Maids and Lolitas: Asian street fashion

'Goth-lolis' in Tokyo
'Goth-lolis' in Tokyo

Every Sunday the main street of Tokyo's Akihabara district is closed to cars and opened to science fiction heroes, teen ninjas and girls in maid costumes.

For travellers, it's the easiest place to get a glimpse of Japan's cosplayers — fans of manga (comics) and anime (Japanese animation) who pay homage to their favourite characters by dressing up in elaborate outfits.

What is cosplay?

Cosplay is a term for "Costume Play", which is an aspect of anime fandom (anime is an abbreviation of animation and fandom describes a “subculture of fans”). It's where participants dress up as their favourite characters — normally at some sort of convention.

Famous for its electronics, Akihabara has also become the focus of Japan's thriving otaku (geek) subculture. The area is now notorious for its maid cafes, where young girls cosplay as maid characters commonly found in some types of anime.

Customers (usually young otaku) are treated with extreme deference, with some maids even going so far as to serve tea and sugar on bended knee.

The success of maid cafes has since led to the emergence of "little sister" and even "mother" cafes, where waitresses role play as other anime character types. Dig a little deeper and you'll even find points where role playing intersects with the sex industry.

Crazy conventions

But this is only one face of the cosplay subculture — every week conventions are held around Japan, where fans show off their painstakingly conceived outfits and pose for the throngs of came-ko (camera boys) who come to take pictures of them.

Ted Harada is president of Overdrive Inc, the company that produces Japan's biggest cosplay magazine, COSMODE, which has a circulation of 100,000 copies each month.

He says cosplay first caught on at conventions dedicated to doujinshi, or fan-made comics, during the 1980s and 1990s.

"The main reason cosplayers really do it is for the love of the character. Being the character is the greatest thing for them," Mr Harada says.

"A lot of people want to transform into their heroes. They can express their love for the character to an extent they can't really do in their daily life."

The biggest gathering of cosplayers occurs twice a year at Comiket, a doujinshi convention usually attended by over 500,000 people.

Here cosplayers can register for dedicated dressing rooms and have the opportunity to pose in front of huge numbers of came-ko and onlookers. According to Comiket's website, women dominate the cosplay subculture by a ratio of almost 5:1.

But while Comiket draws increasingly enormous crowds, most Japanese still consider cosplay and other otaku activities to be decidedly odd.

"From the perspective of any normal person in Japan who doesn't watch anime religiously, they'd be kind of prejudiced against cosplayers, or wouldn't think it's cool," Mr Harada says.

"But during the convention dressing up is normal. The normal people become abnormal and the abnormal become cool."

Because each convention has a different focus, it is somewhat difficult to isolate trends in the cosplay world, Mr Harada says.

But characters from certain anime — Naruto, Bleach, Evangelion — are seen at almost every convention. Recently the title character from the anime Black Butler has been a particularly popular choice.

Gothic Lolitas

According to Mr Harada, it's important to distinguish between cosplay and fashion-based youth subcultures such as goth-loli (gothic Lolita), that are centred on the Tokyo suburb of Harajuku, despite the obvious parallels between them.

A typical member of the goth-loli subculture and others like will dress in elaborate, Victorian-style dresses, petticoats, boots and heavy makeup. This can be combined with other elements, such as punk and visual kei (Japanese glam rock).

While there is some crossover at events like Comiken, goth-loli is rooted in alternative fashion, and its adherents consider themselves to be separate from, or even a cut above, cosplayers and otaku.

"I think cosplay is quite different because the goth-loli and those trends are more of a fashion, they're not based on a character. The main reason cosplayers do this is for the love of their character," Mr Harada says.

And perhaps because the subculture is full of people who are often judged as geeks and misfits, cosplayers tend to be accepting of each other, Mr Harada says.

"For real cosplayers, it's cool if you have a nice costume, but no-one really says anything bad about other people's costumes.

"There isn't really much of a competition, since everyone is really just having fun. Everyone has their own way of expressing their character."

Be sure to check out our cosplay photo gallery by clicking here:

User comments
What a magnificent country! As i sit in our hotel room, ironically i jumped onto nine.msn too catch up with what is occuring back home & i find this article!! Just got in from roaming Akihabara, grabbed a reasonably cheap mp3 player and saw the parade & heaps of Cosplay!!! Loved it
Well, there are those who have different preferences when it comes to going to certain countries, But I would love to go to japan! My best friend went there and she LOVED it! I have been a fan of anime since I was a kid, and I still love it now! If i get the chance to start traveling, Japan would be on my list for sure. But my gripe with this article is that it only touched up on "the Goth-loli" side of a whole fashion subculture called "Lolita Fashion," which has lots of subtypes such as "Sweet-Lolita," "Classic-Lolita" And much more. I would like to see an article shedding light on that, because I have been researching that kind of fashion for a while, and I LOVE it! I don't understand why there aren't any shops that sell that stuff here in Australia... (P.S. To those who aren't familiar with Japanese Lolita Fashion, The fashion Subculture has NOTHING in common with a sexual term other than the NAMESAKE, those two things are different from each other, look it up if you're not sure!)
To mi-chan from sa. In the European world, if you call yourself an otaku, it's almost an honorable title and implies that you know alot about anime, manga, etc.. But if you did that in Japan, Japanese people will think you're abnormal. It means something close to 'obsessed' with possibly anything, and actually does mean geek or nerd. And yes I think you can be counted as a western otaku.
interesting costume.
I went to Jpana last year on a school trip as i study Japanese. It was such an awesome experience. I totally agree with Crystal. You wouldn't want to miss ANYTHING. =] Japan is just a beautiful country and I recommend you to go and see for yourself =]
Ahh yes Japan! 'The' only country where these cosplays are fully appreciated! ^^ Yeah but if your a female, beware when you go into some of those cafes lol they have their chicks dresses in verrrryyy short skirts and low cut tops with mirrors on the roof and on the floor for a 'secret sneek preview' haha. My brother is fortunate enough to be in Japan at this very moment. He's been teaching Englsih there for 3 years and has snagged himself a gorgous girlfriend. "Yatta!!" And prior to mine and my nisan's knowlege she is deep into cosplay so woot!
Kawaii (cute)! I love the whole lolita and cosplay! The world wouldn't be the say without cosplay! The best place to see cosplay "is" japan and I would say that would be the best place to visit. Seeing all the girls in Lolli and in Anime cosplay costumes! Kya! And before anyone thinks "otaku" means "geek" it's actually means "anime geek" or "anime lover". Which is me lol. I think Aus should have more conventions for the people like us!!! Cosplay For Life! Yosh!
I went to a maid cafe in Akihabara only a fortnight ago and it was pretty lame. It was a bit tragic to see the single Japanese "salary men" who sit there and stare.
japan ..... ah what an amazing place it is well i've been to japan a couple of times and yes there are parades and stuff like that if your planning to go there take lots of pics because you wont want to miss any thing especially the costumes, food and temples.
As a massive manga fan, I wish that we had the opportunity to go full out with cosplay here! i mean, overseas, even in America and stuff the 'conventions' are still a big thing! But the best we have is SUpernova and thats not really all that fun. Wil I ever get a chance to dress up as shinigami or ninja and bask with fellow fans? BANKAI!