Cosplaying is prevalent common in the world today but in North America and some countries in Asia such as Japan, it is a lifestyle. I specifically decided to focus on this group because, although I have lived in San Francisco for the past four years and witnessed three cosplay conventions take place here, I still know almost nothing about it. In San Francisco, you can spot cosplayers anywhere but they usually hang around Japan Town, where all the anime and manga stores in the city are located.
Some members of this subculture are usually in character so they are easily spotted, however, there are a good amount who choose not to dress up on a day to day. This is the topic I will explore through informant interviews, sociological analysis and observations. I will be conducting my field research in San Francisco, Japan Town, using qualitative methods such as interviews and observations and using scholarly papers for my quantitative research.
We will also answer these questions: who belongs to this group, what is the history of this group and where can they be found today, and what are the common behaviors among this subculture’s members? Additionally, why some choose to stay in character.
Are they more comfortable and confident in this position? Cosplay is a performance art in which the individual imitates a character from a film, comic book or video game (Joel). The term cosplay was invented by Japanese reporter, Nobuyuki Takahashi by combining the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’ in 1984.
Before this, it was known as ‘costuming’. Costuming started in North America in the late 1930s when people would have to dress up in a costume that matched the theme of the convention. It all began when Forrest J. Ackerman dressed up in his futuristic costume for a sci-fi convention. In the following years, people did the same and prizes were given to whoever had the best costume.
On the other side of the world, in Japan, college students borrowed this idea of costuming by dressing up as their favorite characters from the manga series, Urusei Yatsura and television series, Mobile Suit Gundam (Osmud). To further explore and embrace their love for these fictional characters, they would re-enact their best-loved scenes. According to the research survey performed by Dr. Andrea Letamendi and Dr. Robin Rosenberg in “Psychology of Cosplay,” of the 966 participants, most cosplayers are white women and they usually choose to dress up as superheroes. Dr. Letamendi stated that this is probably because there are less strong female characters so picking a male character would not be as significant (Kelly, and Loanes). Additionally, most cosplayers are white due to under-representation of different races in media so these races are left out because they don’t have many characters to choose from. This is an example of how the conflict paradigm comes into play.
Japan Town, San Francisco is home to anime, comic book stores and all the cosplay conventions that have been held in the city, so naturally, this is where most enthusiasts come to form their own communities through friends and events. Cova (qtd. In LiuWIng-Sun), states that members of this postmodern subculture “…can be held together through shared emotions, styles of life, new moral beliefs and consumption practices. They exist in no other form but the symbolically and ritually manifested commitment of their members.” To complete this ethnography, I made my way to Japantown Collectibles, an anime store to interview two cosplayers.
I looked out for people dressed in costume and for people who weren’t in costume. It wasn’t too long before I found a Caucasian girl in her late twenties walking out of the store dressed up as her favorite anime character. Through our interview, I leant that, contrary to the general idea we have of cosplayers, they are actually very normal sociable people, competitive and just want to have a good time. I asked her why she was in costume on that day to which she replied saying she is always in costume because this when she feels unique, happy and content. The second person I interviewed was also a Caucasian girl who is in her mid-twenties. Through our interview I found out that although cosplaying is a lifestyle, they do live lives similar to people who aren’t a part of their community when they aren’t in costume i.e. they go to college, enjoy hanging out at bars, love the occasional concert, etc.
The only time she felt comfortable in costume was during a convention, Halloween or an EDM concert. Additionally, from my conversations, I realized that although every race or body type is not represented in the mediums they take their inspiration from, they take diversity very seriously. For example, if a male decided to dress up as wonder woman, it would not be a problem and it is frowned upon to make fun of the person. This is an example of when the society they live in acts as a social institution, where common rules are accepted. Through the functionalist paradigm, we can understand that every culture and subculture has a role to play that keeps society working together.
For cosplayers, their role is to bring in a source of entertainment. When they are seen walking on the streets dressed up, people who are not exposed to this subculture of cosplaying, will definitely wonder and ask questions. Through this, they will gain more knowledge. After putting together all my research and this ethnography, I realized that cosplaying was everything I thought it was. Simply put, in this subculture members can freely escape from their real world to be a part of this imaginary world in order to create memories and experience self-gratification. Moreover, cosplay culture in San Francisco is a result of environmental determinism. The people I interviewed mentioned that their interest sparked when they were in high school after being exposed to anime, manga and video games and making friends with regular cosplayers over the internet.
Terms Defined Qualitative: Research that cannot be numerically measured Quantitative: Numerically measured form of research Conflict paradigm: Conflict because of competition for limited resources Social institution: A community that is supposed to teach social norms Ethnography: qualitative methodology used to study cultures. Society: A group of people who define themselves by a set of shared customs or values. Functionalist paradigm: Independent parts, each serving a specialized purpose that helps keep society working and in order. Environmental Determinism: How our physical environments significantly shapes our personalities.