Tokyo Teleport Station: The Secret World of Japanese Cosplay

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We all know the mechanics of American cosplay. You and some of your bestest otaku friends cobble outfits together out of spare bits of carpeting and duct tape and haul off to Otakon. Once there, you can stand in a hallway for hours on end getting your picture taken, and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious you can partake in the masquerade.
This is the way of things. And for the most part, it is good. [editor’s note: is it really?]
But Japanese conventions are not like American conventions. Not at all. I maintain that otaku are otaku, the same in all places, but the fandom ecologies in our two nations are so radically different that our gatherings barely resemble each other at all. If you spoke neither language, you could probably spend a day at an American convention and another day at a Japanese convention and walk away from the experience with no clue that the two were at all related.

Sokubaikai
The crowd is half the fun.
No, seriously.

A lot of what goes on at American cons would seem quite strange, and possibly extremely boring to an otaku from the other country. Items that could easily be procured with pocket change at a 7-11 are suddenly worth their weight in gold. Press conferences are held alongside concerts and photoshoots, and most confusingly of all, people are lined up around the block just to watch things that aren’t even movies. It’s a baffling melange of diverse tastes and interests, and it represents the fusion of what would most likely be about a half dozen totally separate events in the Other Country.
This gives rise to a phenomenon unheard of in the US (and most other English-speaking countries, for that matter), pure cosplay events. These cosplay events, like cosplayers, come in all shapes and sizes. Although many will coincide with other events, they tend to be organized and promoted entirely on their own. It’s not uncommon to have a sokubaikai in one wing of a building and a cosplay event in another if the venue is large enough to support such things. This is done intentionally, to best serve the interests of both events, but the two events are almost always operated by separate groups of people who have only the loosest affiliation.

Pretty Princess
It takes a brave man to be
a pretty pretty princess

The bulk of the cosplay events in the Kanto area are organized by a group called JCF, the Japan Cosplay Festival. They organize many events every year and are widely held as the gold standard of cosplay organizations. In general, these events are not entirely unlike the masquerades at American cons, just much much larger. At each event they charge a nominal entrance fee and give away fabulous prizes to those whose costumes are judged to be truly awesome. If you want to get involved in the Tokyo cosplay scene, that web site is the place to start. Kameko (photographers) are always welcome, so long as you follow basic etiquette. Always be cheerful and supportive, and never take a picture of someone without first asking permission. I was lucky enough to attend several of these events myself back in the spring of 03, albeit in a purely observational capacity.
Now, for whatever reason, a lot of cosplay events are not really advertised in quite the same way as most other events. Wandering around Akiba for a few hours on any given day, you can amass quite a collection of flyers advertising sokubaikai and industry events, but flyers for cosplay only come along once in a blue moon. The Internet is slightly more helpful, but I’m quite sure I would never have been fortunate enough to stumble across the JCF pantheon of events without the help of my facilitator good friend Antony.

Antony
The face of wisdom

I was living with Antony for a while out in Kami-Igusa (just west of Shinjuku, in Tokyo) and he was kind enough to show me the ropes. Antony was a lot of fun to hang out with, but he’s the sort of person that gets more and more unnerving and vaguely creepy the longer you’re around him. He gave off this vibe like he wasn’t quite in sync with reality, and he had this way of grinning that made you uncertain if he was really really happy to be hanging out with you or if he was just about to stab you for the fun of it. Nonetheless, he was one of the best friends I had during my trip, aside from my main man Tora, who was the one to introduce us in the first place. As soon as I came clean to Tora about my real motivations for being in Tokyo, he suggested that I should meet Antony. The implication was something along the lines of “Hey, you’d get along great with my other gaijin friend, he’s crazy too”. I’m not sure exactly how Antony made all the contacts he had or how he first got involved in the cosplay world, since he didn’t really speak the language at all and didn’t seem to make any particular effort to be friendly with people (or convince them not to be terrified of him) but nonetheless, he seemed to know exactly where and when everything was going down. For whatever reason, he knew his stuff.
As he explained to me, once a month (except during the summer, for some reason) the JCF takes over the Toshimaen amusement park near Nerima. If you find yourself in Kanto during the non-summer months, this is absolutely your best bet to see the true cream of the crop of local cosplayers. Antony explained to me that Toshimaen is the mecca of Japanese cosplay, and that every cosplayer dreams of going there at least once in their cos-life. I was lucky enough to go there twice.

