Whether you participate yourself or not, you probably know the term “cosplay,” or at least the concept behind it. The term “cosplay” originally comes from Japan, and is the combination of the English words “costume” and “play.” Though originally from Japan and used to identify people dressing up as their favourite anime characters, cosplay has spread across the whole world. It no longer only refers to Japanese anime, but also video games, comics, movies, TV programmes, memes, and even real-life figures like celebrities and politicians.
Today, there are cosplay events and competitions in every corner of the world, gaining media attention and coming more and more into the public eye. Countless websites exist for people to buy cosplay and accessories like wigs, and commissioners around the world can make a living making things for other people. Even the word “cosplay” is becoming more well-known and normal, especially amongst the younger generations. Cosplay is no longer just a Japanese idea, it’s an international one with popularity continuing to rise.
But let’s back up for a moment and take it back to where cosplay started - in Japan. Cosplay in Japan is a different world than cosplay in the West, with different trends, different kinds of events, and different social norms. Many Western cosplayers dream of cosplay in Japan as something magical, and something incomparable to the West. Or they imagine that it is almost the same. So what is the truth about cosplay in Japan? What kind of world is it really? What is different about cosplay in Japan versus Western countries? And what should a Western cosplayer know before going on a cosplay pilgrimage to where it all began?
Cosplay as Taboo?
Going to a cosplay event in Japan and in the West are quite different, and we mean that literally in the travel to and from the event. In the West, cosplayers get ready at hotels or their home, and travel to the event by foot, car, or even public transport in their full outfit. While it may earn you a few stares from the general public, you’re often with hundreds of other people doing the same thing. It’s quite acceptable to go outside and do a photo shoot around the event, or even go to dinner in your cosplay. But if you think you can do the same in Japan, you’ve very mistaken.
Actually, cosplay in Japan is seen as a kind of taboo. It’s not something that you do in public, in front of people that may not be interested. And you're certainly never to disrupt someone’s day, let alone their morning commute, with it. That doesn’t mean that cosplay is necessarily frowned upon as a hobby; it’s just important to keep it in its own space. It’s fine if you do it, but you don’t need to wave it in anyone’s face. For this reason, events in Japan require cosplayers to show up in their street clothes and change in a designated area for a fee, which often includes free baggage storage. Then you change again before you leave. Most events will not allow you to enter and exit while still in cosplay.
Cosplayers in Japan are used to this, though, and know how to pack up their outfits and props to get them to the event. Many cosplayers store prop weapons in guitar cases or kendo sword bags, for example. And they have become masters of changing into their outfits in a small space on the floor, mirror balanced on their suitcase as they finish their make-up and adjust their wigs. Many events also have cosplay changing area staff that can help you with any difficult parts of your outfit, such as getting into armour. And the cosplay changing room is a culture itself, full of people helping one another, lending a hairpin or a safety pin, singing anime songs and laughing together while everyone gets ready.
Inside a Cosplay Event
Once you’re out of the changing area and your bags are safely stored, you’re already amongst all the other fans and can get started right away on enjoying the event and taking pictures! Many events have special areas set aside for cosplayers to use for photos, and some even bring backgrounds that can be used to pose in front of for the perfect shot. Just be sure to bring your “meishi,” or cosplay business cards; you’ll want to exchange them with photographers to hopefully get your photos back through social media if they take any! Exchanging meishi used to be a big part of cosplay culture in Japan, though it’s taking a downswing in place of simply sharing social media on the spot. It’s still a fun thing to have though, and a good idea for big events as it’s fast and easy to share your information.
Unless it’s an event just for cosplay, there will probably be a “cosplay zone” at most events in Japan. While you can cosplay anywhere at the event, this area (typically outside at Tokyo events like Anime Japan, Comiket, and Tokyo Game Show) is made specifically for cosplayers and photographers. Often, cosplayers will choose a good place to stand in this area and pose there for most of the event. Photographers will queue up to take their photo, exchange meishi, and then move on after perhaps a short chat depending on the size of the queue. If you want to do this, it’s best to get their early as the best places to stand fill up quickly and most cosplayers won’t give up a good spot once they get it. This is quite typical cosplaying at Japanese events.
Sometimes, there are events made just for cosplay, such as Nipponbashi Street Festa in Osaka every spring, or the ACOSTA Cosplay events almost every month in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. These events don’t have much programming and are made just for cosplayers and photographers. That means that the whole event is the “cosplay zone!” There’s a lot more freedom to move around these events and a lot more space, and everyone there loves cosplay. Plus many of these kinds of events are outside in the streets or a certain area of town, giving you the chance to take some great outdoor photos and enjoy the (hopefully) nice weather. Some cosplayers will still find one place to pose all day and you’re welcome to do so if you’d like, but there is more space and less pressure to do so. You can take a lot of pictures with people just walking around the whole event as well.
Beyond actual events, there are cosplay studios around Japan’s major cities where you can take incomparably cool photos. With the taboo against wearing cosplay out in public, it can be hard to find the backgrounds you want for your photos. But these studios offer a lot of different rooms that you can use specifically for photos, all in different themes. For example, you can find classrooms, prison cells, Japanese gardens, spaceships, cafes, and more - all in one studio!
You simply pay your entry for how long you want to stay, change in a comfortable changing space, and get to work. Most studios allow you to bring as many outfits as you want within the time limit you pay for, and you can use the changing areas and mirrors freely. It’s easy to make a whole day out of taking fantastic photos on the sets all made just for cosplayers.
