In this interview, we delve into discussions with Mr. Sean Chin, who played a pivotal role in elevating AFA (Anime Festival Asia) to become one of the world's leading Japanese pop culture events.
Shawn CHIN
Shawn Chin is a Founder & Managing Director at SOZO PTE LTD.
He encountered the Japanese entertainment industry while working at Dentsu Inc. and founded SOZO PTE LTD in 2009 out of a passion for Japanese culture and Japanese pop culture. He has developed “AFA (ANIME FESTIVAL ASIA)” into one of the world's leading Japanese pop culture events.
The Beginning: A Fateful Encounter at the 2008 Anime Festival Asia
――AFA (Anime Festival Asia) started in 2008. What made you decide to hold this festival?
In 2008, there was no large scale Anime Event, looking towards Tokyo Anime Fair at that time, as well as Anime Expo in the US and Japan Expo in France, the first AFA was conceived to be the first regional Anime convention in Southeast Asia.
――Please continue to tell us how you met Mr. Chin and Mr. Yatabe.
As a first event of its kind, we really had trouble inviting Japanese guests to our event, and many companies at that time did not even know where Singapore was. At that time in 2008, “Macross Frontier” was also very popular based on our research, so we decided to try our invitation to HORIPRO to invite May’n. Mr. Yatabe replied to us, and we were able to hold the first AFA with May’n as our key guest. 29,000 visitors came, and May’n’s concert was a huge success to us.
One day, I received an e-mail asking May’n to be a guest performer at their first AFA. May’n had never performed at an event overseas before, but I remember receiving an enthusiastic offer and accepting it!
At the time, I had heard about the popularity of Japanese anime content overseas, so I was looking forward to seeing what kind of atmosphere an anime event outside of Japan would have. However, it was my first time in Singapore, a live performance environment, and I had no idea how large an audience, so I remember traveling there with a certain amount of nervousness.
On the day of the live concert, many audiences came and the venue was filled to capacity. I still vividly remember the audience calling out “May’n” right before the concert.
Incidentally, at that time, the penlight culture had not yet taken root in Southeast Asia. What most left an impression was that audiences coming from Japan handed out the penlights to audiences at the venue and taught them how to wave. Two years later, around 2010, people started bringing their own penlights and using them during live performances, just as they do in Japan.
――Since then, you have been a business partner of AFA every year, haven’t you?
Since the first event, Mr. Yatabe has been like a big brother to us. He gave us so much advice and support, we felt like family from the first AFA. It was only natural that this was the start of a great relationship together. AFA grew and grew since 2008, thanks to this first relationship we forged between AFA and HORIPRO
I also consider myself more like a family member with Shawn and everyone at AFA than a relationship between the organizers and the performers. Seeing them work so hard to run the event with such respect for Japanese content and to make it so much fun, I felt a sense of gratitude as a Japanese person. There were many business arrangements that I could help them with my experience, so I was able to assist them without any conflict of interest. I am the type of person who expresses my thoughts and feelings directly, so I think that I have been able to express them to the AFA members in a straightforward manner. After that, AFA’s scale grew visibly larger every year, and the expansion of Japanese content in Southeast Asia made me feel that there was great potential for the market.
Joint Efforts: Creating May'n's First Asian Tour
――May’n’s first Asia tour was also created together with HORIPRO and SOZO. What are your memories of that time?
May’n Asia Tour was the first Asia tour held by my company. I remembered the challenges and learning for my team at that time. We were new, but learnt so many things together while holding a Japanese artist concert in Asia. Since holding this concert, we were able to grow and my company has held many Asia Tours since that. Again, Mr. Yatabe believed in us, and this made us stronger!
SOZO was a strong ally who believed with me in May’n’s potential in Southeast Asia. A local reporter who covered the event at the time told me that May’n was the first time a Japanese female artist had a solo performance in Malaysia instead of an event appearance. There were various problems, such as the power going out just before the show started, but I believed that the enthusiasm of Shawn and the rest of the SOZO staff would clear things up. Performances overseas can sometimes have unexpected problems that you don’t anticipate when you are in Japan. That is why partners are so important.
――Sea☆A, an international ani-song idol group, was born in 2010 as a result of a maid café that developed at AFA. They also made their debut in Japan in 2011.
had the impression that more and more artists were trying to expand overseas in the name of “Cool Japan” after 2010, and as I participated in AFA and other events in other countries, I realized that if there are so many people who love Japanese content, then in the name of Made by JAPAN, I thought that if we could use Japanese creativity and know-how to produce and nurture the gemstones of those countries into stars, the local audience would be happy to support them.
Isn’t it a great story to see the person from your country become an active star in Japan, where your favorite content is?
Recording, artist photo and music video shoots were done in Singapore. The first recording took place a few days after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, and I remember going to the airport with the label staff, not knowing if the plane would fly.
I believe that what I felt through this project and through training overseas artists, as well as the experience I gained through joint management with the SOZO team, is the starting point for the current international management of HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL.
