Naka-Kon 2024: "Nakama" Forever

by Charles Gerian

The Naka-Kon Anime Convention’s badge art in 2012 depicted a fantastical creature resembling a majestic phoenix, symbolizing resilience and rebirth—a motif that would resonate through the years to come.

I’ll never forget that badge. It still hangs in my room, along with my other convention badges, dating back to 2006.

They’re faded now. The lamination cracked at the corners. But that Naka-Kon 2012 one still manages to shine bright.

Naka-Kon 2012 marked a pivotal moment for my friends and me, marking our transition to independent convention-goers. Fresh out of high school, we ventured beyond our familiar Anime Festival of Wichita to experience the expansive world of Naka-Kon in Kansas City.

No longer needing our parents to book the hotels, drive us up there, or wait around in the lobby while we came down in our costumes.

Naka-Kon was unlike anything we’d ever seen. There was an estimate of 4,500 - 5,000 attendees that year with major celebrity guests like Quentin Flynn (the voice of Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2), Steve Blum (Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop), Japanese death metal band Blood Stained Child, and several others.

We had to pinch ourselves, my friends and I. The few hundred cosplayers we were used to were now in the thousands. The quaint vendor halls of our Wichita-bound youth exploded into 50+ stalls of toys, manga, DVDs, and more. The “Anime Dance Party” at our home con where we’d hang out in the corner and blossom as wallflowers was a full-blow, fist-pumping, sweat-pouring, rave.

Fast forward to 2024, and Naka-Kon continues to thrive, now hosted at the Sheraton Hotel & Overland Park Convention Center. Once again, the Blackwell Journal-Tribune was granted press access to the convention, and this year my team and I arrived on "Day 0," witnessing the bustling preparations before the convention officially commenced that Friday.

Anime conventions, by and large, are a weekend event. They typically start Friday afternoon and end Sunday afternoon.

Thousands show up (costumed or not) from all around the midwest (and beyond) to shop the expansive vendor halls, attend panels, meet voice actors, take photos of their favorite characters, check out the game rooms, attend specialized ticketed events, and either watch or participate in the cosplay contest, hosted by a who’s-who of celebrity judges.

While this might be just a fun weekend for some, for those behind the curtain it is a year-long ordeal.

Naka-Kon Press Director Chris Powell spoke following the 2024 convention, stating that for himself and the 300 or-so staff, planning for Naka begins the minute the convention ends. For 2025 those planning days are being cut short.

“Naka-Kon planning is a year-round, collaborative process,” said Powell.

“Owing to the shortened downtime between the 24 and 25 conventions, we've already started work for next year.”

That shortened downtime is thanks to Naka’s return to their March spot, a period that was disrupted by Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, the Naka-Kon team has just 10 months to make Naka’s return happen.

But what goes into making a convention happen, really? These high-demand voice actors, cosplay guests, and musical talents don’t simply walk through the door and pick a spot.

“For our domestic guests, they're chosen based on certain themes in mind rather than cost,” said Powell.

“Usually it correlates with the theme of the convention for the year. But if that becomes impossible, then we will aim for themes based on media that the guests have collaborated on in the past or media that is popular at that given time.”

“For Japanese guests, we rely on connections and recommendations from past Japanese guests who fit our convention.”

Looking ahead for March, Powell said:

“For our 2025 lineup, we're targeting guests who have had an impact on the convention during our 20 years of existence.”

At any convention, but especially Naka-Kon, the heart and soul of said event is found in the “Vendor Hall” which houses booths where anything from plush toys, video games, pillows, and statues to chainmail, prop swords, and kimonos are sold.

The Vendor Hall also houses the “Artist’s Alley”, another convention term for a collection of artists who sell hand-drawn posters, artwork, paintings, beadwork items, hand-stitched or sewn characters, and even clay pieces.

Naka’s Vendor Hall, a cavernous expanse on the Overland Park Convention Center’s second floor, was home to merchants from as far away as Florida or California.

Of the vendors that the Journal-Tribune spoke to, it is Naka’s low costs and overwhelmingly responsive team that keeps them coming back.