Tidus
Much better at this
than I will ever be.

Unlike me, Antony was not merely a spectator at these events. He had been handcrafting costumes for years back in his native Australia, sometimes for himself and sometimes for others. For his big “working holiday” trip to Japan he had crafted an elaborate Tidus costume, complete with genuine metalworking where appropriate. He even wandered into a hair salon in Takadanobaba carrying a picture of Tidus cropped from a gaming magazine, pointed at it and announced “Kono kanji de!”. It took him a little while to work up the nerve to actually put it to use, but when he did the JCF judges awarded him first place and presented him with a free GBA SP (the top of the line at the time). And believe you me, he earned it.
True story: Whilst on our way to the first Toshimaen event that we attended, Antony and I got horribly horribly lost. We took the wrong bus for about half an hour, then walked a good distance to a train station that was vaguely similar to the one we originally intended to go to. To avoid further snafus, we were constantly jumping on and off the train at almost every stop, just to make sure that it wasn’t the one we wanted. Seeing us do this, a hunched over old man sitting across from us on the train laughed quietly and asked us in halting English, “Which…which station?”.
“Nerima”, we replied. As this is where we needed to transfer.
“Ahhh…” he said “Nerima. Nerima station.” a slight pause as he counted, then “Three. Three station”. For a moment he just sat there, looking impossibly old, then he followed this up with “There will be a catastrophe in the near future!”. Antony and I just blinked at each other for a moment, then stared back at him. Disregarding momentarily that this is a fairly bizarre thing to say to anyone devoid of context, we were dumbfounded that a man who had struggled with the number “three” moments earlier had just tossed out “catastrophe” like it was nothing. We looked at him inquiringly, but he offered nothing further until he got off the train at the next station, turning and waving to us as he called out “Auf Wiedersehen!”.
It was pretty damn weird. After that it became something of a running joke between us that whenever the slightest thing went wrong (we didn’t get to the train before the doors closed, the conbini down the street ran out of anpan, etc.) we would decide that this was clearly “the catastrophe” that had been foretold to us.
So if you happen to be in the Kanto region and have even a passing interest in cosplay, I highly recommend checking out a JCF event. They’re lots of fun, and a great chance to really take in the local otaku culture. And if you’re very lucky, a little old German-Japanese man may predict your doom.
Seiya is an anime fan who lives in Boston. Three years later, he is still waiting for that catastrophe.

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0 Responses to Tokyo Teleport Station: The Secret World of Japanese Cosplay

  1. omo August 14, 2006 at 12:12 pm #

    There are pure cosplay events in the US too. Difference being, is that either they are nothing related to anime/manga/games besides superfically, or they’re more akin to small gatherings rather than conventions. To that end, North American anime cons are very much a thing in of itself. It makes little sense to compare it with, say, comiket; or as one would compare comiket with E3 or Tokyo International Anime Fair.
    One thing I know for sure that all con-going otaku under the sun can relate: there are lines to be waited in.

