IT MAY BE Doraemon, the blue time-traveling robotic cat. Or Shinichi, the human teenager with a sentient parasite for a fist with which he battles legions of other alien parasites. Hit downtown the first weekend of April and you’re likely to rub shoulders with any number of costumed creatures who descend upon the Washington State Convention Center for Sakura-Con, the festival celebrating Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics).

Thousands of fans flood Seattle each year to eye anime films in six theaters, put their thumbs to the test in the largest gaming arcade on the West Coast, and meet the voice actors, artists, game designers, and writers behind the top Japanese fantasy titles. And nearly every attendee engages in cosplay (short for “costume play”), masquerading as their favorite characters.

Japan’s pop-cult hold on the U.S. dates back to the 1960s, when English-dubbed Japanese cartoons such as Speed Racer roused American rug rats from Saturday-morning slumber. Japan’s multimillion-dollar manga industry made even more bank once its comics were translated into English and landed on American shores. But throughout the ’80s and most of the ’90s it remained on the fringe, a place where only the most Urkel among us dared to tread.

In 1998, one title changed it all. Pokémon "introduced a generation of kids to anime and manga,” says Jason Thompson, a Seattle manga author and headliner for this year’s Sakura-Con. The universal appeal of the cute squishable videogame and manga character sent Americans running to comic book stores in droves. “It sold over one million copies, over 10 times more than any other Japanese comic released in America.”

That same year, local anime and manga buffs organized a little convention that would later be known as Sakura-Con (sakura is Japanese for “cherry blossoms”) at a Sea-Tac airport hotel, and drew 300 people. Thirteen years and a major venue change later, the volunteer-run festival has bloomed into one of the largest of its kind in North America.

Last year the fest hosted almost 17,000 fans from 36 states and from countries as far off as Malaysia and Norway. Organizers expect 18,000 this year. That’s a lot of neon-haired, sword-wielding teenagers and twentysomethings crawling all over downtown.

It’s not all kids’ play. While nearly 70 percent of participants are ages 14 to 26, a small fraction are significantly older. Elmira Utz, 38, of Renton, followed her Japanophile kids down the anime rabbit hole, and now watches ’toons such as Sailor Moon (about an ass-kicking superheroine) with the glee of a Tokyo teen. She volunteers as Sakura-Con’s publicity director—and is also known for her cosplay acumen. “My kids, they don’t ask for traditional Christmas presents. They ask me to sew them costumes.”