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A beginner's guide to cosplay

Every Sunday in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, one can find Japanese teens and adults in all sorts of outrageous outfits. From glam rock wannabes to videogame and anime characters, the park is packed with those who choose to leave behind their normal lives for an afternoon. These costumed park goers are practicing what the Japanese call cosplay, a word that combines the first syllable of “costume” and the last of “role-play.”


Above: A gang of rockabilly cosplayers dance, smoke, and show off their punch perms. It’s a typical Sunday afternoon in Harajuku


Above: A lone cosplayer poses on the world famous Cosplay Bridge in Harajuku


Star Trek Origins

While it may seem strange, this weekly display of costumes might not exist if not for Star Trek. On January 21, 1972 a small group of Star Trek fans held the first Star Trek convention at the Statler Hilton ballroom in New York. Among the events scheduled was a costume contest. While it may have seemed like little more than a small diversion to liven up the time between episode screenings at the time, the event marked the beginnings of modern day cosplay. As Star Trek conventions spread, so did these costume contests. Eventually, the pageantry of fan-made costumes became a central part of these conventions, separate from any contests.

What mainstream America did not realize, was that these events would eventually give rise to a major subculture outside of the States in Japan. From its beginnings in the 1980s till today, Japanese cosplayers have taken what a small number of Trekkies were doing nearly forty years ago, and turned it into a three-hundred fifty million dollar a year industry.

But figuring out when the practice spread to Japan is the subject of some debate. According to subculture expert and author of The Otaku Encyclopedia, Patrick Galbraith, Japanese geeks were already dressing up as their favorite characters by 1977 - and the word “cosplay” was first coined in the Japanese anime magazine, My Anime, by 1983. Regardless of when and how cosplay made its way to Japan, it’s here to stay. Presented here is a snapshot of just a few of the many modern incarnations of cosplay culture and what it means in contemporary Japan.


Above: Kingdom Hearts cosplayers at the Tokyo Game Show


Above: Bleach cosplayers strike a pose


Big Costumes and Big Money


Above: This display at Cospa’s booth at Jump Festa 2009 features expensive Dragon Ball Z and One Piece costumes

Cosplay continued to grow in popularity in Japan - and by 1994, larger retailers emerged to meet the growing demand for detailed outfits and accoutrements. Cospa, one of the largest modern day cosplay retailers, was established in 1995. Today, Cospa is an $18 million-dollar-a-year juggernaut, with ten stores spread across six major Japanese cities. Due to the waning, but still significant, interest in otaku culture, Cospa still does a great deal of its business with foreigners and tourists.


Above: Cospatio, one of two Shibuya branches of Cospa, focuses on costumes and hosts workshops for cosplayers


Above: This Cospa branch focuses more on clothing and collectibles related to anime and videogames

15 comments

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  • epicdominican91 - January 23, 2010 4:31 a.m.

    as i read this i cant help but use a engrish accent...
  • marioman50 - January 22, 2010 8:53 p.m.

    Check out the Peter Bjorn and John music video, "Nothing to Worry About". It shows a day in the life of one of the greasers. Kinda strange... yet funny.
  • crumbdunky - January 22, 2010 6:51 p.m.