  2. Sydney2K August 14, 2006 at 8:56 pm #

    A lot of what goes on at American cons would seem quite strange, and possibly extremely boring to an otaku from the other country.
    Interestingly Japanese fans do go to US cons. It’s because (or so it was told to me) they never get to meet the creators of their favourite anime and manga, or the voice actors or actrines, at Japanese “events” (I find the best way to differenciate the two is that Western fans go to cons, and Japanese fans to events). There’s one crossdressing cosplayer who regularly goes overseas to cons to cosplay.
    This gives rise to a phenomenon unheard of in the US (and most other English-speaking countries, for that matter), pure cosplay events.
    I don’t know if it’s unheard (and I will add, almost every country in the world but Japan, not just English-speaking countries), it’s just that for the majority of cosplayers, they will never get to Japan. Comiket is the Mecca of most foreign cosplayers, mainly because it is the best known of the cosplay events in Japan.
    I was lucky enough to attend several of these events myself back in the spring of 03, albeit in a purely observational capacity.
    I actually cosplayed at an event in 2000, and I was sponsored by two well-known cosplayers, Kaie and Barbie. It’s an interesting thing to observe. Comiket is of course the most chaotic thing to experience, but the event I went to was much more restrained and reserved, in that typical Japanese politness. Photographers would line up, take their photos and give their card.
    Nowadays the big US cons (Otakon and Anime Expo) are becoming more and more like the cosplay event at Comiket. People will dress up, hang around, and when they get together in like-dressed groups, squeal and chatter. The difference (IMHO) between Western and Japanese events is that the West is more personal when it comes to cosplaying and photography, it’s supposably more fun, while the Japanese have larger equipment, business cards, and the majority of the costumes are store bought (oh MEOW!!!)
    One should mention the meat market that is the “World Cosplay Summit”, not actually a meeting of like minded fans, but an event master-minded by TV Aichi to get selected cosplayers around the world to perform in a talent contest. Last year there were very strong suspicions that the contest was fixed. This was discovered and brought up publically by the US delegates. This year there was no US entries…
    … flyers for cosplay only come along once in a blue moon.
    It’s not too hard find a cosplay event; just head for one of the Cospa shops- there’s one in Shibuya, and one in Akibahara, and then grab one of the handouts there. There’s also a costume shop as part of the conglomerate that is the Nakano Mandarake.
    You missed one phenomenon, the cosplay rave, where cosplayers will meet up and have a dance party all night.
    Antony
    I hope I never meet him. But I did meet the one English expat who attended Anime Expo Tokyo in 2004 crossdressing with a store-bought costume. He was, the credit to his country, (as much as we Australians can give any credit to whinging Poms ?:-)
    As to what and how do I know, well, I have been involved in cosplaying for fifteen years (that’s my website there), and am as far as I know the only person in the world to have cosplayed on four continents. (I’ll make it to a South American con one day.)

  3. DarkMirage August 14, 2006 at 10:30 pm #

    There are cosplay-only events in Singapore too, although I’m not sure if we can count as an “English”-speaking country.
    In fact, Singapore has pretty much nothing other than cosplay events in terms of anime conventions. :(

  4. Seiya August 15, 2006 at 4:41 am #

    >>omo
    There definitely are a few dedicated cosplay gatherings in the US, but as far as I know there is currently nothing anywhere even close to the scope of a JCF event. And although I agree that comparing an American event to a Japanese event is somewhat irrational, as Sydney2k points out, most people never get there to see this for themselves. Hence, I feel that it is important to draw people away from the mindset that a con is a con is a con.
    >>DarkMirage
    I won’t deny that Singaporeans speak very good English, but no, that was not in my mental list of “English speaking countries”. I would be interested in learning more about these events, though. If that’s where all the otaku event energy is going, I’d love to see the results.
    >>Sydney2K
    You’re absolutely right that creator appearances are not really strange or boring to any otaku (at least to any otaku I would want to hang out with) regardless of location. But I maintain that the idea of having Yoko Kanno doing Q&A in a room next to a screening of ADV’s latest acquisition must seem at least a little strange to those who are brave enough to make the trek from the other country.
    You’re definitely far more qualified to compare and contrast these events than I. The way that Japanese cosplayers take things so seriously and even have “Cosplayer Meishi” is definitely a vital part of the different atmosphere at these events. I can’t believe I made no mention of this.
    You’re also absolutely right about the cosplay flyers issue. To my mind, wandering around Akiba does not include cospa shops (of which there are actually at least three or four in Akiba alone when last seen) but it was silly to assume that everyone else does things my way.
    orz
    I do think it’s a bit much to say that “most” of the costumes are storebought. Certainly a lot are, and clearly much more than you would find outside Japan (good luck finding any stores to buy them at…) but it’s been my experience that a majority of them are still gorgeous handmade outfits.
    I’m totally unfamiliar with this controversy from the World Cosplay Summit, but it sounds fascinating. If you could fill in some of the details or point me towards somewhere where I can find out more I would really appreciate it.
    Last but not least, I hope that you do run into Antony someday, since he really is a fantastically nice guy and a wonderfully talented cosplayer. He just has this odd way of getting into trouble, and sometimes also getting me into trouble. If you ever do see him, tell him I said hi.

