other than the kiasu-ness, I think it’s really the fact that Singaporeans are quite innovative. I know for a fact that one of the doujin groups in Singapore that we’ve worked with – their artwork adorns the E.P.I.C. Card for our membership programme. They’ve published a few novellas with original content all on their own. They started doing original content before they worked on doujin products like fanart.

EPICCard  E.P.I.C. Card Illustration from About E.P.I.C. Card

I think another thing that I’ve discovered is that quite a good number of local cosplayers are very talented. People are getting increasingly international and at the same time I think there’s a rise in crafting culture – that’s something quite unheard because most young cosplayers buy their costumes online. I think it’s good that there are more and more people interested in crafting, and I would like to think that we had some small influence in that.

QN: How did you come about starting Neo Tokyo Project (NTP)?

Jason: It’s a really strange story. Basically what happened was that some time in 2010, I came back from a long hiatus in cosplay and decided to build a World of Warcraft costume. So one day, I decided to enter a cosplay competition on a whim, and got selected for an Animax tourism event which took place in Hong Kong.

On the same trip I met Kaika from Cosplay Chronicles – she’s a great blogger, really well respected – and several other bloggers and cosplayers from around the region. I remember chatting with Kaika, and she suggested that I should put my media training to good use and maybe blog about things, so I did.

I ran the blog for a couple of years, and I decided I really liked what I was doing – making costumes, working with other like-minded cosplayers and empowering young people to develop good habits through cosplay and other pop-culture hobbies. We also realized that a good number of companies we love, that produced the games and products we loved – they enjoyed our work and follow us on social media. We started collaborating with them and that’s how we got to where we are right now.

QN: Having been part of the scene and community for so long, what made you decide to organize events?

Jason: The opportunity came when I was involved in the first iteration of Singapore Cosplay Chess. This took place in 2011, and we essentially bankrolled and produced Singapore’s first stage show for cosplayers by cosplayers. After the event was over I had to think about whether we were going to do the show again in the following year. To do so, I had to be influential enough to pull all the sponsors together, and at the same time, provide the performers, who were all volunteers doing it out of passion, with a stage.

 Villager (Dempster) & Travis Touchdown (Alvis Lim) battling on stage during Cosplay Chess

I decided to do something about it and said no matter what, we are going to run an event next year. It needed to be a new event to differentiate ourselves from other cosplay events in Singapore. So I sought the advice of my overseas cosplay friends and connected with communities around the world, and decided to make the International Cosplay Day movement in Singapore something really, really big. We actually made it happen, and we have been going strong ever since.

 Prize giving ceremony at ICDS 2014

QN: How different has it been since you started organizing events as compared to being part of the community?

Jason: I have a lot less time to wear costumes and to attend events now. When I’m at an event, I’m either the producer, or an event partner and it’s all work. Also, I’m usually on the look out for good practices that we can learn from and improve ourselves. Like I said, we want to be a company that is progressive. We don’t want to be a company that does the same things over and over again. I wish I had more time to make costumes as I did in the past, but I think it’s a necessary evil, all that paperwork. I can’t deny the fact that being an event organiser means that I have more influence, and that influence allows me to push for greater opportunities that will benefit the community in the long run.

QN: Was there any problems or new challenges you face organizing ICDS?

Jason: I don’t think we expected ICDS to grow the way it did. The first year when we ran it at Ngee Ann Poly, we were hoping to have 1,000 visitors and we actually broke that amount. We were the first organisers in Singapore to bring in Yaya Han all the way from America. In the second year, we got Alodia and held our event at *SCAPE and our visitor numbers more than doubled. This year we brought in the “Queen of Armoured Cosplay” from Germany, Kamui, and Dat-Baka from Australia and we saw more than 5,000 visitors.

I think the biggest challenge now is how we can keep leveling up our game and topping that.

QN: Just last month, NTP was also involved with Game Start. So how exactly were you involved?

Jason: Game Start is Singapore’s new premier gaming convention, and the first of its kind. It saw 12,000 visitors, and we were their official cosplay partner. We curated an interactive scavenger hunt and cosplay content on stage, including guests such as Yasemin Arslan and Yuegene Fay. Game Start also taught us that there were many new ways we could look at and explore cosplay involvement at events that were aimed at non-cosplay audiences.

Of course, if any of your readers have any feedback or think we can do better, or have great event ideas they want us to execute, please let us know.

Check out our coverage @ Game Start 2014! (opens in new window)

QN: As compared to ICDS, how different was it, helping to run Game Start?

Jason: Definitely different. ICDS was more for the anime, comic books and gaming community, with an emphasis on cosplay. By comparison, Game Start was a gaming event and targeted at a wholly different audience. We are all gamers at NTP, and we enjoyed the challenge of introducing content we were familiar with and supporting the efforts of the Game Start team. It was a good learning experience for us, and helped us improve our processes as well.

QN: One thing I noticed about the Game Start Cosplay competition. There wasn’t a 1st, 2nd or 3rd Placing. Instead people were awarded titles such as best Craftmanship etc. What made you decide to use this method of judging instead of the conventional ranking?

Jason: Actually, I’ve been planning to implement something like this for awhile now. Before I ran events, I was pretty active in the cosplay competition circuit. I think a lot of people hate being ranked – the country’s already so focused on numbers and being number one. It breeds unhealthy competition.

