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Fads fuel cosplay boom

TOKYO (TR) – This shop is the stuff of dreams.

Resting on a wall rack are two different kinds of medieval-era swords; one is of plastic, the other of darkened wood. Just across the aisle hang olive officer uniforms with red trim. Beyond them in the next row are pink nurse outfits carefully wrapped in plastic and complete with matching headpieces. Spearheads and daggers sit on shelves just below; makeup and black stockings are nearby, too.

This shop, located in Tokyo’s teen-friendly Shibuya district, is an outlet of Cospa, short for “costume paradise.”

“Our hottest seller are the costumes based on the Gundam robot animation series,” shop clerk Tomu Ijuin says of the officer uniforms based on the famous robot cartoons. “They used to be just for anime fans but now we are seeing them turning up on pop groups.”

Turning fantasy into reality for its patrons is this shop’s business. The activity collectively is termed cosplay, or costume play, and it is an increasingly popular trend in Japan whereby average folks dress as a character in their favorite video game, anime, manga, or other fantasy-related medium. Be forewarned, this is not to be confused as a simple knock-off of Halloween. Rather, it is a massive year-round business consisting of companies trying to create the latest designs to meet the demands of their trend-savvy customers.

In addition to his sales duties, Tomu, sporting pink hair, balloon denim pants, and elevated sneakers, is the shop’s main image character, a DJ at cosplay dance events, and a cosplay participant himself — all in one flesh.

“Since Shonen Jump started selling their English edition last year, we’ve been selling a lot Naruto costumes in the U.S,” Tomu says of one of the uniform shirts modeled on one of the characters within the famous Japanese manga comic. Most of the costumes in the shop have distinctly male and female versions.

Cospa’s customers are just everyday people, says Tomu. Some come specifically searching for club wear; others are men in their 20s and 30s who are looking to emulate the hero in their favorite PC game; and still others are teenagers looking to strap on the helmet and brandish the war implement of their favorite anime character.

Perhaps Tokyo’s most popular costume exhibition area lies just up the street in the highly fashionable Harajuku area. Here, each Sunday, the streets come alive with Victorian maidens in velvet and lace, gothic queens in heavy white makeup and bandages splattered in blood, and any number of comic heroes past and present. (“Sailor Moon,” in her white and blue suit, and her various other celestially-derived offshoots are always favorites.) Tourists gawk, snap photos, and lavish attention upon this collection of what some might refer to as, well, freaks.

“Really, they are no different than Trekkies or Star Wars fans in the U.S.,” says Yoshi Kudo, a cosplay expert and observer, who is at times frustrated by the sensationalism that often accompanies descriptions of the cosplay scene in Japan. “It is merely one of the banal expressions of youth subculture which is common in advanced societies. But this Japanese version is slightly different in terms of its scale because companies and adults more systematically and explicitly exploit young girls.”

He is referring to the issue of money, and there is a lot involved. Since it began in 1995 with one store in Shibuya, Cospa has since mushroomed into 6 stores across the country with annual sales totaling 1.2 billion yen. Single uniforms fetch nearly 30,000 yen. Accessories are endless.

Such purchases are made possible by a society willing to allow its young people to live with their parents (expense-free) well beyond their adult years. As a result, a part-time job is all that is needed to generate enough spending money each month for a spaceship captain’s suit complete with the appropriate badges. Japan’s ongoing recession is hardly a factor.

And society has embraced the scene. Cosplayers appear in picture books, magazines, adult DVDs, and TV programs. (The white and pink frills of the Pink House clothing label graced many TV idols in the ’80s.) Some massage parlors even administer sexual services by characters decked out in the costume of the customer’s choice. One such parlor in Ikebukuro offers the option of tearing the character’s stockings amongst a long laundry list of other amorous alternatives available.

In its beginnings nearly 30 years ago, cosplayers made their costumes themselves. By contrast, today the scene is made by such stores as Cospa scattered throughout Tokyo and other big cities and trend tips packed within the pages of magazines like C*NET. Estimates have set the present number of cosplayers in Japan at roughly 50,000.

At an upcoming cosplay club party event next month in Tokyo, Tomu will be spinning remixes of popular anime music as costume fans mix and mingle. But the biggest events for cosplayers to show their fashion sense are at Tokyo’s annual ComicMarket and the monthly gatherings at Korakuen Amusement Park next to Tokyo Dome.

Yoshi sees the reason for the costume craze as being linked to Japan’s historical tendency as a “tribe culture,” or desire to be part of a particular group. Tomu concurs.

“We do it for the same reason that motorbike fans gather together to show off their machines — to be around people with similar interests,” Tomu says. “We are no different than they are.”

Note: This article originally appeared in March 2003 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.