When I was studying abroad in Japan several years ago, I befriended a Japanese cosplayer who led me into the world of cosplay in Japan. I was able to get a firsthand experience with how cosplay exists within Japanese culture and relate it to my experiences in America.
The reality is, cosplay in Japan and America is not all that different. Wherever you are, it’s still a bunch of fans getting together to celebrate their love for pop culture, such as anime or manga. There are people who buy their costumes and people who make them on their own. There are the newbie cosplayers still learning the ropes, and the experienced cosplayers wearing elaborate costumes who really know how to pose.
The biggest differences that you’ll find have to do with the rules and etiquette of cosplay as it relates to mainstream culture.
To cosplay in Japan, it’s common to change into your costume at the event so you don’t have to travel by train in costume. There are also strict rules about where you can cosplay at the event and who is allowed to take photos of you. Overall, the idea is to avoid being a nuisance to the general public and other event attendees.
What to expect as a cosplayer in Japan
The rules and rituals around cosplaying in Japan are a little more strict than what you’re used to in America and other Western countries. There is more of an emphasis on not standing out or being a nuisance in public. This helps to protect cosplayers, protect the reputation of the comic event, and overall create a limited disturbance in the lives of everyday people who are not attending the cosplay event.
Expect to change into your cosplay at your event
The biggest difference that you will find between American and Japanese cosplay events is the changing rooms. In America, it’s common to get changed in a hotel room and then walk to the event, but many people also travel by public transportation in costume too. It’s normal for the blocks surrounding the convention to be swarming with attendees and cosplayers.
In Japan, they have changing rooms within the event building. You’re expected to bring your costume and makeup supplies with you (usually in a rolling backpack). Once you purchase your ticket you’ll be led to a large room where everyone is changing into their costume for the day.
When I cosplayed at an event, I was brought to a large conference room with all the other ladies getting changed. It’s not an official changing room that you might have in a school or gym. Once there, you pick a spot on the floor and start getting changed. You’ll leave your bags in this room while you cosplay at the event.
It’s also important to note, you should not use any kind of hairspray or heavily scented products in this room. They are not always well ventilated and they will become a hazard or a nuisance to everyone else changing in the room.
Stay in designated cosplay areas
When you get your ticket for the event, they’ll also hand you a little information packet going over the rules. These will go over guidelines, such as making sure you are fully covered and decent the entire time and the types of props and costumes that are prohibited.
You should also get a small map of the area telling you which places are designated for cosplayers. There will also be signs and staff walking around to help you if you’re confused about where the cosplay area boundaries are. Photography is usually not allowed outside of these areas, and you might be asked to change if you want to wander around other areas of the event.
Etiquette about sharing photos online
Many cosplayers in Japan are not very public about their interests. They’ll use aliases and make sure that their cosplay photos and social network is separate from their business network. Because of this desire to keep their cosplay away from their professional life, and because of privacy laws in Japan, it’s always important to ask permission before posting any photos online.
You might be able to exchange cosplay ‘business’ cards with other cosplayers at the event so that you can find each other later in a socially acceptable way. This is a practice that I’ve seen catching on at American conventions lately too. So don’t be afraid to print a few of your own to hand out to people you meet.
Don’t expect everyone to speak English
If you are planning on going to a cosplay event in Japan, I highly recommend learning some Japanese. While it’s common for students to learn English in the school system, most people will not be able to effectively communicate with you.
In addition, the rules and restrictions will all be written out in Japanese. Unless you’re going to a very big event, there is not usually an English translation for you to reference. So, learning how to read and speak at least basic Japanese will be extremely useful.
Don’t expect all events to allow cosplay
In America, you can expect any comic, anime, gaming, or general nerd convention (even Renn Faire) to have many people attending in cosplay. In Japan, this is not always the case. Many small to medium-sized events prohibit cosplaying. This is largely because of the need to provide enough space for a changing room, and the need to obtain photography permits, not because cosplayers are shunned in the community.
On the flip side, many small events are just for cosplay. A phenomenon that’s somewhat unusual in America. This was the kind of event that I attended with my friend in Japan. There were no autograph sessions, no dealer’s room, and no anime showings. It was a small event only for cosplayers and photographers.
Cosplay stores are more readily available
There is another major difference between Japanese and American cosplay that was one of the most fantastic parts of cosplaying in Japan. There are many brick-and-mortar stores that you can go to and purchase cosplay costumes, wigs, and supplies. You can easily purchase whatever you need for your costume either new or even second-hand and even try it on in-store so you don’t have to worry about the size being wrong.
