There is a stereotype - an unfair stereotype - that Westerners cannot cosplay.
"A Japanese friend of mine told me very casually, totally matter-of-fact kind of way, that the difference between Japanese and American cosplay is as clear as moeru and naeru," says Patrick Galbraith, author of The Otaku Encyclopedia, University of Tokyo PhD candidate and cosplaying Akihabar tour guide. "Moeru" means "to bud", while "naeru"is an antonym and means "to wilt"."
"My friend said that when he sees a Japanese cosplayer, the response is moeru, and when he sees a non-Japanese cosplayer," continues Galbraith, "the response is naeru. He didn't mean any harm, but this is a pretty damn racist statement." It is a sentiment shared by Westerners, too, believing that Japanese cosplay is superior, placing it on a pedestal.
The history of cosplay is intertwined with the West - it was not developed in a vacuum! The word cosplay was coined by journalist Nobuyuki Takahashi and first appeared in print an article he wrote in a June 1983 article in mag My Anime". Takahashi shortened the word to "cosplay" after hearing that "costume play" was not actually an English word. A direct Japanese translation of masquerade, with its aristocratic nuances, would not suffice. "Costume" and "play", both borrowed words in Japanese, became "cosplay". In the early 1980s, attendees at doujin manga show Comic Market, or Comiket, began drawing pictures of their favourite manga and anime characters on their shirts. This evolved into a handful of individuals dressing up as actual characters.
While Japanese fandom was trying to find its footing in expressing itself, its American counterparts had been dressed up at science fiction conventions for decades. Takahashi was surprised to see Trekkies in full Star Trek gear at the 1984 Worldcon (The World Science Fiction Convention) in Los Angeles. Takahashi hoped that the trend would catch on in his native Japan, and now had the newly minted term he needed to sell it. Geek culture is largely universal. The idea of dressing as one's favourite characters - whether that be from Star Trek or Mobile Suit Gundam - has undeniable appeal.
Cosplay" is Japanese for "costume play" - individuals dressing up in costume. In Japan, it is not restricted to video game, manga or anime characters, but can encompass dressing in all sorts of outfits: maid, nurse, schoolgirl, etc. The term is a shortened form of borrowed English, yet cosplay is viewed as something uniquely for and by the Japanese.
In the West, dressing up in costumes has a myriad of meanings - all different. There is a rich and long history of masquerade in European aristocracy, which was centuries later appropriated by the sci-fi expos as "costume contests" with participants dressing up as characters from domestic movies or TV shows. The West gave birth to Halloween, a holiday in which children don typically monster costumes. Finally, there is cosplay.
For the Japanese, the appeal ofin dressing up like anime, manga or game characters is understandable. "We see these characters all the time on TV," says multi media artist Julie Watai, who also does modelling under the name Ai Amano. "And because of that, we view them in the same category as pop stars or actors." But, unlike the popular thespian or rock star, it is not possible to actually meet these characters. They exist in video games, on television screens and in the pages of manga. Dressing up as those characters gives them a chance to, not meet that character, but to become one with that character in a sense. "Not everyone likes these characters in Japan," Watai notes. "But they can dress up as maids or other cute costumes that are sold in Japan." For the Japanese, dressing up and having fun is cosplay.
"It seems that costumes inspired by anime, manga, video games, light novel, figures and so on have come to be called cosplay in the United States," says Galbraith. In Japan, however, Galbraith notes that it would be considered cosplay to dress up as Jack Sparrow or a Stormtroopper. Cosplay could even be considered dressing up as a policeman or a nurse. Americans have separated cosplay with earlier costume costume-wearing traditions (masquerade and Halloween) by East and West - "cosplay" is a Japanese word, so it, for Westerners, encapsulates Japanese popular culture. When the word was re-imported into the West from Japan, it was assumed that the origin was completely Japanese and associated with video games, anime and manga by default.
"In all fairness, I don't think this is really a misappropriation of the word," notes Galbraith. Almost no one in the United States used the word cosplay, or probably even knew it, before the arrival of Japanese culture." Thus, the connection in the minds of Westerners between cosplay and Japanese popular culture is natural and makes sense. What does not make sense is the notion that cosplay is exclusively Japanese or that Japanese cosplayers are intrinsically better at cosplaying than their Western counterparts. It's not that one is better than the other, they're just different.
"A lot of times, American cosplayers are just having fun with it, which is fine," says Patrick Macias, editor of mag Otaku USA. "But in Japan, where the otaku spirit runs deep, I get the sense that you can't be as casual about your fandom, so there's a sort of perfectionist streak that runs through the cosplay community there." That means, less far less goofing off, Macias continues, or you don't really see silliness like dressing up as a giant Death Note book. The Japanese seriousness has even given birth to a chain store dealing in cosplay costumes called "Cospa". "In America, there's no dedicated chain of cosplay stores like Cospa where you can walk in and buy professionally made costumes or accessories," adds Macias. Those who didn't get a gold star in arts-and-crafts can find the goods they need online. Those that can't must make their costumes. "So Western fans tend be more DIY and crafty, which I think is good." These homemade crafts can lead to spectacularly amazing cosplays or amazingly horrid that's part of the charm.
"I notice a lot of people tend to focus on cosplayers who have just started out or tend to pick out unflattering photos of Western cosplayers," says American cosplayer HezaChan, who has been cosplaying for nine years and has made 30 different costumes. "There are just as many "bad" Japanese cosplayers and unflattering photos of Japanese cosplayers." And while the number of "bad" cosplayers could very well be the same, the number of bad Western cosplayers is proportionate to the number of bad Japanese ones. The reason for the higher number of bad Western cosplayer pics isn't necessarily the cosplayers fault, but rather, the subculture surrounding it. In Japan, the kamekozo ("camera kids") act as PR machines for popular cosplayers, creating a grassroots idol culture. Kamekozo typically specialise in the best cosplays and largely focus on female cosplayers. These images are uploaded onto popular cosplay and even otaku news sites.
This Japan-cosplays-better-than-the-West is hardly a sentiment shared by all. "Online I've seen literally tons of great cosplays from Westerners!" gushes Watai. "Westerners are much better at cosplaying characters designed with an American or European style than Asians are. They can actually look like the physical embodiment of those characters." But many game or anime characters exist in a cultural netherworld, being designed out of a hodgepodge of features and motifs, looking "Western" to the Japanese and looking "Japanese" to Westerners. "Japanese cosplayers routinely voice their jealously of Western cosplayers who have features like green eyes or blonde hair - all the things they have to work hard to make a part of their costume, these foreigners were born with!" says Macias. "Meanwhile, Western cosplayers will sometimes don black wigs and contacts to look more 'Asian.'"
For the nearly the past thirty years, cosplay has been a conversation between 3D and 2D, between East and West and reality and image. It started out in the West under a different name and was appropriated by the Japanese and then reintroduced back to the West. There is no group of people that is stereotypically "better" at cosplay. And the act itself is deeper than Photoshopped images or cleverly staged stage shows - it offers insight into the very fabric of our cultures, what makes us different and what makes us the same.
[Bottom photo Rhys Berresford][Pic]