When Noha Khayyat and Safa’a Akbar, co-owners of Nippon Sayko, began selling handmade manga and anime merchandise in a tiny booth tucked away in a Jeddah mall, they were told by other shop owners that they “would never survive.”
Now, eight years later, Nippon Sayko is one of the Kingdom’s most popular outlets for anime and manga, the Japanese animation films and comic books.
Demand for Japanese anime and manga has risen dramatically in Saudi Arabia in recent years, with a growing number of shops selling popular anime merchandise and manga books. Events such as Comic-Con, a comic and multimedia convention held in Riyadh and Jeddah, have also increased interest in Japanese animation and storytelling.
Khayyat and Akbar will join other outlets showing a range of anime and manga merchandise at a Comic-Con in Jeddah next month.
The two friends began selling anime-related merchandise while at university and were surprised by the enthusiastic response from fellow students. After graduating, and unhappy working for a company, they started Nippon Sayko.
“Our offices were on a higher level at a mall, so one day after work we were walking around the mall, and we found this women-only section. Back then women couldn’t work in malls, and it wasn’t even a shop, it was a tiny booth. We contacted several people who supported us year after year. They came, and it was a hit,” Khayyat told Arab News.
“It was really hard in the beginning as we didn’t want to ask our parents for financial support and wanted to do this independently. We used to work our office job from 8-5 and then open this booth at 5 p.m. and stay until 11.”
Khayyat and Akbar said they want to create a space where others can meet and share their love of anime and manga. “People stop in from all over the country just to Snapchat with their favorite (manga) characters, and it’s beautiful to see that connection,” Khayyat said.
“We did struggle at first because we were introducing something alien to the country,” she said. “We had people telling us ‘these things are for kids,’ or ‘it’s not really natural to like these things.’ Other shopkeepers told us, ‘you will never last.’ But look at us now. We’re still standing, while most of them couldn’t continue.”
Saudi Arabia had its first taste of anime as early as the 1970s, with popular television shows such as “Future Boy Conan” and “Grendizer” both favorites with children at the time.
Majed Nawawi, co-owner of Jeddah’s Anime Station Store, has been collecting figures since 1987 and, as a child, promoted his favorite shows and spread anime culture among his friends.
“The anime wave swept Saudi Arabia with the series Naruto in 2002-2003; it was revolutionary, and all sorts of people got into it,” Nawawi said. “Before that, this culture was unacceptable. After Naruto, people began embracing anime. That brought demand for action figures, merchandise and accessories.
“Who would have thought we’d witness Comic-Con, IGN and gaming events? We have large numbers of people who write, create and tell their stories through their own manga. We’ve come a long way,” he said.
A visitor to the store, Wed Al-Nahi, said she became interested in anime as anime as a child and still enjoys it as a university student. “The stories they tell, specifically fantasy, represent my imagination and the things I always dream of, but unfortunately cannot come true. I get to experience that through anime.
“I collect figures to show how much I admire those characters. It’s a reminder of the anime I watched and how much I enjoyed it,” she said.
Her older sister, Nora, 26, agrees. “My favorite anime has always been ‘The Rose of Versailles’ from 1979. I watched it when I was young and I still rewatch it religiously. I disagree with the misconception of anime being for kids, because it is for adults. There are many things I learned from it about literary references and the French Revolution. I love the main character, Lady Oscar, because she’s not your usual damsel in distress. She’s strong, independent and beautiful at the same time.”