  5. DarkMirage August 15, 2006 at 8:20 pm #

    Seiya: no, no you don’t… Well, you can try googling for “cosfest 2006 photos” but don’t say I didn’t warn you. :(

  6. Tsubaki August 17, 2006 at 5:30 pm #

    Cosfest isn’t as bad as cosquest though. Lol.

  7. Sydney2K August 17, 2006 at 7:52 pm #

    But I maintain that the idea of having Yoko Kanno doing Q&A in a room next to a screening of ADV’s latest acquisition must seem at least a little strange to those who are brave enough to make the trek from the other country.
    And I think that goes towards the most fundamental difference bewteen fans (ie. Western anime and manga fans) and otaku (ie. Japanese fans). Fans are more socially confident than otaku. I would doubt that when you go to an event, you go there to meet people. From the Comiket reports here, the vast majority of people just go there with shopping lists. A convention is like a compressed soap opera- people meet people, they make new friends, some lucky ones fall in love, others may fall out, some people propose (on stage!) and a very few get married!- but people aren’t just looking for loot, they’re looking to have a good time.
    I do think it’s a bit much to say that “most” of the costumes are storebought. Certainly a lot are, and clearly much more than you would find outside Japan (good luck finding any stores to buy them at…) but it’s been my experience that a majority of them are still gorgeous handmade outfits.
    I was only having a giggle there (note the MEOW!) but it is one of the conceptions about Japanese cosplay. Certainly it is true there is a lot more store bought costumes at events than at conventions, but that is only because you cannot get haute couture cosplay outfits outside of Japan. You can commission them, but that’s not the same as buying it off the rack. Another conception is that the Japanese cosplay better than in the West. It’s only true in so far that you never see the bad stuff. In truth, Japanese cosplay is no better or worse- it’s only the individual cosplayers anywhere that determines quality.
    Another place to buy costumes are porn shops! I found a bookshop in Kyoto that, the higher you went, the bluer it goes, until, on the top floor, you had racks and racks of costumes- school fukus, uniforms, etc. Of course, as a public service, I will NOT reveal the location of this shop. The last thing we need is Western fans going there to buy themselves costumes… And of course we haven’t mentioned the X-Rated cosplay vids.
    Another thing that differenciates Western cosplay and Japanese cosplay is that Western cosplay also embraces Visual Kei (ie. J-Rock) and Lolita fashion. In Japan (as I think you will probably have noticed) all three factions DO NOT MIX. You will never see VK or Lolita at a cosplay event (unless it’s based on a manga or anime, such as Rozen Maiden.) Neither will you see cosplayers hanging around Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon (unless there’s a cosplay event there- unlikely). Someone told me (as yet unsubstantiated) that VK followers have SO’s, but most cosplayers don’t.
    A bad thing that Western cosplay has picked up is cosplay idols- ie., people who are famous just for being cosplayers. They’re usually girls or young women, extremely attractive and have popular websites. They often make their own costumes as well. It’s bad because then you get two sets of people- those who idolise the cosplayer, and those who hate the cosplayer with a passion. That leads to COSPLAY DORAMA- jealousy and bitchiness. It never comes to blows, of course, but only because there are cameras nearby.
    And of course there are stalkers everywhere. ’nuff sed.
    I’m totally unfamiliar with this controversy from the World Cosplay Summit, but it sounds fascinating. If you could fill in some of the details or point me towards somewhere where I can find out more I would really appreciate it.
    Here’s the link to this year’s comp: http://www.tv-aichi.co.jp/cosplay2006/e/index.html
    The World Cosplay Summit has been running for about five years. It’s the initiative of TV Aichi, and basically they go to cons all over the world, have a contest where people have to perform (most likely sing) and the winners go to Japan for the final. It’s kinda big thing, but once you get behind it it’s more a popularity contest, where it’s not how good your costume is, but how pretty you are.
    Rather than tell you what happened last year and this, probably the following threads should illustrate what happened. WARNING: COSPURE DORAMA!
    Controversy at Anime Expo 2005:
    http://forums.cosplay.com/showthread.php?t=62775&highlight=world+cosplay+summit
    http://forums.cosplay.com/showthread.php?t=62936&highlight=world+cosplay+summit
    Controversy at WCS 2005:
    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/bbs/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=17078&postdays=0&postorder=asc&topic_view=&start=0
    Last but not least, I hope that you do run into Antony someday, since he really is a fantastically nice guy and a wonderfully talented cosplayer.
    I probably have met him, and I said the above again tongue in cheek. We have a few anime cons here now, and I go to most of them, so it’s most likely he’s been too.

