Cosplay: More Than Just A Game
August 22, 2013

Cosplay: More Than Just A Game

Japan is a country that endlessly fascinates people, and often people mention it as the number one place they would like to visit if they have the chance. Quite a lot about Japan is known to the outside world because of its significant impact on things like popular culture, technology and food. But since moving here almost a year ago, I have learned more about the little quirks of the place (and there are plenty) and some things I might not have picked up without spending a lot of time here. I have also had some detail about the more famous sides of Japan kindly filled in for me by patient locals.

I have already written a couple of blog pieces about Japan, and I would like to share more of what I have discovered in a regular blog. I hope to give some information an all aspects of this country which has a magic all of its own, and which as a westerner leaves me happily juxtaposed every day.

I thought a good topic to discuss just now would be cosplay, because the World Cosplay Summit took place recently and happens close to where I live. It is held every August in Nagoya, which is the nearest big city to me (I actually live in Toyota — where they make the cars — about 40 minutes by train from Nagoya).

Cosplay is a very Japanese affair. The term is, as you might have guessed, a mixture of the words Costume and Play. The most important aspect is dressing up in order to transform yourself from your normal, everyday look. But beyond this, there is often an accompanying characterization; too, where a cosplayer ‘becomes’ the character they are dressed as, in terms of behavior as well as appearance.

Any kind of character or style counts as cosplay — in its broadest sense cosplay just means dressing up in a costume to be enjoyed by yourself or those around you, rather than for a more recognized performance such as theatre or TV. The name cosplay was coined by a Japanese writer called Nobuyuki Takahashi who was impressed by all the costumes he saw at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles, California. Sci-fi and fantasy characters are still a part of cosplay in Japan, but the practice has evolved here to such an extent that it is now thought of as a Japanese idea.

When Japanese people commit to something, they do it properly. This includes indulging in fantasies just as much as it includes working hard in an office. In fact, the stoic, slightly sterile environment of the Japanese salaryman (or woman) might explain why things get a little crazy outside of work. There is a specific word in the Japanese language for an obsessive fan — Otaku — and the lengths they go to in order to be transformed into their favorite anime, manga, comic book or video game character is a sight to behold.

As well as taking the chance to become their favorite character, cosplayers can become an entirely new character that they invent for themselves. As is often the case in Japan, sex is bubbling just under the surface of things and cosplay often embraces that mix of cutesy playfulness and naughty sexiness that Japan does like nowhere else.

Cosplay can also be a form of escapism. A famous group of cosplayers are the Cosplay Zoku, a gang of mainly teenage girls who congregate in the same district of Tokyo each weekend dressed as scantily clad vampires, S&M goddesses, or nurses who should definitely face some sort of disciplinary action. These girls are often the victims of bullying in school who find sanctity (and a lot of admirers with cameras) in their weekend cosplay meetings.

Such an atmosphere of inclusivity doesn’t exist everywhere though and cosplayers often criticize each other if they don’t feel someone has gone to enough effort to really ‘be’ a character. The merits of someone’s cosplaying ability are actually decided by judges at the World Cosplay Summit, and ‘fidelity to original character’ is a criterion of judgement. The summit is a convention for everyone to come and share their costumes and ideas, but winners are also chosen from some very serious contestants. More than twenty countries compete, and actually more Italian entrants have taken home the prizes in recent years than Japanese entrants have. However, Japan can still boast the most winners overall since the championship started in 2005.

Even with L.A. origins and Italian competition, Japan is the spiritual home of cosplay.

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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