With Mr. Yatabe and HORIPRO, we were able to develop the first ever Southeast Asia Idol Unit to have debuted in Japan! We learnt about artist management as well as understanding the Japanese market. It was great to see the talents work hard and become big idols in Japan.
――Since the 2008 event in Singapore, AFA has been held in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Indonesia, and Thailand.
I have many memories of these new markets. Singapore was the start, but AFA really grew when it went to domestically challenge these new markets. We were happy that HORIPRO and Mr. Yatabe supported us in every step of the way as we challenged each new market together. May’n of course joined us as we opened up each new market together to Anisong culture.
It was a valuable experience to be able to work with all the countries from the very first event, and it was also a great opportunity to learn about the characteristics of each country’s market.
It is no exaggeration to say that the basement of fans in Southeast Asian countries who have always supported May’n has been with this challenge.
――How did you come to the capital alliance with HORIPRO in 2014?
As AFA went on expansion, HORIPRO supported with capital alliance to SOZO, this helped us to expand more rapidly to catch the ever growing market of Anime, Comic and Game culture in Southeast Asia. With the capital alliance HORIPRO and SOZO / AFA became closer than ever.
In light of our mutual progress, I believe the capital alliance with SOZO was inevitable.
We did not want to do what HORIPRO wanted to do through a capital tie-up, but rather to give a bigger boost to the business that SOZO and Shawn were promoting through a capital tie-up.
In addition to AFA, we also wanted to help Japanese content and Japanese know-how take root in the Southeast Asian market.
――HORIPRO has also exhibited their booth in AFA.
In addition to the artist operation-based efforts to date, we also conducted a variety of initiatives for the “toC” market at the AFA showcase. We developed a concert and talk show for our artists and voice actors, and introduced our content at the booths and other various approaches.
For us HORIPRO was always special. We worked as a team, sharing ideas and planning, to make the HORIPRO booth appeal deeply to audiences in Asia.
Celebrating AFA's Remarkable 10th Anniversary
――You walked the red carpet together with Mr. Shawn, May’n, and Mr. Yatabe on the 10th anniversary of AFA in 2018.。
I felt proud that our baby AFA has come such a long way. It was a proud moment for me to walk the red carpet with May’n as well as Mr. Yatabe. I will never forget this moment forever. We went on to win Best Leisure Event in Singapore that year. It showed that our partnership had graduated into a big success.
I was proud once again to be a member of AFA and to have been able to walk together with SOZO without once having to miss a single moment of our 10th anniversary. As I walked the red carpet with Shawn, I was deeply moved as I fondly remembered the happenings of the past 10 years since 2008, and I was grateful again for the support of our artists and voice actors in the Southeast Asian market. Also, my expectations grew for the future development of the joint business with SOZO and AFA.
――What do you think of “I♡Anisong HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL DAY”?
It was an amazing night to remember. For me I was so touched and proud to be part of this amazing night where the top anisong singers from HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL collaborated to bring us such an amazing show!
Having a stage with only artists and voice actors from HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL is that we had never done before in the long history of AFA.
The stage that everyone at AFA, May’n, Minori Chihara, Azusa Tadokoro, Ayaka Ohashi, and the staff of HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL worked together to create was very special for me.
――What do you think about the dance event “J-Dance Asia” held in 2022?
We think Dance is the next progression and cool way to expand Japanese Music in our region. We are happy with the big success of this first initiative together, and look forward to growing this concept in the future together with HORIPRO INTERNATIONAL.
“Cool Japan” developments centered on music have been covered, but in fact, international exchange of dancers has been active for a long time, and Japanese dancers have also gone abroad to perform in many countries. K-POP has attracted a lot of attention for its dance, and I believe that the Japanese dance scene has had a great impact on K-POP. I think it will be interesting to see how the Japanese dance scene will expand from various angles when it becomes commonplace to express dance with Japanese music in countries around the world.
Future Perspectives
――What is the future outlook for each of you?
With Anime and Japanese Pop Culture growing tremendously now, we see so many opportunities in the future together! We have achieved much in the last 15 years together, and look forward to next decade of growth together as well!
The Southeast Asian market is the place with remarkable economic growth and a high percentage of young people, and we recognize that it is an important market with potential for further development over the next 10 years. In addition, we have been presenting Japanese animation and pop culture for the past 15 years, and the children who visited AFA at that time are now middle-aged, so we believe that Japanese content is gaining recognition among a wide range of age groups. In this sense, I believe that there are many opportunities from a different angle, and I would like to use the know-how I have accumulated over the past 15 years working with SOZO to develop new local markets in each country.
――What are the good and bad points of the Japanese entertainment industry?
I know he is hard to say it. From my point of view, I think it all boils down to this word “The common sense of Japan is lack of commonsense of the world.” in both good and bad areas.
It can be said for both the reasons why unique culture grows in Japan and why Japan lags behind the rest of the world in globalization.