The years: 1983 and 1984. The places: Los Angeles and Tokyo.
Worldcon, the world science fiction convention, was in full swing, with author Jerry Pournelle serving as Master of Ceremonies for the Award Banquet. The fans in attendance voted Startide Rising, by David Brin, as the best SF novel of the year, and selected The Return of the Jedi as the year’s best film.
As had been the tradition since at least 1939, many fans attended Worldcon in costume: dressed as their favorite characters from books, television, and movies, or in fanciful designs from their own imagination.
At the same time, in Japan, young otaku (fans of anime) had started dressing up as their favorite characters from anime (Japanese animation) and manga (comic books). This was a popular activity at everything from conventions to school festivals.
The 1983 Comiket festival in Tokyo was a showcase for fans in costume. At Comiket you could find superheroes like Kamen Rider; robot costumes from anime like Techno Police 21C; and sexy outfits like Lum Invader from Urusei Yatsura.
The phenomenon of fan appreciation and creativity through costuming was, by 1984, worldwide. But nobody had a name for it. This changed when a Japanese writer and producer came up with one. That’s when the term “cosplay” was born. More on that in a minute, but first, some background.
The earliest exercise in fan costuming that we have on record comes from the United States: Mr. and Mrs. William Fell in 1908. Mrs. Fell made costumes for a competition at a skating rink based on two popular science fiction characters of the time: Mr. Skygack and Miss Dillpickles.
So when the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) happened in 1939, people were ready. Many came in costume, and photos of the earliest cosplay show happy fans in “futuristic” attire based on popular books and comics.
By 1970, young Japanese fans were also appearing at anime and manga conventions dressed as their favorite characters. Science fiction conventions and anime gatherings had existed since 1960 in Japan, but the costuming phenomena didn’t really catch on until the 1970’s.
By 1984, dressing up as your favorite character to attend a convention was a well-established idea in both the United States and Japan.
The 1983 Comiket was the 8th version of the convention, and already a showcase for superheroes, robots, sexy women and even crossplay: female fans dressing up as male characters.
The Worldcon in 1984 was the 42nd of its kind, and featured a wide array of people dressed as everything from Luke Skywalker to Buck Rogers. Photos from the time show some great costumes based on the original Battlestar Gallactica as well!
None of these people called what they did “cosplay”, however. At this point, in 1984, there was no specific name to describe this particular fan practice. These folks would have called what they did just “costuming” or maybe a “masquerade.”
The word “cosplay” wasn’t coined until a Japanese media producer first saw the activity at the 1984 Worldcon.
Nobuyuki Takahashi is an author, artist, and producer who had attended both Worldcon and Comiket for years. He was a big fan of the practice of fan costuming, and became increasingly frustrated that there wasn’t a good word for it in Japanese’
Takahashi didn’t like the existing Japanese world “kasou,” which meant “dressing up,” but had connotations of disguise. He also didn’t like the Western word “masquerade”, because it sounded too old fashioned.
So he wrote an article in a Japanese fan magazine called My Anime, where he proposed a new term that combined the worlds “costume” and “play”: cosplay. It worked in both English and Japanese: “kosupure.”
That one article, published in Japanese, established the term “cosplay”. Thirty years later, it’s almost a household term. Even now, Takahashi is surprised that his one small article has had such an impact.
Today, millions of people participate in cosplay at conventions in nearly every country in the world. Television shows celebrate the practice and people like Yaya Han make professional careers out of cosplaying.
On any given weekend, at conventions large and small, you can find people cosplaying. Takahashi (who never cosplays himself!) says that cosplay is:
“a fan’s expression of his or her love for a favorite character. Drawing a piece of artwork, writing a story, animating a movie and showing this to others is a manifestation of that love. And cosplay is one of those expressions in which fans use their entire bodies.”
Takahashi may not be the man who invented the practice of dressing up, but with one article, he became the man who invented the term that defined a genre.