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A Brief History Of Cosplay Culture

Updated July 1, 2019 9.8k views12 items

If you've ever been within a 10-block radius of a convention like Comic-Con or Anime Expo, you've seen people dressing up as their favorite characters from anime, video games, and comic books. You may have even participated in cosplay yourself. Even if you're a total cosplay maven, you still might not know about the history of cosplay.

Though many people think cosplay originated in Japan, it actually started in America during the late 1930s. It wasn't until 1984 that Nobuyuki Takahashi, the founder of Studio Hard, brought the practice from a science fiction convention in Los Angeles to Japan and started encouraging anime fans to do the same at their own conventions.

Whether you're a fan of the best cosplayers in America or just someone who appreciates fandom history, it's good to know how cosplay evolved into the thriving global community that exists today.

  • Photo: Alan Light / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    The First Manga Cosplay Appeared In America In 1979

    American cosplay based on Japanese manga actually predated the practice's introduction to Japan. At the 1979 San Diego Comic-Con International, Karen Schaubelt and a group of fellow cosplayers showed up dressed as Captain Harlock and other characters from Star Blazers. 

    While Schaubelt and her friends were the first known fans to introduce manga-based cosplay to the West, it did not truly catch on until after Nobuyuki Takahashi's 1984 trip to WorldCon.

  • Photo: Yumeji Takehisa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Post-World War II Shojo Manga Heavily Influenced Cosplay Culture

    After World War II, shojo manga began to serve a dual purpose: the manga illustrated romantic stories meant to appeal to teenage girls, while also serving as an advertisement for clothing and accessories. This trend was pioneered by Yumeji Takehisa, a manga artist who doubled as a fashion designer, allowing fans of his work to buy the clothes his characters wore. Junichi Nakahara pushed this trend even further by providing full-body fashion illustrations of his shojo characters. 

    Not only did the creators of shojo manga help encourage the development of cosplay, its fans did too. Female fans of Nakahara, Takehisa, and other shojo manga artists wrote fanfiction, drew fan art, and created their own manga based on these characters. These activities contributed to an environment of participating creatively in fandom, which helped pave the way for cosplayers. 

  • America Embraced Cosplay Culture

    In the United States, some people might consider cosplay to be a bit odd, but it's generally accepted as just something that people do. There are several possible reasons for this. The first is that America places a high value on individual expression. While this doesn't preclude judgment of other people's expression, it's generally accepted that some people will have unusual hobbies and that's okay.

    In some cases, Americans outside of the community actually like cosplaying. Chris Kincaid, who wrote on the subject for Japan Powered, said, "I remember a few years ago I saw a pair of Klingons walk into a Burger King [in America], and the restaurant erupted into smiles and oos and aahs."

    The United States also already had a long tradition of costuming. Not only had cosplay actually started there in the 1930s, but Americans were also accustomed to celebrations like Halloween and Mardi Gras, both of which involve dressing up in costume. 

  • Photo: Guilhem Vellut / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Cosplay Is Not Widely Accepted In Japan

    Although Japan's cosplay scene is thriving, it's not a socially acceptable practice. This may be because Japanese culture emphasizes community and does not encourage standing out. It may also be because otaku – a Japanese term for anime fans that is considered derogatory – are looked down on by mainstream Japan. At best, they are thought to be anti-social and strange; at worst, they are considered potentially dangerous. 

    For this reason, cosplay is limited to specific venues. While in America you might see people in Akatsuki cloaks and Naruto headbands riding the train to a nearby convention, in Japan most conventions prohibit cosplayers from wearing their costumes outside of the venue. Two districts in Tokyo, Harajuku and Akihabara, are known for hosting cosplay events outside of conventions and for their cosplay-themed restaurants and cafes. In these venues, cosplay is socially acceptable.