(Note: This post is adapted from a research paper I wrote for the Japanese Popular Culture class I took while studying in Tokyo with the Institute for the International Education of Students. I found out a lot of interesting things about the culture of cosplay in Japan, and wanted to reshape it to fit the more casual format of this blog. I did some of my own field work for this project, but my supplemental sources will be listed at the end of the article for those who would like to learn more. Hope you enjoy.)
One aspect of studying in Japan that excited me more than anything was the chance to cosplay at a Japanese convention. As is often the case with young fans of sci-fi and fantasy media, my first introduction to cosplay occurred at a comic convention, where fans of all ages gather by the thousands to meet famous celebrities, play tabletop RPGs, buy both official and fan-made merchandise, and most importantly, cosplay their favorite characters. Hoping to see what I could discover about the cosplay scene in Japan, Sunday, Nov. 24, I decided to pay a visit to Tokyo Comic Con 2019.
Determining exactly where cosplay finds its roots can be difficult. Although a lot of folks argue that cosplay originated with American Star Trek fans in the 1960s and 1970s (Lamerichs 167) (as did the concept of slash fiction, and maybe even the flip phone), others maintain that it had come to be in both the United States and Japan at around the same time (Hoff 149). In fact, while the word “cosplayer” was coined by Japanese game designer Takahashi Nobuyuki, he first used it to describe the costumed fans he witnessed on a trip to America (Lamerichs 167). With the exception of models, idols, and singers, most Japanese cosplayers consider themselves to be “otaku” of some kind (155). This is a term for a person with an interest bordering on obsession, and it is not exclusive to anime and manga. It could be videogames, or old science fiction or bird watching; one can be an “otaku” about almost anything, which gives cosplayers a vast variety of possible interests from which to draw their inspiration.
The Tokyo Comic Con website provides a brief history of the convention, which started its life as an American idea: Comic Con began in 1970 with the Golden State Comic Book Convention (later renamed San Diego Comic Con), founded by Shel Dorf, and Silicon Valley Comic Con, organized by influential comic creator Stan Lee and Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple (Tokyo Comic Con, “What’s Comic Con?” 1). Decades later, with the help of Stan Lee and actors Daniel Logan and Ryoma Takeuchi, Wozniak brought their convention to Japan, and in 2016, the very first Tokyo Comic Con was held (3). Today, Tokyo Comic Con describes itself as “a festival celebrating Japanese and American pop culture, while keeping its genetic ‘American’ style foundation” (4). In other words, it’s a convention in the American tradition, but Japanese fans have made it their own, promising that everyone who attends can have a unique and enjoyable experience. This cultural adaptation was evident to me when I came upon the gigantic ikebana monument to Stan Lee in the center of the venue; despite the convention’s American origins, my experience at Tokyo Comic Con would still feel distinctly Japanese.
When it comes to cosplayers at Tokyo Comic Con, no group is more celebrated yet more restricted. Cosplayers can participate in a lively cosplay parade, various cosplay contests, and if their costume meets Tokyo Comic Con’s quality requirements, even stand on the stage together with a visiting celebrity to create content for their social media pages. But there are also areas of the convention which do not suit these costumed guests as well. For example, there are a variety of photo spots all around the convention, but none of them are generic enough to be well-suited to cosplay photoshoots — you can’t effectively have a “Mad Max” themed photoshoot, for example, if you’re standing next to Pennywise or sitting on a perfect copy of the couch from “Friends.” In my experience, cosplayers are more likely to opt for basic non-franchise-affiliated backgrounds, unless they are lucky enough to find one that matches their character. If anything, the photo spots seem designed for guests who are not cosplaying.