    IDK about Cospa stores and stuff that you haven't made yourself at all-to me that takes all the creativity out of it and, also, the store made ones look crap compared to the better fan made cosplayers outfits and costumes I've seen both in the UK/EU AND Japan. Also, and I realise this happens literally anywhere and everywhere that gets any kind of name for itself but the last time I went through Harajuku it was FULL to bursting with US and EU tourists(and a lot of them were lonely, grubby looking middle aged men who always look shifty without a wife in tow! I wonder why on earth they might be trawling somewhere with rep for having young chikitas in dress up mode? Hmm?)and didn't feel the same place as five years or so before. Anyway, I've never gotten into it myself but always like seeing the best(and laughing at the worst)ones you come across at games conventions etc. I do think, though, that buying your costume might be a Japanese thing as the few people I know here in England that do a bit all think buying theirs would ruin the fun as most of the fun to be had is in impressing people with how accurately you can turn yourself(or whoever you make the costume for) into the character you aimed for. Is the dressing up more important to the Japanese than where the costume comes from and how accurate it is, I wonder? Whatever, it also seems to play into the hands of pretty people who just want a go at it o get in a few pictures for their modelling career or something and, again to me, it takles a lot of the gloss off the whole idea of cosplay itself. That said, I have never seen Japanese cosplayers look as bad as the worst of the western ones who think a twig and a binliner and some tin foil can turn them into Sephiroth(tin foil hair-seriously at Leipzig 2007 a short, fat German fella was cosplaying as Sephiroth using a binbag as his long leather jacket, tin foil shredded for his "hair" and a bloody branch off a nearby tree instead of a sword! Jesus, did that fella smell bad too. I'm certain someone else must have seen him and if you had you just could NOT forget the guy!)or Zelda! Maybe that's the thing:Japanese people do it for fun or to look good but more westerners either do it for a laugh(making their own crappy outfits)or are the real genius ones who make totally accurate Gundam outfits or replicate Big Daddies precisely down t the last bloody rivet!Not totally, as i've seen AMAZINGLY good Japanese nes as well but the western cosplayer, to me, seems to be at either end of the spectrum and away from store bought ease and mediocrity of costume! Whatever, I'm done trying to figure out if there's real cultural dfferences in the cosplay scene of today and definitely think I'll have another crack at getting the missus turned into Ada Wong(went badly last time!).
  • Cernunnos - January 22, 2010 3:17 p.m.

    i want the luffy costume so badly. cosplay envokes mixed feelings in me, i despise the homemade and outrageously laughable attempts at it, especially with coloured wigs etc. but more subtle cosplaying is always cool, but very expensive.
  • sepirothpk - January 22, 2010 11:07 a.m.

    BTW, the anime/manga cosplayers on page 2 are cosplaying Gintama. Funny series, a good watch
  • phoenix_wings - January 22, 2010 7:53 a.m.

    @ MGF--keep your lips off of whatever you're biting. It looks weird, but you'll have to touch-up less at the end. And no, I won't ask. Not that into cosplay, but probably because no one else around where I live is into it enough to be worth it. For Halloween I intended to get myself a set of blue coveralls and iron-on transfers. 101, baby. And NO ONE will know what it means :P Recaptcha: action trousers. ....niiice!
  • CH3BURASHKA - January 22, 2010 5:32 a.m.

    Big! Comstumes! Big! Money! Big! Prizes!
  • MetalGearFlaccid - January 22, 2010 3:41 a.m.

    The worst is if you're a guy dressed as a male character who wears makeup. I was Alan Gabriel from The Big O at Ohayocon last year, and I tell ya: Alan gives Kefka (from FFVI) a run for his money in gaudiness. The best thing is when you're riding on the bus next to a guy dressed as Big Boss, and you just go about your business, chatting casually while lookers-on pretend to not stare while still staring. Lots of fun. A little side-note: Ladies, how the hell do you manage eating pizza whilst wearing lipstick? (Don't ask. PLEASE don't ask.)
  • diddly - January 22, 2010 3:39 a.m.

    That very last pick is exactly how all the greasers in the USA looked back in the day
  • speno93 - January 22, 2010 3:08 a.m.

    weird ,but also kind of cool nonetheless. It would be funny to drag my folks into a cospa store, just to see their reactions at the clothes, Ha ha ha!
  • TheHalfanese - January 21, 2010 11:48 p.m.

    I've minorly cosplayed(if there is such a thing), and contrary to what you might think about it, it is actually quite a bit of fun. I totally agree, Samael.
  • nik41507 - January 21, 2010 11:47 p.m.

    I never knew this
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  • Samael - January 21, 2010 9:43 p.m.

    I've only cosplayed three times, each at Anime Boston, but it's definitely something I will continue to do. It's both incredibly fun and great/hilarious to see the reactions of "normal" passers-by.

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