Over the past 30 years, cosplay (コスプレ) has grown from a small subculture to a worldwide cultural phenomenon. While for some, cosplay has become a hobby that borders on an obsession, for others the practice of cosplay is a way to try on new identities.
The term cosplay was created by combing and shortening the words “costume play.” Japanese writer Takahashi Nobuyuki is typically credited with creating the word after being inspired by the individuals in full costume who he encountered during a visit to the Los Angeles-based World Science Fiction Convention in 1984.
Once he returned to Japan, Takahashi went on to encourage members of Japan's burgeoning otaku community (fans who are passionate about a particular hobby, usually related to anime and manga) to take up the practice. Members answered the the call,and as a result, cosplay is now the most visual expression of expression of otaku culture, both within and outside of Japan.
There is even a website, Cure, which is devoted to Japan's cosplay community.
— コスプレサイトCure (@curecos) May 13, 2015
In an interview with Japanese news website Nippon.com, cosplayer and Cure web administrator Inui Tatsumi described the dynamics of this collaborative grassroots movement:
One of the charms of cosplay is that it’s a way for a common sensibility to be shared among friends or members of a particular group.
So it would be rather pointless for a person to do cosplay on his or her own. That collaborative aspect of cosplay has created a “give-and-take” relationship where everyone involved takes photos and videos of each other.
And now through SNS (social network services) sites it’s possible for such interaction to take place across Japan, not just in the big cities.
Tatsumi, who appears on the right in the photo below, has made cosplay an integral part of his life:
Playing with identity seems to be a common theme among cosplayers. In his interview with Nippon.com, Tatsumi went on to say that around 80% of all female cosplayers have tried dressing up like a male character at some point.
Dressing up like a fictional character also seems to allow people to recharge emotionally, Tatsumi says. For those who have a hard time talking to other people, cosplay can offer them a chance to feel more confident in their personal interaction by taking on the role of someone other than themselves.
…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 far less goofing off.
Indeed, some cosplayers can take their craft to what seem like extremes anywhere else:
— コノミアキラ❎7/19坂クラ (@akiracos) February 11, 2015
When Jotoro was cosplaying in Egypt, a random camel snuck in a furtive snuggle.
For the Japanese cosplay community, the practice is as much about personal empowerment and fostering a supportive community as it is about doing the character justice.
— Avery Byrd (@acdramon) junio 28, 2015
Though oceans apart, a group of cosplayers in the West are also pushing for representation while finding their personal power through cosplay.
This past February, the 28 Days of Black Cosplay movement celebrated black cosplayers, cosplayers of color, and their ardent fans.
The movement swiftly gained popularity, as was even featured on some mainstream media sites.
— #JurassicChaka (@princessology) April 21, 2015
The grassroots movement was spearheaded by Chaka Cumberbatch, who cosplays under the name Princess Mentality. Cumberbatch is passionate about her craft and encourages others to participate, especially upstart black cosplayers, even in the face of pushback for the sake of “accuracy.”
In an interview with Global Voices, Cumberbatch said:
When I was a much younger nerd, we didn't have websites like Black Girl Nerds and movements like Black Comics Month or #28DaysOfBlackCosplay — all we had was our fan art and our fanfics where we had to insert ourselves into the worlds we loved so much, just to feel connected.
I think it's critically important for cosplayers of color to show up, speak up and be heard — because if that representation isn't there already, we will have to make it for ourselves.
Cumberbatch explained that the act of embodying a character through cosplay is one that transcends ethnic and cultural borders.
“I don't feel it's necessary to be the same race or come from the same culture of a character in order to have a personal connection,” she said. “I don't feel any less of a connection to the character just because I'm not Japanese.”
As a result, Cumberbatch said she strives to embody characters she is completely connected to, even right down to the color of the nail polish.
“For me, I have to really care about the character,” she said. “If I don't have a personal connection to the character or the series, I find that I'm just really not motivated or interested in finishing the costume.”
— Cool Azz Cosplay (@coolazzcosplay) June 6, 2015
For her efforts, Cumberbatch has connected with other cosplayers around the world who continue to cosplay characters outside their race in spite of vocal opposition:
While it saddens me to know that the problems I've faced in America transcend beyond our borders, it's encouraging to hear that even in the face of that, the strength to rise above it is what brings so many of us together.
Although February is long gone, the #28DaysOfBlackCosplay movement continues, not only through the efforts Cumberbatch but also through the efforts other black cosplayers and cosplayers of color.
The frequently visited Tumblr website Cosplaying While Black features positive images of black cosplayers and cosplayers of colour, submitted by the users themselves.
Butterfly Samurai sums up her feelings in a post for the website “Nerdy but Flirty”:
This movement has further fostered a community within a larger cosplay community. The amount of black cosplayers who actually started due to seeing other black cosplayers is unimaginable. Therefore, 28 Days of Black Cosplay is also about shepherding those on the fringes into the fold and giving them the courage to cosplay themselves.