The young bureaucrat from Aichi Prefecture in central Japan straightens the starched collar under his smart black suit and states his business to the editors of Akiba Keizai Shimbun, Tokyo’s leading geek periodical.
“I have come to learn about cosplay,” he says. “This is the future of our region.”
The scene is an increasingly common one as “cosplay,” or “costumed roleplaying” of favorite fantasy characters, rides that wave of cool Japanese pop-culture out of the otaku realm and into the global spotlight as fashion and art. In Japan, businesses, politicians and fans alike are struggling to get a handle on a hobby valued at some $350 million annually among 200,000 dedicated “cosplayers,” enough to fuel the establishment of the national cosplay association Cos-Most and the World Cosplay Summit in Aichi.
A predecessor of cosplay likely began in the United States in the 1960s at sci-fi conventions for Star Trek. Kotani Mari became Japan’s first cosplayer at the Japan Sci-Fi Association 1978 meeting. Americans trace the origin of the word to World-Con in 1984, a sci-fi convention in southern California attended by journalist Takahashi “Nov” Nobuyuki, who used “cosplay” to describe crazy American “masquerades.” Takahashi himself claims to have used the word in June 1983 in the Japanese magazine My Anime, though what inspired him is a mystery.
With intense anime fandom and massive conventions, cosplay in Japan quickly developed into a unique form, which was in the 1990s exported back overseas with the burgeoning interest in Japanese animation.
Today, there are numerous events in Japan catering to costume enthusiasts. Comike, Japan’s largest public gathering with some 500,000 visitors, draws 14,000 cosplayers who attend events throughout the year to prepare.
Some habitually visit local private cosplay parties, or cospa, and dance parties, danpa, to mix and mingle with other practitioners, share ideas and exchange photos. Many know one another from massive online networks and communities for cosplaying bloggers.
Cure, Japan’s largest cosplay social-networking site, has 270,000 registered users and attracts up to 200 new members a day. Around 200,000 are non-posting members just there to cruise the photos.
About 90 percent of cosplayers are women, the majority in their teens and 20s. According to a survey by Broach, 46.8 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 40 want to try cosplay, and 18.9 percent have already done it.
Fans who take photos rather than pose in costume are known as kamekozo, or “camera kids,” and support amateur cosplay idols with free pictures and publicity.
Conversely, dedicated reiyaas, or hardcore cosplayers, form “circles” to make friends, produce their own costumes and organize gatherings.
Shimohashi Naoki from Gunma met his wife Maki cosplaying – they were married wearing their own hand-made cosplay. Sewing costumes and maintaining the hundreds of outfits in their private wardrobe is what they do together and spend tens of thousands of dollars pursuing.
“The appeal is becoming characters you love from the series you love and wearing outfits you could never normally wear,” Shimohashi said. “Every time you cosplay you can meet a new self.”
Experts tend to agree.
“There is a ritualistic element to cosplay that puts wearers in a different state of mind,” said Philomena Keet, 27, a Ph.D. in anthropology from London University studying Tokyo fashion for seven years. “Wearing costumes isn’t about rebellion or fame-seeking, but a ready made sociality in groups of people with similar interests they embody in cosplay.”
Owing to the organic community system, professional cosplayers have emerged, including the prolific Ayakawa Yunmao.
“It’s a very good time in the history of cosplay because there are fewer people harboring prejudice,” said the 23-year-old, who has been cosplaying for over 10 years and now regularly appears on TV. “I think people have started to accept cosplay as a fun and interesting culture.”
Yunmao points out customs of cosplay overseas such as the masquerade and Halloween, estimating cosplay is a “natural” extension of world culture.
“Cosplay is part of a shared culture that is now enjoyed by otaku in all the countries of the world,” she said.
Conventions featuring cosplay in France, Germany and Italy draw from seven to 85 thousand people. Anime Expo in L.A. claims 41,000 visitors, most of who cosplay, and organizes cosplay stage shows and competitions not found in more passive Japanese events.
“Performing and cosplaying is very meaningful when it makes people happy to see their favorite character,” said Steph, a cosplay talent named Anime Expo Idol in 2004. “The cosplay scene is still a subculture in the U.S. without media or public support. The cosplay scene in Japan is incorporated daily into the lives of many people in places such as Harajuku and Akihabara.”
Indeed, Akihabara is infamous for its maid cafes and Sunday cosplaying – and “crossplaying” as characters of the opposite sex – and boasts no fewer than six stores selling pre-made anime-inspired costumes. While most Japanese cosplayers are craftspeople preferring to sew their own costumes of minor, personally beloved characters, newer fans and visitors from abroad have created a market ripe for mass dissemination.
The most successful case is certainly Cospa, Japan’s first professional cosplay tailor founded in 1995 in Akihabara, now operating out of Shibuya with aspirations to spread its annual $18 million empire across the globe.
Surprising for many, Cospatio anime costumes (and any premium costume in Japan for that matter) start at around $500. Stylish jackets, pants and boots alone are around $300 each, and full custom cosplay can cost several thousand dollars.
