Cosplay – in which participants dress up as fictional, typically sci-fi or manga characters – is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. It’s a potential source of soft power that Japanese policymakers should be keeping a better eye on.
According to American webcomic Onezumi ‘Oni’ Hartstein, co-founder of the Internet culture convention Intervention, Americans should also adjust their perceptions of what is becoming an increasingly popular hobby here. ‘Costumes aren’t just for Halloween and Cosplay isn’t just a fad with teens,’ she says. ‘Cosplay is on the verge of becoming a major force in American pop culture.’
Henry Lee, Co-Founder of American Cosplay Paradise, agrees. After launching one of the first American Cosplay websites in 2000, Lee has ridden the Cosplay wave to commercial success. He estimates the industry has grown from practically nothing in the early-2000s to being worth about $5 million to $7 million per year, numbers he says are set to keep rising.
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lee says he remembers Cosplay as a niche within a niche for Americans. Originally rooted in Asian communities on the West Coast and a few major East Coast cities, Cosplay slowly fanned out geographically after being incorporated into national anime convention programming. The emergence of online resources (Cosplay.com) and Cartoon Network’s efforts to bring anime shows into the mainstream also played a role.
Initially, Cosplay was a specialized form of costuming, with most Cosplayers making their own costumes. But it ultimately caught on with the appearance of commercial, pre-made Cosplay costumes. Still, in the early days it was limited to Japanese cultural influences, particularly anime and manga. Lee says he still remembers, for example, when his website only offered Japanese-inspired costumes. However, in the mid-2000s, he could no longer enforce such limitations as demand increased for non-Japanese costumes (particularly DC and Marvel superhero and American video game characters) and US and Japanese studios started to collaborate on more projects, blurring the line of what could be considered Japanese.
While American geekdom and anime fandom have maintained an interest in costumes for decades, Lee says he noticed a major shift around 2008, when Cosplay established a major presence at both San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon*Con, the largest comic book and sci-fi conventions in the world.
For Lee and Oni, it’s clear Cosplay has established itself as both a major commercial industry and an important new form of cultural expression in American society. If they’re right, Japanese public diplomacy practitioners should take notice of the growing US interest in Cosplay.
Still, Lee says Japan can’t take for granted the strong ties between Japanese cultural exports and Cosplay. ‘The Japanese government has recognized that anime and manga are a strong economic commodity,’ he says. ‘However, they still need more programmes to encourage greater creative freedom.’
‘The link between Cosplay and Japan is dependent on how closely the Japanese brand is tied to Japanese culture. While it’s true that there are a lot of Naruto Cosplayers, for the majority of them, their interest is from a visual or superficial perspective, and not necessarily a cultural one.’
Oni also argues that although there remains a strong preference for characters from Japanese pop culture among Cosplayers due to the traditional close-linkage with the anime and manga community, there’s no guarantee that Japanese preferences will remain dominant as Cosplay branches out to broader society.
According to Lee, the Japanese government could play a major role in mitigating the changing American preference away from Japanese characters as the Cosplay market grows. ‘There’s a huge risk here because there are a lack of titles with an essence of Japanese culture in the anime and manga markets and the ones that are there follow the same archetypes,’ he says. ‘The government therefore needs to support its home industry behind the scenes. They need more titles which cater to the West and the government could help offset the studio’s risks in producing such titles.’
‘They also could support the industry by creating greater awareness for properties with wider commercial appeal, such as Studio Ghibli-like titles with universal appeal,’ he adds. ‘What we don’t need is more typecast titles, and that’s about all that we are getting from Japanese studios since the early-2000s recession.’
If the Japanese government can do this, it has an opportunity not just to expand its cultural prestige and influence abroad, but also to find new avenues for stimulating an economy in desperate need of help.
Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat's Pentagon (accredited) correspondent. His work has been featured by Gulf News, ISN Insights, CSIS, The East Asia Forum, The Jakarta Globe and The Journal of Energy Security. He blogs at Asia–Pacific Reporting, can be reached at [email protected], and followed @aseanreporting.