We feel that cosplayers put in a lot of effort into creating their own costumes, into their make-up, into understanding the nuances of their characters. Each of them deserves a chance to shine, and in my eyes as long as they’re willing to brave the stage, they’ve already all won a prize. There should be no reason for them to feel put upon when they are compared to each other.

So rather than focusing who trumps another, or making it a popularity contest based on votes, we focused on the skills each individual cosplayer brings to the table.

If they’ve built the costume from scratch all on their own, they have done the sanding, the priming, the layering, the detailing, then they’re eligible for the Craftsmanship award. If they put up a good show on stage, if it’s entertaining, it’s engaging, and it’s very in-character, then they could win the Performance prize. There’s also a Judge’s Choice, which is an award for participants who perform consistently well in every category.

While they may not be the most skilled in craftsmanship, performance, or in their stage sets and gimmicks, this prize rewards those who are are good all-rounders. We also believe in encouraging new talent, so we always have a Newcomer prize for those who have yet to place in any stage competition.

CIMG2319Check out our cosplay competition feature @ Game Start 2014! (opens in new window)

It’s also very important for us that judges are transparent and that all participants are assessed fairly solely on merit. NTP staff is not allowed to sit on the judging panel or participate in any cosplay competition we run, because we believe that there should be a line drawn between the company organising the competition and the contestants. Our judges are almost always our international guests, because we believe that they are most qualified, and at the same time most neutral and unbiased in any given competition.

Let’s face it, whenever a cosplayer doesn’t get a prize, they’ll rant about it, they will complain about it, they will say “this competition must have been rigged”. We don’t want that to happen and one of the ways we can nip that in the bud is to ensure that we don’t give anyone a reason to doubt in the first place.

QN: Having been part of so many events over the years, is there an event a particular event you remembered or enjoyed the most?

Jason: The one event I enjoyed going to the most was Anime Expo in America, and that left me a lasting impression.

NnG: When was it?

Jason: More than 10 years ago. I was on an exchange trip and I managed to explore Anime Expo and it was great! It was really inspiring.

Anime Expo 2006 from Wikipedia

QN: Do you have any memorable experience as an organiser that you could share with us?

Jason: It might be a little trivial of me to say that cosplay events in Singapore are nowhere near international standards yet, but that’s the truth. Organizers need to know how to not sweat the small stuff and to find ways to ensure that you’re creating great environments for communities to thrive rather than just assuming cosplay will go well with everything and the kitchen sink. America is a great place to learn good convention practices. I’ve had very good recollections of what they’ve done well, and I think I’ll be integrating some of those elements, especially panels and seminars, into my events.

Comiket 62 from Wikipedia

QN: Is there anything you would like to see change or improve in the pop-culture scene in the years to come?

Jason: I think communities need to continue showing their love and their passion for the the games they play, and the products they enjoy. They also need to lay off the self-entitlement and stop being so quick to judge when they don’t get what they want.

I recall a visitor at Game Start who complained that the lights in the hall were really dim and that he couldn’t take picture of cosplayers. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have enjoyed PAX or Tokyo Game Show either, because it’d be just as dimly lit. Singaporeans can be incredibly myopic, and don’t always realize that companies will be more comfortable reaching out to you and giving you the perks that you deserve if you’re gracious and understanding rather than just badly behaved and demanding. That’s why an international perspective is important.

QN: What could we expect from NTP in the near future?

Jason: We’ll definitely be doing Spring Doujima again in April. We are going for more original content in April, and we just might be releasing a card game during Spring Doujima. At the very least, we should be going into a Beta/Play-test to gauge how fun it is. At NTP we want to do things that are fun. One of our core beliefs is that if it’s not fun, we don’t do it.

Doujima 2014 from Official Doujima Facebook Page

NnG: Is it a physical card game?

Jason: It is a physical card game.

NnG: Can we have a sneak preview before it’s released to the public? HEHEHEHE.

Jason: (laughs) You know the characters on the E.P.I.C Card? Those characters were created with a card game in mind. They’ll be featured in the card game we intend to produce, but it’s all in the air right now and we can’t reveal too much. But we are hoping to do a play-test during Spring Doujima if it works out. If it doesn’t, you know how it is. Deadlines get pushed back, there are delays in the game creation process, but that’s game creation for you.

At the same time we will be working with more game companies next year and I will be finishing my book on the history of cosplay in Singapore. I’ve already done some interviews with several movers and shakers in the cosplay community and in the local pop-culture scene, including the lawyer who fought in the ‘cosplay’ trademark case from a few years back. We’re hoping to launch the book sometime in April or May.

NnG: Next year? (2015)

Jason: Yeap! Next year. Of course ICDS 2015 with the theme “Fate and Freedom”. I guess you are the first media to hear about it and we will be doing auditions for Cosplay Chess pretty soon. 

QN: Anything else you would like to add on or want to tell our readers?

Jason: The biggest thing about being a pop-culture fan or being a cosplayer is really about wearing your passion on your sleeve. It’s really about showing your love and your enthusiasm for your hobbies and not giving up. But at the same time, ask yourself: “Does this hobby make you a better person?”, or “Does this hobby give you greater opportunities to improve yourself?”, and “At the end of the day, was the hobby fun?” So the thing is, most importantly…

NnG: Have fun!

Jason: Yes. Have fun. That’s a given. But also internalize the positive lessons from your hobby, and transform yourself into a responsible, successful, well-adjusted individual. That way, you can become the best you can be.


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