But foreigners, like Japanese, seem increasingly willing to pay these prices.
The largest English-language cosplay site, Cosplay.com, has 101,400 members and is expected to grow by another 55,000 this year.
“Cosplay is far more respected abroad as culture and self-expression,” said Tahara Akio, managing editor of Josei Jishin, a popular gossip magazine recently running articles on cosplay and foreigners. “I think they see Japanese as uniform and boring, so when someone steps out and shows individuality foreigners are moved.”
According to an NHK survey from 2007, about 87.5 percent of foreigners do think Japanese cosplay is cool.
“For foreigners cosplay is a carnival that allows freedom of expression,” said Okura Atsuhisa, 39, award winning author of Moe USA about foreigners in Akihabara. “Japanese have liked matsuri, or festivals, for a long time, but now foreigners are coming to understand those joys.”
So many foreigners are now cosplaying in Japan that some Japanese along with ex-pat partners decided in 2007 to start Cosplish, a school to teach situation-functional “cosplay English” to assist cross-cultural communication.
“Cosplish’s style is out of box, moving the focus off how well you speak English and onto your interests,” said Mimmi Schwalbe, 20, a Swedish national who cosplays in a Gundam uniform when teaching. “We get a better atmosphere, have fun, and don’t reflect much on it we learn proper, basic English you can actually use.”
Class sizes and offerings vary wildly, but popular choices include Maximal Broken English, online chat speech and discussion and translation of anime both domestic and foreign. The range of students is impressive, covering men and women both otaku and non-otaku who are usually students or company employees.
“We’re all so different and live very different lives, but can connect and be friends on this level,” said Mimmi.
On the heels of cosplay fashion show at the Akiba Culket Festival 2007 in Roppongi Hills, Vantan, founded in 1965 as one of Japan’s largest and most respected fashion schools, started a professional “Cosplay Course.”
“We saw the appeal abroad and how well related businesses were doing in Japan, so we decided to lend our expertise to the new generation of cosplayers,” said Nakano Michiko, planning and PR section leader for Vantan Career School. “Most of the students are full-time workers or students elsewhere who commute here to sharpen their cosplay skills. It is still largely just a hobby, but I expect our graduates can find work as talents and models.”
The “fun” three-month course consists of lessons in costume making, hair and makeup, photo technique and retouching, making swords and accessories and a follow-up lesson on fashioning costumes. The price is $5,000. The “expert” course is six months and costs over $8,000.
Vantan is drawing attention with its innovative program and will be featured prominently by H.I.S. Experience in their tour to the 6th Annual World Cosplay Summit in Aichi.
“Japan is not just temples and tea ceremonies, but a vibrant pop-culture,” said tour planner Hayashi Shoji, 32, taking time out from singing anime songs at Karaoke Tetsujin in Shinjuku. “This tour is a festival and we all want to participate. I say ‘Don’t be shy!’ and don my cosplay and invite others to join me.”
Hayashi, along with all the 30 or so cosplaying tour members, will attend the Vantan course, walk the streets of Akihabara and Harajuku, ride the bullet train, parade on the streets of Nagoya in Aichi and finally attend the World Cosplay Championship, which pits the best cosplayers from 13 countries against one another and draws some 10,000 cosplaying spectators.
“Japan has some of the best cosplayers in the world because they want to kiwameru, or deepen their craft and go far beyond the norm,” Hayashi said. “It is an aspect of traditional Japanese culture that I see reflected in otaku culture, especially cosplay activity. Cosplay and its artisans have soul and go beyond limits to make fantasy a reality.”
He and his colleagues hope Vantan will help others enjoy cosplay more deeply.
“We are doing this tour in answer to the many requests we have received from overseas, especially from Germany,” said Okama Yukie, 38, H.I.S. liaison for the weekly otaku cosplay tour in Akihabara.
Germany is a key player in the global cosplay scene, host to the German Cosplay Championship (GCC) and since 2004 a mecca for cosplay. It is widely rumored that the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs supports the World Cosplay Summit in Aichi so that Japan, the supposed birthplace of cosplay, does not fall behind in recognizing and awarding the art before a foreign authority scoops them the way the Academy Awards did with anime in 2002.
“Manga, anime and cosplay are exports Japan can take pride in,” said Asano Katsuhito, the vice foreign minister who attended last year’s Summit. “These are things that draw good feelings about Japan from the people of the world.”
Summit officials agree.
“Manga is an international language,” said Oguri Michio, chairman of last year’s event. “These young people are speaking that language in cosplay.”
For their part, cosplayers take more pride in cosplay as segue to international exchange than soft-power domination.
“Cosplay is part of a shared culture that is now enjoyed all over the world,” said Yunmao, who has made it her mission to visit all the conventions across the globe. “I want to work as a cosplaying missionary spreading the joy of cosplay to Japan and the world. If music is a common culture that can move the hearts of people and unite the world in peace, I think cosplay is also a wonderful tool.”