For the Love of Manga - Cosplay

Costume Play, or 'Cosplay', in Japan

Cosplay maids at a cosplay event.

by Alan Wiren

I once watched the movies Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3 back to back on my VCR. It took about eight hours, but for me it was time well spent. Other people will read the same book over again every year.

While people find all sorts of ways of escaping into fictional worlds, the Japanese have invented a way of bringing them one step closer to reality.

It is called cosplay and has gained international recognition and popularity in such countries as South Korea, France and Brazil as the trend has grown out of its origins in Tokyo, particularly Akihabara and Japan's other large cities.

Harajuku Cosplay Tokyo, Japan.
Harajuku Cosplay © John Lander

What cosplay means

Cosplay Spiderman.

The word cosplay can have different meanings in Japan. One is simply wearing a costume, largely for the effect it has on others, as in the "maid" and "butler" cafes that have recently appeared in Japan where the service staff wear the respective uniforms.

Another meaning is the kind of dress-up games that lovers might play during foreplay. But the word cosplay is a Japanese-style contraction of the English words "costume" and "role-play," and the pastime that can bring thousand of like-minded people together to celebrate their fantasy worlds is a combination of both.

Cosplay was born from the love of Japanese cartoon art - or manga. It is one way that manga fans make the characters from those imaginary worlds part of their own lives.

Some manga fans get involved by writing and self-publishing comic books of their own. Some create original stories. Others write parodies or spin-offs from professionally published works.

But these fans take a different tack and bring the characters to life by recreating and wearing their clothes, their hairstyles, and their accoutrements, from fashion accessories to weapons. They do not stop there.

The next step is to gather together and take on the personalities of their chosen characters. While in costume, they will answer to their characters' names, act, speak, and even think like their characters. They are cosplayers.

Cosplay candy girl.

Cosplayers and the amateur comic writers are grass roots cults that have grown up side by side. Wherever you find the self-publishers selling their work in Japan, you are likely to find cosplayers.

The world's largest venue of this type is comiket (another Japanese-style contraction of "comic" and "market") held in December and August every year in Tokyo.

Although it is not part of comiket's mission, an area is set aside within the market for cosplay. Not all manga inspired events welcome cosplayers, though.

The annual Tokyo International Anime Fair has banned cosplay to maintain its professional atmosphere. Know the rules before you go. Comiket, for example will not admit anyone carrying an object of more than 30 centimeters in length.

Cosplay events

Cosplay ninja

Cosplay has gained popularity in the last two decades and cosplay events are now a part of the landscape. Annual conventions are held in Tokyo and Osaka that include competitions for the best costumes. The Osu Kannon district of Nagoya also hosts an annual Cosplay event, the World Cosplay Summit.

Annual cosplay parades are held in Tokyo's Akihabara and Osaka's Nipponbashi districts. Although when I attended the event in Nipponbashi in March of 2007, the parade itself turned out to be a non-event. Cosplayers had come in droves, but when the time came to line up and march they were much more inclined to remain spread out in the streets getting reacquainted.

Some profit oriented companies have begun to appreciate cosplay's potential, and there are now websites where you can buy costumes for any of the major Japanese cartoon characters.

Other companies advertise cosplay events that comprise a rented space with changing rooms, photographic backdrops, and meager refreshments for a modest entry fee. These days it is possible to find at least one cosplay event every week in Japan's major cities.

Cosplay trends

Military cosplay.

As cosplay has gained autonomy from manga, the characters played have become more diverse. Anyone who is sincerely trying to bring a slice of imagination to life will surely be accepted by this esoteric community. It is not surprising to see friends of Harry Potter's, or imperial troopers from a galaxy far far away rubbing elbows with superheroes from Japanese comics and video games.

If you ever have the urge to become one of your favorite characters without the aid of a script or director, and if you love the limelight no matter how small the audience, consider making a cosplay experience part of your time in Japan.

At the same time, don't expect cosplayers to be one big, happy family. Of course it is possible to make new friends at cosplay events, but if you do not feel comfortable starting out as a loner, you might want to make your debut with some like-minded friends. Most cosplayers prefer to spend their time at a cosplay event playing their characters, rather than introducing themselves.

Cosplayers and 'cameko'

A 'cameko' boy and a cosplay girl.

Manga and cosplay events, invariably attract one other group of participants, named by yet another Japanese-style contraction. Cameko means "camera kid". Photographing cosplayers is another way to experience this subculture. It is also an excellent opportunity for photographers who want to gain experience with portraiture.

If you choose this route, keep in mind that you will be on the bottom rung of the ladder. Manga self-publishers take pride in their work and usually see the cosplayers as imitators. The cosplayers see themselves as the artists and the photographers merely as reproducers of their work.

The relationship between cosplayers and cameko can therefore become strained. The vast majority of cosplayers are young women. Most of the cameko are young men. Most of the costumes are, in a word, sexy, and some are revealing. A photographer who approaches cosplayers with anything less that the utmost respect is courting disaster.

When it is handled well, though, the relationship between cosplayers and photographers is both cooperative and productive. Most cosplayers have practiced several poses, often drawn from well known frames of their character's cartoons. A photographer need do no more than ask a cosplayer for permission to take her picture and she will surely strike at least one. Many cosplayers have the demeanor of professional models.

Cosplay event etiquette

Cosplay ninja.

To take a cosplayer's (or, in Japan, anyone's) picture without permission is taboo. At an outdoor event, such as a parade, where a semicircle of cameko will form spontaneously around a cosplayer who stops to pose, permission can amount to simply getting the model's attention.

You will know when you have it!

At indoor events photographers usually approach cosplayers individually and must explicitly ask for permission. Never try to "cut in" on another photographer's session. Cameko often give cosplayers copies of their photos as gifts.

Some people get bitten by the cosplay bug. When I went to an event in Osaka, hosted by a company called Cosjoy, Spiderman told me that he goes to a cosplay event every weekend. I asked everyone I spoke to there to look around the room and tell me how many people they knew. The universal reply was, "No one."

Olde World cosplay on the street.

If you want to find out if cosplay is for you, the best way is to whip up a costume from your favorite manga, rent one on the internet, or dust off the old Star Trek uniform and spend an afternoon among cosplayers living the fantasy for yourself.

Cosplay Links

Cosplay, Catgirls and Other Critters (Cosplay)
Cosplay Girls: Japan's Live Animation Heroines
CosPlay Encyclopedia

Other Japan articles by Alan Wiren

'To the Winner Goes the Eye': Katsuoji Temple
Culture Shock
Soy Sauce: An Honorable Savor
Japanese Lacquerware: the lustrous charm of urushi
Shodoshima - Japan's Olive Island
Mobile Phones - keitai
Ebisu & Daikoku: Bringing Home the Bounty
Japanese Seaweed: Essence and Accents from the Sea
Japanese Green Tea
Lake Biwa Canal Museum of Kyoto
Hamamatsu Festival: the Children's Battle
Takoyaki: Icon of Osaka
Muroji Temple, Nara: A Dragon Runs Through It
Raamen Noodles
Instant Noodles Museum
Wakayama Marina City
Living the Echizen Style

Books on Japanese Fashion