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Tea Leaves

In Japan, clothes really do make the 'persona'

Across the ages, lexicon of dress reaches across hierarchies and sectors

A trio of cosplayers in well-cut outfits outside the Tokyo Big Sight building. (All photos by Stephen Mansfield)

The only time I recall dressing up with anything like obsessional relish was when, as a child, I managed to collect enough coupons from the back of Kellogg's Corn Flakes boxes to win a Zorro "masked avenger" outfit. The package came with a black cape, sombrero, domino mask and plastic sword, with a piece of chalk attached to the tip. With a new bicycle standing in as a steed, this fully weaponized me to dash around our staid residential neighborhood, incising "Z" signs on tree trunks and walls.

Nothing quite prepared me for Japan, whose provisional cities, defined by restless, perpetual change, can seem like stage sets, or changing rooms. Here, the idea of dressing the part, aspiring to a role, is second nature. In Tokyo, arguably more than any other world city, the street is the natural vector for popular culture and all its derivatives, including the sartorial. The American writer and critic Donald Richie once observed, "In Japan, a land where the emblematic is most visible and where signs and signals are more openly displayed, the language of dress is more codified than in many countries in the West."

For legions of young Japanese cosplayers, dressing up is a way of both maintaining group alignment and standing out from the crowd. In wearing costumes associated with popular anime, manga and game characters, or in creating new personas outside of representational popular culture, they meld the almost Manichaean duality of affiliation and emancipation.

"Cosplay," as the name suggests, is a contraction of "costume" and "player," and describes how fans can role-play characters from popular culture by wearing look-alike outfits. But cosplay goes beyond the purely visual into behavioral theater, performers channeling the spirits of characters through personality, gestures and speech mannerisms.

Tokyo districts like Shibuya, Harajuku and Akihabara are the staging grounds where the assertion of Western individualism is absorbed into Oriental formalism, where the cult of personality turns tribal.

Maid costumes and tinted contact lenses are big in districts like Akihabara, with its maid cafes.

In the autumn of 2018, the alleys and main streets of Tokyo's Shibuya district were requisitioned by tens of thousands of young people as an effulgent stage for Halloween, their stunning costumes far outclassing the rather tame witches, warlocks, zombies and bedsheet ghost outfits seen in the West. The event got some bad publicity after some youths overturned a truck, and there were reports of drunken and disorderly conduct, but my experience of being in the throng of that event, before the pandemic dimmed the lights on the pleasure district, was of mostly well-behaved youths having the time of their lives.

An encounter between good and evil during the Shibuya Halloween event.

The police were out in full that day. Officers mounted on vehicle roofs equipped with powerful megaphones, were exhorting the crowds to keep moving, not to congregate, while less conspicuous members of the Tokyo constabulary, more eerie than costumers with mutilated rubber faces and death masks, mingled stiffly among the crowds. Two young women, with a gift for satire, were decked out in women's police uniforms, replete with handcuffs. Approaching me with reproachful expressions, as if I might have committed some unspeakably indecent public act, they offered to arrest me, a maddening temptation I declined.

Two young women keeping the peace during Halloween in crowded Shibuya.

In normal times, events like the annual World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya attract not only Japanese youth, but people from overseas, especially Asians from cultural backgrounds as diverse as Thailand and South Korea. While cosplay remains largely in the domain of the young and amateur, there are professional models with fan bases and blogs, who get paid to dress up like game and anime characters, appearing at organized conventions in amusement parks and venues, such as the biannual Comiket and Design Festa on the artificial Tokyo island of Odaiba. Some even have agents. Radical as cosplay might appear at times, it is perfectly acceptable to the authorities, who view it as essentially nonthreatening. If you wish to dress as a velveteen rabbit, beribboned Victorian orphan, galactic alien, or Kali, the goddess of destruction, it may stir some street currents, but is unlikely to unsettle the social order.

A figure at the Kawaii Monster Cafe in Omotesando, now sadly closed because of the pandemic.

Far from being a sign of an infantile mentality, a yearning for an unsullied innocence, cosplay, endorsed among the youth of many countries and with a seal of approval from the powerful fashion world, is actually quite cool. It's also a refreshing contrast to the way people continue, even now, to dress for work or formal occasions. While a few renegade brown and salmon-pink suits are occasionally glimpsed, there isn't a great deal of color in an average Tokyo commuter carriage, where black, gray and serge suits present an almost unbroken uniformity of taste.

The only member of an institution permitted to break ranks in public is the gang or syndicate-affiliated thug or yakuza, who, as a special concession to his outlaw status, is allowed to sport neckties printed with surfboards, cocktail sticks and naked women.

Stephen Mansfield is a Japan-based photojournalist, and author of "Tokyo: A Biography."

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