Japan Pop Culture Views: Cosplay

Japanese pop culture, in the form of anime, manga and other media, is highly popular all over the world today. Acclaimed abroad for its highly detailed drawing and unique sense of beauty, Japanese anime, together with the word “kawaii,” has spread across national borders. Cosplay, which combines the words “costume” and “play” (in the sense of playful acting), is also a popular activity among adults who enjoy dressing up as anime or video game characters, and young people wearing distinctive costumes and makeup are often sighted in districts of Tokyo like Akihabara or Harajuku. Three young cosplay aficionados talk about what makes this activity so appealing.

The Essence of Cosplay

Actor Masumi Horiguchi is a walking encyclopedia of Edo, the old name for today’s Tokyo. The youngest person ever to pass the 1st grade certification test in knowledge of Edo history and culture, Horiguchi puts her knowledge of Edo to work as a history guide. Although she usually wears the traditional Japanese kimono, she also participates in cosplay events where she works as an “idol” model and wears a combination of kimono and western-style clothing.

Singer, voiceover actor and radio personality Rika Asahina prefers dressing up as an anime character. Today, she’s dressed as Sheryl, the heroine of Macros Frontier, one of her favorite anime, and her billowy dress and blond wig suit her pale skin well.

Karin Morishita loves frilly “sweet Lolita” dresses that she wears to participate in events. The feminine pink and white outfit she’s wearing today is eye-catching.

The young women told about how they started doing cosplay. Horiguchi said that people liked the kimono-style costumes that she wears when she talks about old Edo on radio shows and at events, so she began wearing the costumes for work. She relates a choice tidbit of her wide-ranging Edo period (1603–1868) knowledge: “Did you know that events similar to today’s cosplay events took place in the old pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara? Every year, for a whole month during August, the ladies of Yoshiwara put on improvised plays and dances in the streets of the district. The high-class courtesans and other female entertainers strutted around dressed up as characters from various tales or as popular kabuki actors, a sight that attracted many spectators.”

Asahina’s love of cosplay was influenced by an older sister who also likes cosplay. She’s been enjoying dressing up as a character from anime for the past 15 years now.

In Morishita’s case, a friend predicted six years ago that cosplay would become popular, so she started dressing up in frilly clothes, which she loved anyway, to hang out in Akihabara. Before she knew it, she had attracted a crowd of people who came up to chat with her, which opened her eyes to the fun of cosplay. After that, she started dressing up and going to Akihabara with friends.

According to Asahina, “the essence of cosplay is that you can really become the character you’re dressed as, and that you can make friends with people with similar interests right away. Cosplay tips other people off as to which anime character is your favorite.

“Another great thing about cosplay is that it allows you to become a different person. Actually, I’m the shy type, but cosplay really liberates me.” Horiguchi and Morishita heartily concurred.

Morishita adds that “these are the clothes that I wear all the time, so I’m not conscious of doing cosplay. I dress like this when I travel too. I often go to places like Akihabara and Harajuku. There are lots of other people there who dress like this, so it’s easy to fit in.”

Cosplay for You Too

Cosplay outfits are sold at shops in Harajuku, Akihabara, Shinjuku and elsewhere that specialize in this type of merchandise, and on the Internet too. Masumi Horiguchi bought her outfit at Bodyline on Takeshita-dori Street in Harajuku. This shop stocks costumes in sizes up to extra-large; lots of men buy costumes there too. Prices are reasonable, and the store also carries a wide range of wigs and accessories. The website is in English and Chinese, in addition to Japanese.

Lately, cosplay outfits have also become available cheaply in Internet auctions. According to Karin Morishita, “that’s why the age for cosplay is getting younger, and it’s not unusual to see parents and children taking part in cosplay events.” Now that the generation who grew up on anime and manga are becoming parents, moms and dads are initiating their children into the fun of cosplay.

Participating in events held here and there throughout Japan is a good way of meeting people who enjoy dressing up in character costumes. The best-known of these events is Comiket (Comic Market), held twice a year at Tokyo Big Sight. Comiket is the world’s largest marketplace for self-drawn comics, bringing together people with a fanatic fixation on a particular genre—manga, music, idol characters and so on. A lot of people doing cosplay attend too, and many of them are willing to pose for photos if you ask.

So, is cosplay something that foreign visitors can enjoy too? Rika Asahina says, “I wish that people from abroad would dress up like the characters from anime in their own countries, because that would suit them.” Morishita suggests that first-timers head for Akihabara, where they can go to a studio that will photograph them wearing cosplay attire for a fee ranging from 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen. For example, Uni Studio near Akihabara Station charges 3,100 yen for a costume and one photo. She also recommends the bargain-basement Don Quijote stores as a place to buy costumes cheaply. Horiguchi encourages would-be cosplayers, saying “The first time, you might feel that it’s strange, but cosplay is so much fun that you’ll become hooked, so I recommend that you try it!”

When the three girls posed for a shot together on the street in Akihabara, numerous foreign visitors came up and asked to pose for a picture with them, or asked them where they had gotten their wigs. The girls’ lively responses reflected Rika Asahina’s comment that “cosplay is a very liberating experience.”

World Cosplay Summit

Thirty cosplayers from 15 countries participated in the World Cosplay Summit, which takes place yearly in Nagoya in August. The event is expanding every year; the eighth summit in 2010 was attended by 15,000 people. Representatives from various countries perform on stage, and the grand champion is selected from among them. The cosplayers are graded not just for the realistic appearance of their costumes but also for their moves and performances.

In conjunction with this event, the nearby Osu shopping district hosts the Osu Cosplay Parade, which attracts large crowds who come to see the various countries’ representatives and regular cosplayers who have applied to participate in the parade. In 2010, over 700 people from all over Japan paraded through the shopping district’s streets, together with foreign participants. The parade features cosplayers outfitted in costumes they have put together themselves. It was truly a sight to behold, with the streets filled with people costumed as manga and anime characters. The World Cosplay Summit, attracting people from all over the world, has become a regular summer event in Nagoya.