Anime Matsuri is one of the largest anime conventions held in the United States, started by husband and wife duo John and Deneice Leigh in 2007. Taking place each year at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, the convention helps to bring thousands to the Lone Star State. Anime Matsuri 2018 is scheduled from March 30 to April 1, but this year’s convention may look a little different. That’s because a growing number of people are calling for attendees and guests to boycott the convention until the convention’s leadership is changed.
We’re boycotting Anime Matsuri to protest the many problems with the con, most serious among them the years of sexual harassment committed by the convention CEO, John Leigh and the toxic culture that has developed in an environment where con leadership makes no effort to address issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Other reported issues with Anime Matsuri include poor treatment of guests, failure to pay guests, failure to pay vendors and contractors, failure to pay venues and attempts to sabotage smaller conventions. — Boycott AM on Facebook
The call for change is part of a much larger (and longer) story that goes back to at least 2015.
In July 2015 The Beat covered allegations against the then event manager of Anime Matsuri, John Leigh. Leigh has since taken up the roll of CEO for the convention and also helps to run the Lolita fashion store Shop in Wonderland. In 2015, several people came forward accusing Leigh of sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct. The story was also reported by Jeff Rouner of the Houston Press.
Lolita fashion, for those unfamiliar, is inspired by the Rococo and Victorian periods and became popularized in Japanese street-wear during the 1980s, gaining more world-wide notoriety in the 1990s. Those who wear the lace-frilled-fanciful dresses often call themselves lolita’s.
In a 2015 blog entry, Nina Reijnders, a lolita who goes by the name Chokelate, alleged that Leigh had routinely made inappropriate requests of her and wrote extensively about her experiences with Leigh on her blog. Reijnders provided several screen captures of messages she says she exchanged with Leigh. Messages she initially dismissed as jokes but later came to view as a predatory pattern of behavior and grooming.
Reijnders was not the only individual to come forward with allegations against Leigh. A June 2015 blog post by gothic and lolita fashion blogger who goes by the name Buttcape (also known as Stephany) detailed a similar experience with Leigh.
Leigh responded in 2015 with a long post on his blog called “A man in a women’s world.” The post is a long, and at times rambling explanation for his behavior.
As a disclaimer I would like to point out that I joke a lot with my friends or people I consider close. If you are offended by sexual innuendos, dirty talks or comments about boobs and orgasms, you should not be my friend. Online or offline. This means no disrespect and I would suggest not engaging in conversation with me. I act this way with my friends regardless of gender, and as my friend, you should make it perfectly clear that you are uncomfortable with my conversation. I would respect you enough to stop joking. — John Leigh blog entry June 2015
It is important to remind our readers that claiming sexually suggestive comments were jokes is no inoculation against claims of sexual harassment.
I do not have to apologize for how I talk, act and joke with my friends. However I understand why some are upset after reading screen caps from a private message without context. To those, I sincerely apologize. — John Leigh
Also, as demonstrated by the alleged horrific actions of Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein, men in positions of power often use that power to exploit those in subordinate positions. Leigh’s position of power as event manager and now as CEO is worth keeping in mind, especially in terms of how he chooses to interact with volunteers, employees, models, or those seeking to exhibit at Anime Matsuri.
The blowback against Leigh’s victim-blaming-blog entry prompted him to write a follow-up Facebook post. In the post, provided below, Leigh claims he did not know what he was doing was wrong and promised to make changes to Anime Matsuri’s sexual harassment guidelines and policies. On February 12, I reached out to the press department of Anime Matsuri via email to inquire about what specific policies were enacted but have yet to receive a response.
It’s been three years since the accusations against Leigh were first levied and after an initial outcry from the anime and lolita community, Anime Matsuri went on with John Leigh remaining in a position of power and influence. The controversy reignited in December 2017 after John Leigh, who appears to be unable to let a criticism go without a response, helped bring his past back into the spotlight.
The controversy involving Leigh and his alleged behavior towards women and girls reemerged at the end of 2017 when lolita fashion vlogger and host of Last Week Lolita News, ScarfingScarves posted a video on YouTube which called attention to the previous allegations against Leigh.
In the videos, ScarfingScarves questions the relationship between Leigh, Ask Japanese— a YouTube channel which does person on the street-style interviews in Japan–and YouTube personality Cathy Cat. The video asks why any person, company or brand would want to be affiliated or associated with an alleged serial harasser or convention with such a troubled history.
That video and a follow-up video were issued DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notices for copyright violations by YouTube channel Ask Japanese. In the United States those using copyrighted material are generally indemnified from claims of infringement thanks to what is known as fair use.
“Fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” Stanford University Libraries
Though I’m not an attorney, the videos posted by ScarfingScarves would appear to fall under the category of commentary and criticism. ScarfingScarves reposted the videos along with additional follow-up videos explaining the controversy on their Facebook page.
On January 4, 2018 Tyler Willis (ScarfingScarves) received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer advocating on behalf of the Anime Matsuri Convention, Shop In Wonderland and their owners, John and Deneice Leigh.
The letter Willis received has been included below:
It’s an odd move for the Leigh’s to take as it gives the impression of wanting to silence victims, those who are attempting to vocalize their dissent, or encourage discussions about sexual harassment.
On February 2, John Leigh wrote a message as the CEO of Anime Matsuri published on the Anime Matsuri blog regarding the legal action and past accusations of sexual harassment.
