In this week’s installment of Tokyo Teleport Station Seiya peels back the slick veneer of the Japanese metropolis to reveal its gritty underbelly: organized cosplay.

Tokyo Teleport Station Banner

We all know the mechanics of American cosplay. You and some of your bestest otaku friends cobble outfits together out of spare bits of carpeting and duct tape and haul off to Otakon. Once there, you can stand in a hallway for hours on end getting your picture taken, and if you’re feeling particularly ambitious you can partake in the masquerade.

This is the way of things. And for the most part, it is good. [editor’s note: is it really?]

But Japanese conventions are not like American conventions. Not at all. I maintain that otaku are otaku, the same in all places, but the fandom ecologies in our two nations are so radically different that our gatherings barely resemble each other at all. If you spoke neither language, you could probably spend a day at an American convention and another day at a Japanese convention and walk away from the experience with no clue that the two were at all related.

Sokubaikai
The crowd is half the fun.
No, seriously.

A lot of what goes on at American cons would seem quite strange, and possibly extremely boring to an otaku from the other country. Items that could easily be procured with pocket change at a 7-11 are suddenly worth their weight in gold. Press conferences are held alongside concerts and photoshoots, and most confusingly of all, people are lined up around the block just to watch things that aren’t even movies. It’s a baffling melange of diverse tastes and interests, and it represents the fusion of what would most likely be about a half dozen totally separate events in the Other Country.

This gives rise to a phenomenon unheard of in the US (and most other English-speaking countries, for that matter), pure cosplay events. These cosplay events, like cosplayers, come in all shapes and sizes. Although many will coincide with other events, they tend to be organized and promoted entirely on their own. It’s not uncommon to have a sokubaikai in one wing of a building and a cosplay event in another if the venue is large enough to support such things. This is done intentionally, to best serve the interests of both events, but the two events are almost always operated by separate groups of people who have only the loosest affiliation.

Pretty Princess
It takes a brave man to be
a pretty pretty princess

The bulk of the cosplay events in the Kanto area are organized by a group called JCF, the Japan Cosplay Festival. They organize many events every year and are widely held as the gold standard of cosplay organizations. In general, these events are not entirely unlike the masquerades at American cons, just much much larger. At each event they charge a nominal entrance fee and give away fabulous prizes to those whose costumes are judged to be truly awesome. If you want to get involved in the Tokyo cosplay scene, that web site is the place to start. Kameko (photographers) are always welcome, so long as you follow basic etiquette. Always be cheerful and supportive, and never take a picture of someone without first asking permission. I was lucky enough to attend several of these events myself back in the spring of 03, albeit in a purely observational capacity.

Now, for whatever reason, a lot of cosplay events are not really advertised in quite the same way as most other events. Wandering around Akiba for a few hours on any given day, you can amass quite a collection of flyers advertising sokubaikai and industry events, but flyers for cosplay only come along once in a blue moon. The Internet is slightly more helpful, but I’m quite sure I would never have been fortunate enough to stumble across the JCF pantheon of events without the help of my facilitator good friend Antony.

Antony
The face of wisdom

I was living with Antony for a while out in Kami-Igusa (just west of Shinjuku, in Tokyo) and he was kind enough to show me the ropes. Antony was a lot of fun to hang out with, but he’s the sort of person that gets more and more unnerving and vaguely creepy the longer you’re around him. He gave off this vibe like he wasn’t quite in sync with reality, and he had this way of grinning that made you uncertain if he was really really happy to be hanging out with you or if he was just about to stab you for the fun of it. Nonetheless, he was one of the best friends I had during my trip, aside from my main man Tora, who was the one to introduce us in the first place. As soon as I came clean to Tora about my real motivations for being in Tokyo, he suggested that I should meet Antony. The implication was something along the lines of “Hey, you’d get along great with my other gaijin friend, he’s crazy too”. I’m not sure exactly how Antony made all the contacts he had or how he first got involved in the cosplay world, since he didn’t really speak the language at all and didn’t seem to make any particular effort to be friendly with people (or convince them not to be terrified of him) but nonetheless, he seemed to know exactly where and when everything was going down. For whatever reason, he knew his stuff.

As he explained to me, once a month (except during the summer, for some reason) the JCF takes over the Toshimaen amusement park near Nerima. If you find yourself in Kanto during the non-summer months, this is absolutely your best bet to see the true cream of the crop of local cosplayers. Antony explained to me that Toshimaen is the mecca of Japanese cosplay, and that every cosplayer dreams of going there at least once in their cos-life. I was lucky enough to go there twice.

Tidus
Much better at this
than I will ever be.

Unlike me, Antony was not merely a spectator at these events. He had been handcrafting costumes for years back in his native Australia, sometimes for himself and sometimes for others. For his big “working holiday” trip to Japan he had crafted an elaborate Tidus costume, complete with genuine metalworking where appropriate. He even wandered into a hair salon in Takadanobaba carrying a picture of Tidus cropped from a gaming magazine, pointed at it and announced “Kono kanji de!”. It took him a little while to work up the nerve to actually put it to use, but when he did the JCF judges awarded him first place and presented him with a free GBA SP (the top of the line at the time). And believe you me, he earned it.

True story: Whilst on our way to the first Toshimaen event that we attended, Antony and I got horribly horribly lost. We took the wrong bus for about half an hour, then walked a good distance to a train station that was vaguely similar to the one we originally intended to go to. To avoid further snafus, we were constantly jumping on and off the train at almost every stop, just to make sure that it wasn’t the one we wanted. Seeing us do this, a hunched over old man sitting across from us on the train laughed quietly and asked us in halting English, “Which…which station?”.

“Nerima”, we replied. As this is where we needed to transfer.

“Ahhh…” he said “Nerima. Nerima station.” a slight pause as he counted, then “Three. Three station”. For a moment he just sat there, looking impossibly old, then he followed this up with “There will be a catastrophe in the near future!”. Antony and I just blinked at each other for a moment, then stared back at him. Disregarding momentarily that this is a fairly bizarre thing to say to anyone devoid of context, we were dumbfounded that a man who had struggled with the number “three” moments earlier had just tossed out “catastrophe” like it was nothing. We looked at him inquiringly, but he offered nothing further until he got off the train at the next station, turning and waving to us as he called out “Auf Wiedersehen!”.

It was pretty damn weird. After that it became something of a running joke between us that whenever the slightest thing went wrong (we didn’t get to the train before the doors closed, the conbini down the street ran out of anpan, etc.) we would decide that this was clearly “the catastrophe” that had been foretold to us.

So if you happen to be in the Kanto region and have even a passing interest in cosplay, I highly recommend checking out a JCF event. They’re lots of fun, and a great chance to really take in the local otaku culture. And if you’re very lucky, a little old German-Japanese man may predict your doom.

Seiya is an anime fan who lives in Boston. Three years later, he is still waiting for that catastrophe.