Thursday, 30 January 2014

Interviewing a Japanese Cosplayer -Article

This was a result of an interview with a Japanese cosplayer back in 2011 for an essay for a class at University in Japan. I haven't used her real name.

If you're interested in Japanese geek culture I also wrote an article after interviewing a Japanese Otaku.
Or if you'd like to read the raw interview with Reiko I have put the transcript on Interviewing a Japanese Cosplayer [RAW Interviews].

Cosplayers in Japan: People Who Are Close but Not Close

Kosupure (or cosplay), is a combination of ‘costume’ and ‘play’ and consists of the practice of expressing ones fandom through the dressing up of fictional characters from various medias; mainly anime, manga and games. It’s seen within Japan as a sub-genre of the otaku subculture, which describes people who are avid fans and consumers of various mediums but mostly linked to the consumers of “useless things” such as anime, manga and games (Grassmuck 1990). There is an argument as to whether cosplay started with costumed role-play in American in the 60s and taken to Japan, or whether it was important from Japan along with the practice of anime and manga fan clubs (Winge 2006). Either way it is now a common practice in Japan especially among the young female otaku, such as 22 year old Reiko (for the purpose of anonymity this is not her real name). This essay will look at Reiko’s involvement within the cosplay community, her consumption practices, how it fits in with her social life, and how it contributes to her self identity.

You wouldn’t expect Reiko to be more then an average young Japanese woman but she is an avid cosplayer who was first interested in cosplay at 17 when she went to her first doujinshi (self published fan comics) event. She said that she had an interest in doujinshi before and when she went to her first event in Osaka there were a group of people doing cosplay. “I thought they looked cool and wanted to try”, but it wasn’t until a year later at the age of 18 when she was in university and was able to try cosplay for the first time. Her interest in doujinshi and cosplay developed on their own but when she got to University she was able to go to cosplay events for the first time with a group of friends. These university friends have stopped cosplaying now but she has formed a new group of cosplaying friends through the cosplay community.

Reiko decides which cosplay to do based on her favourite characters from anime, manga and games, but if a friend wants to do a group cosplay (all characters from the same show or game) then they will do that. Hers and her friend’s interests in the latest anime, manga and games is the fuel for their creative cosplaying passion. She said that, like many cosplayers, she normally buys her cosplay and then adjusts it to fit her body shape. She will normally spend about 8000yen on a single cosplay including the costume, wig, and accessories. I asked her if she bought a new cosplay every time; “Sometimes, but I use the same favourite cosplay a lot. There are people who buy new cosplay each time, but I don’t”. Aside from buying anime, manga and games which fuel her love of cosplay, and the cosplay itself, Reiko also spends time and money on dieting, skin products, but more importantly saves money from her part time job, which is based around the events at the weekend.

Reiko will go cosplaying about three times a month, normally at “ATC” a shopping store in Osaka which holds weekly cosplay events. There are normally normal people doing their shopping at the store, so they will often get stared at a lot. The cosplayers go to have photo shoots which are shot inside and outside the building itself, but they don’t just go to have the photos as keepsakes. What I found particularly interesting was the way the cosplayers interact at events like these: Reiko told me that a cosplayer will have a meishi, a business card, with their “cos-name”, photo, mail address, and cosplay website etc. People use these cards to look up the cosplayer or photographer on sites like an SNS (Social Network Service) and they normally keep in contact via the internet and sites like these. “You can make lots of friends” she said, but when I asked if she was close with her cosplay friends she said “Hmm, sort of. Real life names, where they live, contact details and personal information you normally don’t know”. To keep their identity there is a social taboo to asked or give out personal information, as a result Reiko knows the people by their ‘cos-names’ and characters, and is close to them as cosplayers, but outside of the events and cosplay community she knows nothing about them. Cosplayers who meet in the cosplay event normally don’t meet outside of it. There is anonymity within the cosplay circles due to its links with the otaku image, which is normally perceived as being very strange, and has very negative connotations linked with it (Grassmuck 1990), not only that but people prefer to keep their normal and cosplay lives separate for fear of what their friends and family might think of them.

Reiko is an unusual case, I think. She uses a cos-name which is the same as her real life name, but she uses different kanji so that when people say her name she doesn’t get confused. Not only that but most of her friends and her family knows that she cosplays. I asked her what her family thought and she said that at first they thought it was strange but now it’s normal. The only people who don’t know are her friends from high school, before she started cosplay. When I probed her to see why she doesn’t tell them she replied “It would be troublesome, embarrassing, because they might think I'm otaku and maybe that characters image is bad.”

Thinking up questions related to identity I figured that asking ‘how does cosplay make your identity’ would give me an answer from Reiko that she would think I wanted. Instead I asked her “If you’d never got into cosplay, do you think you’d be the same person?” She paused for a moment and replied “Different, defiantly different. When I cosplay I make myself, I become myself. For example, when I do cosplay and a man comes and asks me ‘Can I take a photo’ and he makes really good photo it makes me. My level of cosplay increases.” I pushed the question if she’d never done cosplay then what would she be doing now; “I don’t know…but long ago I was also interested…I can’t think of not doing it.” So I asked why she cosplays; “At first I saw a lot of cool people who did it, so I wanted to do it too. I like those characters and when peoples faces change to become those characters, it’s fun. When I see photos it’s interesting, fun. I’m young now and I have a lot of good photos of when I’m young. When I get older…because now it’s a hobby, but it’ll be impossible to do when I’m older.”

From what I understood cosplay gives Reiko her confidence in her image as a young woman. She is able to ‘make herself’ and at the same time create new persona and ‘new faces’ through the acting of the characters she enjoys. Cosplay is a central aspect of her life that she can’t imagine being without. Her part-time job funds her passion and is scheduled around events. She not only buys cosplay and the necessary accessories, but also anime, manga and games which inspires her cosplay. She socialises with her friends in real life, who know she cosplays as well as with her friends online, whom she always makes new ones through the introduction of events. Ironically, although she’s close to a lot of people who cosplay, she is only close as a cosplayer to them as cosplayers and none of them know who they are or what they are like outside of the cosplaying world. It is a practice which is done in the open with a lot of interaction between cosplayers, but is a closed circle where real identities are kept private. As Winge (2006) states “Japanese culture values community above the individual, cosplayers exist as a subculture, outside the acceptable norms of the dominant culture…[a]s a result, Japanese cosplayers have a negative reputation as individuals”. Because of this discrimination, areas for ‘safe cosplay’, such at official events like the ones held at ATC.

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