What poses an even greater obstacle to cosplayers is the simple fact that no one is allowed to wear a cosplay outside of the venue; cosplaying guests are required to arrive and leave in their normal street clothes and must pay a cosplay registration fee of 1,000 yen in order to use the dressing room and cloakroom. The cosplays themselves are also subject to a significant number of regulations, to ensure that no one at the convention is exposing themselves indecently, or dressed up as a historical military figure, or any military, police, firefighter, etc. personnel authorized to give orders. At an American convention of comparable size (such as Megacon in Orlando, Florida), prop regulation takes an obvious precedence over cosplay rules (of where there are none directly listed on their website), since the most dominant fear of management and guests is the possibility of someone bringing a dangerous item or a real weapon into an area packed with people. Although Tokyo Comic Con has its own list of restricted props, my prop check experience was much more relaxed; prop check allowed me to enter the convention wielding a full sized heavy metal shovel, without even stopping to tag it.
After I had explored the venue a bit, I decided to talk to some Japanese cosplayers for myself, to see what their impressions of the hobby were. I found five people in various locations on the con floor, and generally decided on my subjects based on their choice of cosplay. When I found someone cosplaying a character that I liked, I asked them, “Nihon no kosupure nitsuite omoshiroi no koto wo hitotsu oshiete kudasai,” or “Please tell me something interesting about cosplay in Japan.” It might have been unfair to ask something so difficult — without doing the research I have done, I doubt I could have told anyone much about what characterizes cosplay in America — but still, I received a variety of answers, which I have done my best to translate accurately into English.
“The difference between serious and gag is intense.”
A woman cosplaying Marvel’s Quicksilver told me, “The difference between serious and gag is intense,” using the Japanese words “honki” and “gyagu” to describe what she perceived as the two hemispheres of cosplay. I had to agree with her; the majority of the cosplays I saw at the convention were quite serious interpretations of characters, but there were also plenty of outfits on the other side of the coin, as well, such as a suit-clad man with a gigantic Monster Energy can on his head, or an astoundingly in-character camcorder-head man from the anti-piracy ads shown before movies here in Japan. But although I found these cosplays very entertaining, it is normally quite rare to see characters from outside of the con’s genre in Japan (Hoff 160). This being an American-style convention, almost every cosplayer I encountered had assumed the identity of a character from American pop culture. This year, the main cosplay categories were Marvel, DC, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Most of the few people I saw wearing anime-related cosplays (myself included) were foreigners. Serious cosplayers in Japan also like to stay on the cutting edge by dressing as characters from newly released shows and films, their styles changing as rapidly as regular fashion trends, whereas American preferences in cosplay tend to be more nostalgic (160). Understandably, the most popular cosplays at Tokyo Comic Con 2019 seemed to be the Joker, Pennywise and Iron Man, all which are from fairly recent film releases. Just as Quicksilver implied, there is a large difference between those who are serious about cosplay and those who dress up for laughs.
“Over the past 10 years, the number of people who cosplay for various reasons, such as taking photos of their works and exchanging them, has increased.”
Later in the day, a woman dressed as C3P0 told me, “Over the past 10 years, the number of people who cosplay for various reasons, such as taking photos of their works and exchanging them, has increased.” Cosplay practices in Japan have always been linked to consumerism, in the forms of cosplay restaurants, cosplay supply shops and the sale of merchandise; cosplayers from around the world often make a living by selling prints from their photoshoots. The internet has made it even easier to share these photos, but it has also led to the adoption of a kind of international conformity of style, so many people in Japan try hard to maintain a characteristic sense of Japan in their cosplay endeavors (Hoff 150), to make themselves distinct from cosplayers in other countries. At Tokyo Comic Con, guests can witness a variety of characters from American pop culture transformed to fit the Japanese tradition; Captain Marvel in a red and blue kimono, Batman in the armor of a samurai, Deadpool wielding katanas, fans and occasionally donning a maid costume. There were even a handful of non-cosplayers who chose to wear kimono to the convention, not to be left out of the fun of dressing up for the event.
“The ability to express yourself with the ingenuity of makeup and clothes is wonderful.”
