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08 Nov

The Other Face of Japan

Fotos by Natasja Broström Fotos by Natasja Broström

While the Japanese society is marked by recession, youths gather in a fantasy world as collectors of comics books or dressed up as characters from video games. In this world they find freedom and community outside of society. Today, the pop culture “Japan Cool” has gone from being taboo to being one of the biggest export successes in the country. Among other places to Denmark.

The techno rhythms are beating in double pace down on the semi-darkened dance floor. About a 100 youths in their twenties are mimicking with faces twisted in solemnity what the four choreographs dressed in white are doing. Every other minute a scream is heard from the stage, and a 104 bodies rotate synchronised. In the flickering lights of the disco balls you can just glimpse that every single person in the hall is dressed up. Metal-cobbled boots, frazzled, illuminating fur lining, leather vests in tight-fitting design and elf ears.... cosplayers.

The word cosplay is the Japanese abbreviation for costume roleplay. Fans of computer games, cartoons and comics live out their affection for fictional characters like Naruto and Sailor Moon by dressing up as their idols. As always, the main attraction is the dance floor at the annual cosplayer convention at Tokyo Big Sight - the Tokyo version of the Bella Center. By becoming a small piece of the great, synchronised whole, the participants on the dance floor achieve a sense of community in a fantasy world, which is separate from work and the conforming systems of society. That is the essentials of cosplay, as explained by the professor in media science at the Tokyo Waseda University, Toko Tanaka.

“It used to be that the Japanese focused on work. Now they are spending more and more of their time on their hobbies to relax. I think a lot of them even build their lives like a hobby. This way they can enjoy their everyday. To cosplayers, it gives them friends and a network. If they have made their costume well, they also get the respect of others, and it makes them proud,” Professor Tanaka explains.

 

Along with the Japanese society losing momentum, both economically and socially, more and more of the Japanese meet up in this self-created world. It’s not a direct cause and effect, says Toko Tanaka, but interest as been rising steadily ever since Japan in the 1980’s felt the signs that the age of being the first tiger economy in Asia was ending. 

Today, the seniors of the population burden the already frail public sector for health and care. At present, 23 percent of the population have reached an age, where they require care. In ten years that number will have reached 30 percent.

The political dead mire yields annual scandals of corruption, while the earthquake in March 2011 both shook the nuclear plant in Fukushima as well as faith in nuclear power - the very symbol of Japanese progress. The destructions from the resulting tsunami requires billions for rebuilding, but the disaster has also torn the trust between the population and the politicians in Tokyo. “Young people in their 20’s and 30’s do not wish to think about the future. By engaging in cosplay they push away what is unpleasant,” Professor Tanaka says.

 

The Internet Opened the Closed World



Professor Tanaka is 40 years old - and a cosplayer. On her Facebook profile she was for a while dressed as a maid in the subgenre “Lolita”. Clothes are bought in certain warehouses, same size as Magasin. Every floor is filled with pink dressed, shoes with little straps, purses in purple curtain fabrics, flowered handkerchiefs and umbrellas with laces. In other warehouses there is equipment for practitioners of styles like goth, vampire, rocker, fantasy and heavy metal.

Most of the cosplayers in Tokyo Big Sight follow classical fashion, however: They are dressed as characters from cartoons or games. They also follow the usual division in gender, Professor Tanaka explains. About 90 percent of Japanese cosplayers are women and 10 percent are men. One of the few men is Rin, 28 years old:

“I don’t feel strange being a man among all these girls. When I am dressed up, I usually go with other men, and then I don’t think about it.” The mutual fantasy also softens the edges of the social rules. In Japan there are unwritten rules for conduct, regardless of whether you are waiting at the line on the ground by the metro or eating your sandwich on the street.

“Through cosplay, girls can appear as men to get out of the female role as the good girl. And since Japanese homes are very small, they have been forced to do it publicly,” Toko Tanaka explains and captures a few images, which she uploads to Twitter through her Samsung tablet. The outrage of society as lessened, since the first cosplayers appeared in the 70’s. In particular the internet has opened an otherwise very closed world, Toko Tanaka believes. Now you upload images of your costume, and e.g. through Facebook cosplayers can quickly organise an event.

Despite the openness, many choose not to tell their friends and family that they cosplay. Instead they leave home with a small suitcase and change in a public bathroom or another convenient place. Many also do not use their real names with other cosplayers, but give them a performance name. For that reason it is impossible to count, how many Japanese dress up in their spare time. Professor Tanaka estimates somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.

This shy attitude is contrasted by the cosplayers’ behaviour in public space. Every Sunday, those in costumes gather at the bridge near Harajuku Station in Western Tokyo. They have been called a tourist attraction, often besieged by fans with cameras called “cameko” or “camera boys”, and the neighbourhood around is full of stores, selling clothes and equipment for cosplayers.


The Cultural Giant

Society is also showing a different attitude towards otakus: male geeks, who collects e.g. cartoon characters instead of dressing up. They prefer to stay indoors and can even get struck by “panikku”, if a woman comes too close. It used to be that this culture was surrounded by mystique and taboo, but that is changing according to Ryotaro Mihara. He works in the Japanese Ministry of Trade and writes columns about e.g. the otaku culture in the magazine Nikkei Business.

