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From Underground Trend to Mainstay of Subculture

August 14, 1998

Costume players go to great lengths to get their outfits just right. (Go Itoh)

More and more young Japanese fans these days are dressing up like their favorite characters from anime (Japanese cartoons) and video games. Costume parties are held regularly, and have even begun to be featured on television, as well as in major newspapers and magazines. The practice known as "costume play" has gone from being looked at as just another fan-inspired craze to an established trend in today's Japanese youth culture.

Costume Players Themselves Become Stars
Costume play's popularity began growing rapidly among young Japanese from about four years ago at manga (comic book) sales conventions sponsored by underground manga artists. Not just limited to clothing, costume players apply makeup, dye their hair, and even wear colored contact lenses in an effort to take on the likeness of their favorite characters. Every summer, Japan's largest manga convention is held for three days on Tokyo's waterfront, where over 100,000 anime and manga fans gather each day from all over the country. Costume players are one of the main attractions. Popular anime characters include those found in "Sailor Moon" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion." Over the last couple of years, costume players have appeared on the scene mimicking characters from video games.

Costume play is no longer limited to manga conventions. Costume parties have started cropping up all over Japan. The largest affairs attract thousands of participants, who dance to their favorite anime theme songs and pose in their costumes for photographs. Popular costume players become stars in their own right, receiving letters from their fans. Some even put out their own videos and photo collections.

"Visual" Boom Adds to Popularity of Costume Play
At first, costume play was looked at simply as a current craze where fans go all out to get into the heart and soul of their favorite anime and manga characters. The generation raised during the anime boom of the 1970s--which featured such popular titles as "Space Cruiser Yamato" (also known as "Star Blazers") and "Mobile Suit Gundam"--are now bringing their children along to manga conventions. Costume play is beginning to look more like a mainstay of young Japanese culture.

The recent trend of so-called "visual-mode" male rock bands who adorn makeup and gaudy costumes has added to the popularity of costume play among young women. One recent "visual-mode" concert was attended by many female fans dressed in the likeness of the band members, and many others in schoolgirl, military, and nurse uniforms.

Stores that supply character costumes have also begun to increase. An entire outfit can cost anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 yen (207 to 414 U.S. dollars at 145 yen to the dollar). There is one reported case of a female office worker who placed a costume order for more than 1 million yen (6,900 dollars) to ensure that she wouldn't tarnish her favorite character's image with inferior apparel. There are even some specialty stores that design costumes to order. Customers bring in a photo of their favorite rock artist, have the store tailor a copy of the artist's costume, and then wear it out to their idol's concert.

The Hero and Heroine Within
Most costume players give the desire to transcend their ordinary self and the elation of acting out the role of a hero or heroine as their main reasons for engaging in costume play. One 25-year-old male office worker who dresses up in his "Sailor Moon" garb about twice a month says, "I'm shy and reserved in group situations. When I become my character at costume parties, however, I relish being the center of attention." A female costume player comments that dressing like a character makes her feel like a heroine, not just a plain, boring office worker in an accounting office.

According to one psychologist, this kind of character transformation is an extension of children's typical fantasy role-playing, which serves as a kind of escape from reality and gives the participant a chance to vent pent-up feelings. Costume play's popularity may also stem from the difficulty today's younger generation has in fostering close relations with people. Costume play makes it easier for these people to communicate even with strangers, since they can readily identify with their partners' costume characters from the outset.

Most recently, costume play has gone international, with costume contests featuring Japanese anime characters being held in places as far away as France. With this kind of national and even international appeal, costume play can no longer be looked at as just a fad, but a true fixture of Japanese subculture.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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