After discussing her answer with her heavily-armored companion, an Edward Elric cosplayer who seemed to be about my age told me, “The ability to express yourself with the ingenuity of makeup and clothes is wonderful.” In Japan especially, I found the general makeup skill levels of cosplayers to be particularly high. False eyelashes, colored contacts and makeup for both men and women are all standard procedure in the cosplay world (Hoff 161), and Japanese cosplayers take great pride in looking as physically similar to their chosen character as possible. At Tokyo Comic Con, for example, I saw an Iron Man cosplayer whose makeup rendered her nearly identical to Robert Downey Jr., a (female) Joker cosplayer who I completely mistook for Joaquin Phoenix in photos, and even a Voldemort cosplayer wearing terrifyingly realistic-looking facial prosthetics. This is one of the most noticeable physical differences between cosplay in America and Japan. In the United States, there are a much greater variety of body types and skin colors represented in the cosplay community, and so our standards of what makes a cosplay “faithful” are generally more broad (159). Japanese cosplayers tend to focus much more on the details of physical, especially facial, similarity to the character than cosplayers in the West.
“We place emphasis on expressing an actor’s facial expression and atmosphere.”
After agreeing to pose with me for a selfie, a friendly Elton John cosplayer told me, “(In Japan) we place emphasis on expressing an actor’s facial expression and atmosphere.” In the context of cosplay photography, this does seem to be the case in Japan, where photos taken in cosplay have arguably become even more important than the costume creation itself (Lamerichs 168). For example, a bought cosplay is considered perfectly acceptable in Japan, whereas in America a cosplayer in a store-bought outfit might be thought of as a lesser artist for not making their own. Elton, who did seem to have sewn his own wonderful sparkly costume, had unknowingly demonstrated his answer before I even approached him; as I watched him pose for pictures, I was struck by the thought that he must have seen “Rocketman” many times
in order to get his poses and expressions to be so charming, animated and accurate to his character.
Both cosplay photography and cosplay performances (called “masquerades”) are very popular in Japan (Hoff 158), the appeal of modelling even going so far as to overtake the social aspect of cosplay altogether (Lamerichs 171). I’ve come to appreciate this more myself as I’ve gotten more serious about cosplay as an art form; when you’ve put a lot of work into a costume, it is incredibly satisfying to create a stylized final product through photography. There was a very tall and imposing man dressed as Immortan Joe who seemed to agree with this sentiment.
“Taking joke photos will make everyone happy. cosplayers usually aren’t good at talking…”
Although he was a little difficult to approach, he proved to be quite happy to answer my question, telling me, “Taking joke photos will make everyone happy. Cosplayers usually aren’t good at talking…” This seems to be an aspect of “otaku” culture in general. While many cosplayers may not feel comfortable to be social at conventions, even complete strangers can bond and have a good time together by taking funny photos.
Cosplay events are smaller in Japan, but more numerous — as many as 4,000 to 5,000 every year (Hoff 160). However, little by little, physical and temporal space is being taken away from cosplayers in Japan. Cosplay locations are getting smaller, restricted to the inside of the venue space; they are unable to arrive at or leave in cosplay, and must pay an additional fee to be allowed to cosplay at all. Even changing or putting on makeup in the bathroom is strictly prohibited; cosplayers must crowd together in public dressing rooms, making it quite difficult to get ready. Thirty years ago, it was common for cosplayers to wear their cosplays outside of the convention area, but it has become increasingly restricted over the years (163). In America, for example, if you leave the venue for lunch, you may walk into a Denny’s to see Sasuke Uchiha and the Avengers eating pancakes together. In Japan, such a sight is impossible. As a result, recently Japanese cosplayers have begun to create their own venues for cosplay; places that are much freer for cosplayers, in the hopes that Japanese society will recognize and acknowledge the cultural value of their hobby (165). With the existence of such spaces, I believe that there is a lot of hope for the future of cosplay in Japan.
“COSPLAY.” 東京コミコン2019, 2019, tokyocomiccon.jp/en/cosplay.
Hoff, Edmund W. “Cosplay as Subculture: In Japan and Beyond.” Bulletin of Tokai Gakuen University: Studies in humanities, no. 17, 31 Mar. 2012, pp. 149–167.
Lamerichs, Nicolle. “The Cultural Dynamic of Doujinshi and Cosplay: Local Anime Fandom in Japan, USA, and Europe.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, May 2013.
“What’s Comic Con?” 東京コミコン2019, 2019, tokyocomiccon.jp/en/whatscc.