Cosplay, a portmanteau of “costume” and “play” and pillar of anime, comic book and science fiction conventions worldwide has reached new levels of popularity in the West. The SyFy channel is scheduled to release the TV series “Heroes of Cosplay” next month, and cosplay is slowly becoming an understood term even in non-geek communities. Though the act of dressing in fan-made costumes of popular characters may not have originated in Japan itself, the term today generally brings images of Japan, and rightly so – cosplay is a huge business there.
As a geek myself, I spent time in high school and college at anime conventions. In addition to being an obsessed gamer, I also enjoyed art, so sewing costumes and making props seemed like a second nature. Conventions are a blast if one can withstand the peculiar odor. My reasons for moving to Japan were academic in nature, but though I tried to throw it all behind me and avoid being one of those“gaijin”, I met a friend as geeky as I was and we decided to give a try at what some Western cosplayers idealize as the ultimate experience: cosplaying in Japan.
Japan has a market for cosplay. In Tokyo, a walk through geek-central Akihabara, or a stroll down Otome Road in Ikebukuro, or even high-fashion Harajuku will yield many cosplay stores. Some divide their plastic-wrapped costumes by series on packed racks. Some are dedicated to wigs alone. You can find cosplay photo studios, that is, studios designed to look like scenes that might take place in an anime or video game. Cosplay is an everyday word in Japan that additionally refers to dressing in the Victorian-inspired lolita fashion, or even non-students dressing up in school uniforms for fun. And of course, conventions are numerous. There are hundreds of events to show off your modeling abilities, lead by Comiket, which garners over half a million attendees twice a year.
Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that cosplay is somehow well-accepted and respected in Japan. Despite the hobby’s abundance, cosplay is just as nerdy and taboo in Japan as it is in West, if not more so. It’s private. People generally don’t tell their families or non-geek friends that they cosplay. They give aliases at conventions, too. And in America, cosplayers might be known to go to and from the convention in costume – don’t expect to get away with that in Japan, it’s forbidden by convention rules.
The mechanics of cosplaying at a convention are comparatively stiffled, too. Not only are you not allowed to enter the convention hall in cosplay, you often have to buy a ticket and pay to do it (usually between five to ten bucks). At big conventions, expect long lines to get in to the building, and another long line to get into the changing room. And don’t expect mirrors, power outlets and personal space in that changing room – it’s a giant hall stuffed with same-gendered people pulling along small suitcases carrying their costumes, and you’re lucky to find a couple of square feet to park your stuff and change. After you’re in your costume, you can leave, but remember that you must come back to change an hour or two before the event finishes, because you’re not supposed to leave in your costume.
Conventions also feature designated “cosplay areas.” At Comiket and Tokyo Game Show, these areas are usually outside, and this is the only place permitted for you to cosplay – that is, stand there and have people come up – or line up – to take your photo. The lines to take pictures can be overwhelming, but convention rules dictate that everyone must verbally ask to snap pictures before they do. They may put the pictures on their website, which is not unusual for America, either, but something I’d never heard of before was that photographers might compile their photos and sell them, with or without your permission. As with the West, it’s important to watch out for people suspiciously taking pictures of what seems to be just your breasts, or the infamous upskirt shot. Many conventions require female cosplayers wearing short skirts to have nylons underneath for this reason.
The atmosphere of the cosplay area also might be described as more serious and methodical than its Western equivalent. Cosplayers find a free area to the side of traffic and fall into pristine and practiced poses. Many make a cosplay “business” card, with their alias and links to their cosplay websites, and might exchange them with photographers or new friends.
One factor that might account for the differences is that Western anime conventions tend to be events with more activities that celebrate Japanese pop culture, or even just geek culture in general. There are panels, costume contests, dances, art galleries, merchandise rooms and gaming rooms, and their primary function is to gather like-minded people who want to relax and have fun. Japanese conventions naturally have no reason to celebrate their own pop culture, and so lack these extra events. Comiket, for example, is the shortened form of “comic market”, and people go there for the purpose of buying comics. They also don’t tend to take place in hotels, and have set opening and closing times during the day, causing a rush to get there and leave.
My experiences cosplaying in Japan were always positive, and I had a lot of fun at events like Comiket, Tokyo Game Show, Anime Contents Expo and several others. Being a foreigner especially garnered me a lot of positive attention, even video interviews! But foreign cosplayers shouldn’t expect anything similar to the West besides people who enjoy dressing up as fictional characters, because it’s an ordeal of a different kind, and convention rules and social etiquette should be followed.