Powell stated that is always the goal.

“Our exhibit hall team has a great track record of providing excellent accommodations for vendors, artists, and exhibitors,” Powell explained.

“The feedback we've received from those parties helps us ensure they have the best experience at our convention. In addition to that, our attendees have also aided in this experience by treating those in our exhibit hall with the utmost respect.”

The resilience of Naka-Kon was tested during the pandemic, prompting adaptations and a staggering return to its full capacity over the years.

It’s no secret that the pandemic impacted everything, and conventions were no exception.

In March 2020, the world began locking down. Movie theaters were shuttering, the government was enforcing curfews, schools were closing, and Naka had to make a decision.

Covid-19 was consuming the Midwest, and on March 12, “Day 0”, Naka-Kon made the decision to cancel that weekend’s convention.

The pandemic swallowed conventions whole, and some of them never recovered after that year.

But Naka-Kon wasn’t going down without a fight.

The fledgling dream of the University of Kansas’s Anime Club, once held at the University of Kansas in Lawrence before blossoming into one of the midwest’s largest cons, wasn’t going to go quietly into that Covid night.

In September 2021, Naka-Kon held a truncated convention over Labor Day weekend as a way to “test the waters” with mask mandates, social distancing, and other precautions.

Slowly, Naka built itself back up and returned on Memorial Day weekend 2022 with a full-blown convention, albeit still abiding by Covid protocols.

They traded the cold of a Midwest March for the melting May for the first time since 2006.

“Our attendees are the lifeblood of our convention, and their support has been the biggest factor to our continued survival during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Powell said.

“Naka-Kon was very much in danger of folding. There were many meetings where the future of the convention was discussed, and it was not set in stone that we'd survive the financial fallout.”

But it was the “Nakama”, the convention’s popularized term which is translated from “仲間” in Japanese meaning “friend”, which allowed the convention to endure.

Powell continued: “But the dedication of our staff, and the unwavering support from the attendees ensured we were able to rebound and continue putting on this event that we love so much.”

By 2023, Naka-Kon had shed its mask mandates and Covid protocols and started to fully return, at least in terms of functionality, according to Powell.

“We considered the 2023 convention as our return to form in terms of functionality. But we haven't quite achieved the same level of strength that we have pre-pandemic.”

“We're still working to get back to the levels of Japanese guests that we have before 2020, and have considered expanding in other avenues.”

He continued:

“In addition, the staff at the venues we hold the convention at have been slowly growing as well, providing a better experience. Our numbers aren't quite what they used to be, but we're confident that they will return in due time.”

Now, with plans solidified for the 2025 convention, the anticipation among attendees, myself and my friends included, mirrors the excitement of my first convention experience back in 2012.

I still remember my first Naka in that freezing cold March of 2012, and all the Marches following that until the pandemic.

Every year, seeing that beautiful Sheraton hotel illuminated against the cold night or the freezing overcast day, warmed my heart while my fingers and lips froze.

No matter how distant 2012 got as the years went by, it would take one look at the courtyard between the convention center and Sheraton to bring me back to being 18.

Seeing the cosplayers out there, huddling for warmth in their thin costumes, their wigs blowing in the snow, reminded me of a time long since passed. A time I thought I’d never see again when the pandemic struck.

I’m significantly older than 18, and I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends in the convention scene as a result of my years of attending both Anime Festival Wichita and Naka.

Looking ahead, I envision newcomers embracing the sense of camaraderie and belonging—experiencing firsthand the spirit of acceptance and community fostered by Naka-Kon, a feeling that continues to unite attendees year after year.

I can imagine some teenager and their friends pulling up to that hotel and convention center in March of 2025, buzzing with anticipation. Feeling like they can conquer the world, surrounded by thousands of people who love and embrace the same things they do.

Maybe, as the convention nears its 20-year anniversary and fully embarks on a return to the “old ways”, they should bring that phoenix-adjacent creature back as a symbol of rebirth and the feeling of “Nakama”, or family.

It’s a feeling that, for one weekend a year, I think everyone who attends is lucky to share.