Cosplay Made Easy
It may seem like a lot of work to cosplay at an event in Japan, packing up all your stuff and hauling it on public transport, changing in a small space in a crowded room, and designing meishi. But getting your hands on cosplay and cosplay supplies in Japan is incredibly easy! You don’t have to rely on websites and commissioners and lucky trips to your local craft store; cosplay has been commercialised over the years, and it’s not too hard to get your hands on what you need.
If you’re looking to buy a complete cosplay, no problem. Many stores exist in Japan that sell packaged costumes in select sizes for quite reasonable prices, making it easy to get an outfit even last minute. Usually, the selection at these stores is pretty good, with all the most popular airing anime and newest games, along with long-term best-sellers and eternally famous outfits (think Sailor Moon). These stores can usually be found anywhere that has anime stores, like Ikebukuro, Akihabara, and Nakano in Tokyo and Nipponbashi in Osaka. Sometimes you can even find small second-hand cosplay stores in the same area or stores that sell other second-hand anime goods selling cosplay as well!
These cosplay stores have more than just complete cosplays. They’re a haven for cosplayers looking for specific pieces and accessories for outfits they’re making themselves. You can get hairpins in every colour imaginable to match wigs, shoes of every style from military boots to school loafers, an array of bags that can be customised, different kinds of glasses, ties and socks in many colours, and more. You can even get unique accessories like violin cases, throwing knives, caution tape, and military hats just to name a few.
Bigger cosplay stores will also sell prop swords and guns, and plenty of cosplay make up. And there are so many wigs! Walls and walls of different lengths and colours, and even sometimes styled ones for popular characters. If you need a really specific shade of green, you can choose it from a row of ten different greens. It’s much easier than trying to guess a colour online.
For cosplayers who want to make everything from scratch, it’s also easy to get materials in Japan. Stores that sell craft supplies like Tokyu Hands have plenty of great things to make props, including polystyrene in every shape, sheets of plastic in many colours and thicknesses, latex, paint, soldering irons, and other small hand tools, foam board, and more. Especially in neighbourhoods like Ikebukuro in Tokyo, the craft stores cater to cosplayers and their needs, offering a lot of variety in their stock. Plus there are plenty of fabric stores around as well where you can buy whatever you need. And if they don’t have your exact colour, there are lots of dyes to choose from, too.
Japan also has monthly publications dedicated to cosplay, often including free patterns, tutorials, advertisements for events and more. It’s easy to get your hands on cosplay and cosplay materials in Japan, so making or buying a new outfit doesn’t have to be a huge struggle of piecing things together or trying to shop online.
An Emergence of Western Characters
For years, anime and Japanese video games were the main sources of cosplay in Japan. Typically, airing anime and shows with the biggest fan base were the most popular choices. Each year, you could easily read the trends in anime or games by what was being cosplayed in Japan. Cosplays from older anime and games are mostly unseen, with the exception of just a few series like Final Fantasy, Sailor Moon, D.Grey-Man, and Bleach. Doing an alternate version of a character is mostly unheard of.
While to some degree, this remains true of the cosplay world in Japan, there has been a major change in the last couple of years - a huge emergence in characters from Western media. Even four or five years ago you could never expect to see Assassin’s Creed, or even Marvel or Star Wars being cosplayed at events in Japan. But that is quickly changing, and comics, games, and movies that aren’t Japanese are making a major insurgency in the Japanese cosplay scene! A lot of this is due to new movies like Avengers bringing the hype to Japan and getting people excited about the characters. Tokyo Comic-Con has also now been running successfully for three years and growing, giving fans of Western media a place to show off their cosplay.
Now, even events like Nipponbashi Street Festa which were dominated by Japanese anime and games are starting to have more diversity. Harry Potter, Marvel, DC, Disney, and more have started showing up more and more. While some cosplayers are also foreign, many more are Japanese. One of the biggest and best events for Disney and Star Wars cosplay fans is Tokyo Disney Land and Disney Sea at Halloween.
For two months, the parks allow cosplayers to enter the parks in full costume as long as it’s from something owned by Disney (but no Marvel, sorry superhero fans) and enjoy the park. Hundreds of cosplayers come every day to take the best Disney pictures imaginable and to make friends, show off incredible outfits and have a great time at Disney. The event started as just two weeks a year and only at Disney Land, but two years ago they extended it to two solid months and both parks due to its extreme popularity.
While it’s always hard to predict what will be the next big thing in cosplay anywhere in the world, it’s safe to say that Western media is here to stay in the Japanese cosplay scene. Anime and video games may always be the most popular, but it’s impossible to ignore the changing trend that is leading to more Western sources in the cosplay world.
Cosplay may have originated in Japan as an idea, but the practise in Japan versus the rest of the world is quite different. Both Japanese and international cosplay have their pros and cons, and neither is necessarily better than the other. They’re just different, and likely always will be. Cosplay in Japan is a paradox in that it’s an accepted hobby to have an easy to pursue, but has to be kept out of the public eye all the same. What you do in your own time isn’t anyone’s business but your own. However, cosplay events in Japan are huge, and cosplay materials and publications widely available.
If you’re a foreign cosplayer who wants to come to Japan to cosplay, then don’t let anyone stop you. Cosplay tourism is definitely possible, especially if you want to visit a photo studio, check out the cosplay shops, and even attend an event. It’s good to know what you can expect, and what is going to be very different from what you are used to. If you come knowing that it won’t be the same thing, just in Japan, then you can have a great time experiencing the world of Japanese cosplay from the inside. And while we don’t know what the future of the cosplay world will be in Japan, we can expect it to keep evolving in its own unique way.
Have you ever been to a cosplay event in Japan? How about a cosplay store? Do they have any questions about what the cosplay world is like in Japan? Are you planning some cosplay tourism in the future? We would love to have a chat or try our best to answer any questions you may have in the comments below.