  8. Sydney2K August 23, 2006 at 12:38 pm #

    Wow, Ain’t it Cool News linked to this article…

  9. J2xC September 4, 2006 at 4:53 am #

    Another thing that differenciates Western cosplay and Japanese cosplay is that Western cosplay also embraces Visual Kei (ie. J-Rock) and Lolita fashion. In Japan (as I think you will probably have noticed) all three factions DO NOT MIX. You will never see VK or Lolita at a cosplay event (unless it’s based on a manga or anime, such as Rozen Maiden.) Neither will you see cosplayers hanging around Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon (unless there’s a cosplay event there- unlikely). Someone told me (as yet unsubstantiated) that VK followers have SO’s, but most cosplayers don’t.
    I don’t really think this is entirely true… I distinctly remember that at spring comiket special 5, closet child(the gothic lolita clothing company) had a booth there, and also seeing a few gothic lolita types around… I don’t think there is a high rate of incidence between GL and general otaku, but I think that it is still loosely connected(e.g. that an otaku is more likely to become GL or vice versa). You have to also remember that just because you don’t see people cosplaying anime characters in harajuku doesn’t mean they don’t… it just means they’d prefer to cosplay in the “designated” areas… Seeing people cosplaying outside an event that aren’t doing it as a job(e.g. handing out leaflets) is ridiculously rare, and generally frowned upon.

  10. Reaver December 12, 2007 at 1:27 am #

    I cant beleive I stumbled across this article. I was looking at it and I read my name and saw that face and I’m like “thats me” type thing. Dude seiya, me and tora have been trying to get in touch with you since you left hey! We thought you must have died hey!
    We, well I thought that with the amount of lazerdiscs you bought with your grandmother’s inheritence, you must have died a happy lazerdisc death! hahah!
    Well I’m totally glad to have found this article.
    I would like to add one other difference between western and japanese cosplay, and thats that its “dame” to wear your cosplay around in the street in japan, but in the west, its all part of the fun of it. I got given a diagram of correct cosplay dressing instructions which included a picture of where the “clossing room” was, and that I should “change wear” there.
    oh and later in my trip I made more of an effort to speak japanese and regained part of my sanity when I made a japanese girlfriend. Yea all the adventure stopped there dude, I stopped going out on weird missions such as the shinjuku subway station ventilation shaft climb for example.
    anyway thats all for now, cant be bothered continuing to write.
    – G.T.A
    p.s. Did you ever get any photos from big site from torstein?

  11. Ashleigh July 28, 2008 at 4:14 pm #

    I want that tidus costume. Seriously. that’s antony, right? Does he still make the costumes? cos I would love to know if he’d do something like that for me.

  12. Melisa - Juegos Brain March 30, 2009 at 9:38 pm #

    First of all, I live in Argentina.
    Here our little underground world organices cosplays but is very difficult to find that out because there is basically no publicity abt them.
    I just went to one of those, brought to us by an anime magazine, and the scheduled was not correct on the fliers, so I got there late. Good thing i decided not to use my Utena outfit, but i still got to know a bunch of otakus whith whom I lost contact now unfortunately.
    Well just a comment.
    bye!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. American vs. Japanese cosplay at AnimeLife - March 25, 2007

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