“Before, otakus were treated very badly. Like a kind of criminals. Society thought that otakus molested little girls, because they collected anime (cartoons) and manga (comic books) about little girls. Particularly a murder case towards the end of the 1980’s was a stigma to otakus. Tsutomu Miyazaki kidnapped and raped little girls. When he was arrested, the media were given access to his room. It was full of anime and manga. It was a huge story in Japan and established the image of otakus as bizarre people,” Ryotaro Mihara explains.

He agrees that the internet has had a huge impact with regards to this more positive view. Particularly when the official Japan can see that the rest of the world considers this pop culture as “cool”.

 

“Phenomena like Hello Kitty are global, and in 2003, Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for the animated movie “Spirited Away”. A lot of anime and manga is about every day troubles, which is a world that everybody can relate to. Now we are able to see that this culture has potential. We cannot ignore it any longer. When the American journalist Douglas McGray spent a few months in Japan, he even came up with a name for it. Instead of GNP (Gross National Product), Japan could measure its strength in GNC, Gross National Cool. We used to be an economic giant, now we are a cultural giant,” Ryotaro Mihara believes.

 

Export of “Soft Power”

Europe is also feeling the wind blowing in from the East. Not merely in the form of manga and anime, but also as a larger exotic bundle of colourful pop culture mixed with old, high culture, as explained by Gunhild Borggreen, associate professor at Visual Culture at the University of Copenhagen and an expert in Japanese contemporary art. “Europeans are no longer merely interested in e.g. American culture. At the same time, they are very aware in Japan of the great potential for “soft power”, which is possessed by pop culture. Official Japan has begun promoting pop culture and youth culture as a part of Japanese culture in same standing as tea ceremonies and kabuki theatre. In this way, Japan Cool has become a sort of “third wave” of Japonism (interest for Japan in the West), with the first wave being represented by coloured woodcarvings at the end of the 19th century, and the second being Zen Buddhism and simple aesthetics in architecture and functional art in the 1950’s,” says Gunhild Borggreen. This fascination can also be felt in Denmark.

The festival for Japanese pop culture, called J-Popcon, has since its humble beginnings as a small cosy event in 2000 evolved into becoming a larger gathering, which today fills up the DGI-city in Copenhagen. Here are gathered fans of Japanese movies, comics, cartoons, board games and clothes for e.g. cosplayers. The average age is 16 years, and the division of gender is 75% girls and 25% boys. “Most come here, because they have the same interest and mentality. They are fascinated by Japanese and Asian culture. To cosplayers, it is also a matter of being fascinated by being different and becoming engaged in roleplaying. You get to be your favourite character. It is almost a society within society,” Søren Gerluf Sørensen explains, co-organiser of the festival.

He does not cosplay himself, mostly due to lack of time, but he has been in and around the scene for at least four years. As a 28-year old, he is one of the older ones in the Danish scene, where most cosplayers are teenagers. In Great Britain and Germany, the average age rises to 23 years.

“The attitude is in Denmark that it is mostly for children, and this culture cannot contain anything more complex. It is still considered being geeky in the wrong way,” Søren Gerluf Sørensen says.

The concept of “Japan Cool” has gone from street levels to political offices. On the national TV station NHK, a group of foreigners has begun their own TV show called “Cool Japan”, and the former prime minister Shinzo Abe has talked about the possibility of embedding pop culture into a new industry strategy.

The export of Japanese coolness is probably best known from Sofia Coppola's “Lost in Translation”. A movie, which paints a picture of the modern and, to Westerners, so strange Japan, complete with karaoke bar and a sprint through a deafening pachinko hall. The cultural export has also reached the university MIT in Massachusetts, USA, where a research project about Japanese coolness has been going on through 2011 and 2012. Among the members of the panel are Ryotaro Mihara as representative for the Japanese Ministry of Trade. More specifically, the department of creative industry. The economic gain from this cultural export is estimated as numbering in the billions.

Japan Cool

The concept of “Japan Cool” has gone from street levels to political offices. On the national TV station NHK, a group of foreigners has begun their own TV show called “Cool Japan”, and the former prime minister Shinzo Abe has talked about the possibility of embedding pop culture into a new industry strategy.

The export of Japanese coolness is probably best known from Sofia Coppola's “Lost in Translation”. A movie, which paints a picture of the modern and, to Westerners, so strange Japan, complete with karaoke bar and a sprint through a deafening pachinko hall. The cultural export has also reached the university MIT in Massachusetts, USA, where a research project about Japanese coolness has been going on through 2011 and 2012. Among the members of the panel are Ryotaro Mihara as representative for the Japanese Ministry of Trade. More specifically, the department of creative industry. The economic gain from this cultural export is estimated as numbering in the billions.

Last modified on Thursday, 08 November 2012 09:14
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Natasja Broström

Natasja Broström is a danish freelance journalist based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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