Even though it was daytime in November, the temperature in Moscow barely made it above freezing.
Despite the chill in the air, more than 10,000 people gathered Nov. 19-20 at the Central House of Artists in the Russian capital for J-FEST 2011, a contemporary Japanese culture festival, themed on Japan's pop culture including anime, manga and music.
The audience gave a big round of applause when a recorded video message by the rock singer Gackt, who has many followers in Russia, was aired on a large screen.
Many Muscovites are smitten with Japanese rock bands and singers in flamboyant costumes, known collectively as "visual-kei," including L'Arc-en-Ciel and X Japan. It is not uncommon for Russian youths to get together for a dance party themed on J-rock (Japanese rock music).
Aside from music, the festival also featured a "Fashion Show of Lolitas from the Gothic and Lolita Festival." Gothic and Lolita refers to an original trend in fashion that is characterized by black-and-white base tones and the abundant use of lacework and frills.
During the event, about 30 women in their teens and 20s appeared on stage in Gothic and Lolita clothes brought in from Japan. Professional stylists from Ash, a Japanese hair salon chain, enthralled spectators with their fine hairdressing techniques.
The second day featured a "First All-Russia cosplay contest," where cosplay refers to the art of wearing the costumes of anime and manga characters. The 30 pairs of contestants looked barely distinguishable from figures in anime titles such as "Sailor Moon" and "Dragon Ball Z." The show drew such a large audience that the hall, with a capacity of 600 people, was packed in the aisles and stairs to such an extent that people could barely move.
The winners were a female pair from St. Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia. Galina Morgevich, 25, and Vitalia Abramova, 23, said it took them a full year to make their costumes in the mold of an anime titled "Trinity Blood."
"It gives us opportunities to express our original selves," said the pair, who have been into cosplay for seven years. They won travel tickets to Japan for their victory.
"We want to visit Kyoto and other places where we can experience traditional Japanese culture," they said.
The Japanese Embassy was one of the organizers of the festival, held for the third time. It is one of the largest events held by a Japanese embassy worldwide, sources said.
The event is not only aimed at "presenting manga, anime and music and having Russian Japanophiles get together and have fun."
The Japanese government is also trying promote its pop culture to foreign audiences under the tag of "Cool Japan." Improved public perception of Japan could also improve its image during diplomatic negotiations.
Tokyo has set a target of fostering pop culture into an export industry worth 17 trillion yen ($218.45 billion) by 2020.
That is easier said than done, however.
Russian history textbooks often fail to mention the differing views of Japan and Russia on sovereignty of the southern Kuril islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan. In Russia, it would be difficult to get the Japanese views on the issue heard.
I asked Japanophile audience members for their views on the territorial dispute.
"That is a political issue," said Anna Mukha, a 20-year-old college student. "It is not important to me. I have heard about it, but I know little about it."
The cosplay contest ended with a dance performance by a group infatuated with K-pop, where K stands for Korea. The audience seemed to care little about the difference, although the event was themed on Japan.
It will be essential to differentiate between Japan and other countries when promoting Cool Japan.
South Korean pop culture is gaining popularity in Russia, and the government of South Korea is also intent on fostering related industries. The emerging picture is one of competition, the same as in electrical appliances, automobiles and other major industries.
Japanese manga and anime "are deft at portraying human emotions, including friendship and love," said Nastya Pushkova, a 20-year-old college student. "Some of them deal with questions of thought. They rank with literature and philosophy."
Maria Luneva, 24, chimed in. "What is wonderful about Japan is its excellence in both traditional culture and contemporary culture," she said.
Such a view, shared by many Russians, seems to be gaining stronger footing among the youths. This marks a stark contrast with the largely negative view of Russia held by the Japanese.
Japanese pop culture has easily transcended national borders and is attracting young Russians. It certainly will be a continuing bridge between Japan and Russia.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
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