For the group who call themselves Boycott Anime Matsuri it’s all too little too late. In early 2018 a group of individuals decided to band together in order to tell John Leigh and his enablers that his “Time’s Up.”
The Boycott Anime Matsuri Movement
I reached out to the members of Boycott Anime Matsuri to get a better sense of why they are organizing now, what their demands are and what they hope to accomplish.
For the members of this group, who wish to protect their identities by remaining anonymous, the environment for talking about sexual harassment is significantly different than it was in 2015. Encouraged in part by the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, the group decided to organize in early 2018.
AYRES: What is your message to the directors of Anime Matsuri, what are specific actions you would like to see them take?
BOYCOTT AM: Our message is this: The anime/cosplay/egl/gaming communities will no longer be silent about the problems with Anime Matsuri. We are no longer a niche group of individuals with obscure hobbies, we represent significant consumer groups who can afford to be discerning about what we consume and who we support.
The boycott will end when the following condition is met: John and Deneice Leigh step down from all positions of authority at Anime Matsuri, real or ceremonial, to be replaced by individual(s) who are not or have never been in the employ of the Leighs. The replacement(s) should be willing to acknowledge and address the issues with the con, including mistreatment of past volunteers, vendors, guests, business partners and attendees. The replacement(s) should also take immediate action to implement policies and staff training to address the problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault at Anime Matsuri.
AYRES: What has the response been by others in the community? Have they been supportive, unsupportive? What does it tell you about the climate out there for speaking out against harassment, be it sexual or otherwise?
BOYCOTT AM: The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, with many expressing relief and a feeling of validation in knowing that they are not alone in their complaints and misgivings about Anime Matsuri. We’ve seen some cases of individuals responding negatively or defensively to news of the boycott, but we’ve found that many who respond negatively are not fully informed about the magnitude off the harassment allegations, or for that matter about the large amount of documented evidence supporting them.
We revived the #BoycottAnimeMatsuri campaign in force this year because we believe we are in an ideal social climate to speak out against sexual harassment and actually be heard. Many in the anime, cosplay, EGL, gaming, etc. communities have been shouting about these problems for years, but have been dismissed due to lack of evidence, lack of public statements from victims, or a general lack of public awareness and concern for the problem of sexual harassment.
AYRES: What might you say to someone who questions the efficacy and/or motivations of a non-injured party acting on the behalf of others? As a follow-up: Why should people trust you or your group to advocate for them? How do you protect the individuals identities?
BOYCOTT AM: We’d say that being unrelated non-injured parties makes us ideal candidates to serve in our current role. Our actions are not the result of a personal vendetta and we have nothing tangible to gain from sharing stories and encouraging the general public to boycott Anime Matsuri. We are acting as a buffer between those who wish to share their stories and any potential negative consequences that may arise as a result of speaking out.
A degree of faith was required of the first few individuals who reached out to us, but after time I think it became clear that any communications with the boycott accounts would remain confidential. All boycott social media accounts are multi-factor secured and accessible only to 2-3 individuals within our group. Screenshots and testimonials received are logged, saved with the information redacted and then the original messages are deleted. The identities of those who contact a boycott social media account will never be revealed outside of our group unless at the contacting party’s request.
Convention News! I will no longer be attending Anime Matsuri this year. Im sorry if people were expecting me but it sounds like AM is going through some drama that I'd rather not support. However I will be at Anime Boston with @RightRiotArt!
— Steff Egan (@GrittySugar) February 19, 2018
AYRES: Have you made your demands known to Anime Matsuri? If you have, what was your method for communicating these demands?
BOYCOTT AM: Our demands are public and have been linked by each of our social media accounts. The can be found at bit.ly/boycottmatsuri.
AYRES: Has anyone at Anime Matsuri responded to your boycott, allegations, and/or claims? If so what have they said, how do they communicate with you?
BOYCOTT AM: We have not been formally contacted by anyone at Anime Matsuri. If they did consider reaching out to us, we would respectfully suggest that they instead directly contact the affected parties.
AYRES: What does your group think of Leigh’s apologies?
BOYCOTT AM: We think John Leigh’s original apology dated June 22, 2015 (“A Man in a Woman’s World. Pt1”) was a gutless display of self-serving narcissism, victim blaming and general tone-deafness that served only to clearly underscore the origins of the toxic culture Anime Matsuri has come to be known for. We applaud the PR professional who wrote John Leigh’s second apology dated February 2, 2018 and hope they had better luck in securing payment for their work than many other former volunteers, vendors and contractors of Anime Matsuri have reported having in the past.
I've gotten a lot of disconcerting messages over the past few weeks, and have taken a lot of time to think about it, and have decided that I will not be tabling at Anime Matsuri. I still have everything booked and will still be in the area to hang out, but I can't (continued)
— Moderately Okay Cosplay (@ModeratelyOkCos) January 22, 2018
AYRES: If people want to get in touch with you or share their story, how should they go about doing this?
BOYCOTT AM: We can be directly messaged via any of our social media accounts.
or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Boycott AM is hoping to see real change come to the Anime Matsuri convention and say they will continue to use social media to reach out to current attendees and guests in the hopes of mobilizing more individuals to take a stand against sexual harassment, exploitation and sexual misconduct.
On February 12, 2018, I reached out to Anime Matsuri requesting a response from someone within their communications or press department regarding the Boycott Anime Matsuri movement and past allegations against John Leigh. I sent a follow-up email on Tuesday afternoon requesting a response from someone within the press department but have yet to receive a response. This post will be updated as necessary.