Cosplay and identity

Every year the city of Nagoya, Japan, is crowded with colourfully-dressed visitors attending the annual World Cosplay Summit (WCS). Participants come from more than 40 countries around the world, and it’s an opportunity to network, express yourself, and show off your talent.

“Cosplay is a rapidly growing expression of popular culture and has a particular resonance in Japan,” says Dr Emerald King, a lecturer in Japanese at La Trobe University, who has attended, studied, and participated in cosplay conventions around the world. “It’s a term that is principally used to describe fans who dress as anime or manga characters, but is now applied to all kinds of fictional or pop culture characters throughout Japan and western countries.”

Dr King first travelled to the WCS in 2017, where she was one of the few academics to have access to all areas. She has returned in subsequent years, allowing her to study cosplay trends, and survey participants on topics of cosplay, gender identity, and attitudes towards Japanese culture. The data gathered forms part of her ongoing research into cosplay and language.

“Cosplay has become a tremendous outlet for members of these communities, to express everything from their creativity to their gender identity,” says Dr King.

One aspect of her work is examining trends of ‘crossplay’, a subculture of cosplay where the character you dress up as isn’t restricted by gender. While some crossplayers do so out of a sense of parody, others strive to pass completely as the gender of the character they are portraying, or make their gender ambiguous.

“For many who take part in crossplay it provides a safe environment for them to explore their gender identity. There’s an inclusivity amongst the community that can offer an escape,” says Dr King. “The global cosplay communities already show signs of this term falling out of favour, which may indicate a change in perspective and more inclusive attitudes – it’s interesting to see academia attempt to catch up with describing global trends.”

Cosplay differs from country to country, and in addition to her work in Japan, Dr King has also conducted research in New Zealand and at local conventions in Australia such as Supanova, Comiccon and Madman Anime Festival.

Her research on gender and cosplay has recently been published in The Routledge Companion to Gender and Japanese Culture and she is working on a single author volume that compares representations of classical texts in cosplay.