It’s not just in Tokyo either. There were many of these stores in Osaka, where I was staying in Japan, and I’m sure most major Japanese cities have similar places to shop.
This is not to say that everyone buys their costumes in Japan. Many people will create their own cosplays or commission special costumes as well. However, it’s much easier to buy a costume and get started in Japan.
What to expect as a cosplay photographer in Japan
If you want to photograph cosplay while visiting Japan, there are also rules and etiquette for you to follow. The first rule you might not expect is that at any particular event, you need to be either the cosplayer or a photographer. While it’s usually not prohibited to snap selfies or take photos with some of your friends who are also cosplayers, you’re generally expected to get a photographer ticket to the event if you want to take any serious photos.
You need to pay for a ticket to the event
Paying for a ticket to the event will give you permission to take photos of the cosplayers present and post those photos online. Because of the privacy laws in Japan, you can get in trouble for posting photos of someone in a public place without getting their permission. Getting a photography ticket is a basic way of getting permission to post photos online.
By attending an event as a photographer, you are also saying you will stick to the rules. You will respect the cosplayers present, not trying to take any sneak shots, and you will only take pictures in designated areas.
Never take a photo without asking
Even though you have permission from the event to take photos of cosplayers, you still always need to ask a cosplayer before taking any photos with them. Don’t be too offended if someone refuses to allow you to take pictures of them. It’s common for cosplayers to be shy around new photographers who they haven’t met before.
Be courteous when taking photos
As always, you want to make sure you are polite and courteous with any cosplayer you are working with. This is especially important to remember because most cosplayers in Japan are female while most photographers are male. You want to be careful not to do anything that is perceived as inappropriate.
Some of the rules for photographers are spelled out within the event guide. For example, some larger conventions have restricted any kind of photography from a low angle because some people would try to get panty shots of cosplayers.
You might not be allowed to use a tripod
If you’re used to bringing your tripod or professional equipment with you to set up in a corner of the convention, you might want to leave all of that behind. Some events will completely ban the use of tripods or bulky equipment because it blocks walkways and creates a nuisance. Others will only ban it in certain areas, so it’s always best to check the rules ahead of time.
What about cosplay and fashion districts in Japan?
You’ll notice I’ve been talking mostly about cosplay events that are organized in Japan. However, you may have heard that cosplaying in the streets of Harajuku or Akihabara in Tokyo is commonplace. While there are some specific places where people may cosplay in these districts, more often than not what you hear about is street fashion or employees of businesses in the area.
Cosplay vs. street fashion
Street fashion in Japan is not the same as cosplay. While the many photos you see online may make the clothing seem unique or eccentric, it’s really just regular clothing that people are wearing, not a costume. This clothing isn’t something you’ll see every day on the streets of Japan, but it’s considered more acceptable within fashion districts in Tokyo.
Renting a changing room
Even in these fashion districts and the few cosplay locations, it’s not necessarily common for people to travel on public transportation wearing costumes or unusual clothing. Usually, they will either wear a long coat over their outfit until they arrive at their location, or they will rent a changing room within the district they are cosplaying.
This allows them to travel to their location without standing out or becoming a distraction to other people. The rental rooms may even come with general makeup supplies so cosplayers don’t have to carry their makeup with them.
Asking for photos
If you are traveling to a cosplay or fashion district in Japan, don’t ever take photos of someone without getting their permission first. In fact, due to Japanese privacy laws, you cannot publicly post a photo of someone if you did not get their permission first. You would have to blur out their face in the photo. Many businesses, such as maid cafes, also restrict patrons from photographing their waitresses. So, even if you ask be aware that the answer might be ‘no.’
To ask for a photo in Japanese, the phrase is ‘Shashin tot-te mou ii desu ka?’ (May I take your photo?). But even if you hold up your camera and ask ‘Shashin OK?” you can get your point across.
Should you cosplay in Japan?
If it is your dream to someday cosplay in Japan, then there is no reason to give that up. As long as you are respectful of the culture, practices, and rules surrounding cosplay in Japan it can be a very fun experience. Always be considerate of other people when you are at a cosplay event or when you are traveling around in public.
Before you jump on a plane to head to the next big anime event in Japan, I do recommend taking some time to learn some Japanese ahead of time. There is no guarantee that anyone will be able to speak English or translate for you, and most of the event rules are only written in Japanese, so it’s more likely you’ll misunderstand something or make a mistake if you don’t have some background in the language.
If you’re unfamiliar with general etiquette rules in Japan, see if you can befriend someone to be your guide at your first event. They will be able to tell you if you’re breaking the rules or committing a social faux pas, and it will be a lot easier to find a group of other cosplayers to befriend.