Cosplay: Postmodernism and Japanese Popular Culture in Indonesia

Costume Play

The word cosplay, or kosupure in Japanese, is derived from ‘costume’ (コス) and ‘play’ (プレ). Cosplay means wearing the costume or acting as the characters of manga, anime or video game (Cosplay). In this paper I am arguing that cosplay as a popular culture operates and circulates based on postmodernism. I restrict my observation to cosplay phenomena in Indonesia, which was colonized by Japan.

Cosplay culture is a global trend. It has spread worldwide, including to China, Philippines, United States and Europe. The history of cosplay started from to sci-fi conference in the U.S. Science fiction film or story fans dressed like their favourite characters such as those of Star Wars and Star Trek for the annual event World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). The term ‘cosplay’ was coined by Japanese Nobuyuki Takahasi when he attended the convention in 1984. He reported in Japanese sci-fi magazines about his fascination of the costumed fans. In Japan, cosplay was initially practiced to show the admiration of otaku, or comic book fans. Manga is a dominant force in Japanese pop culture and has become a comic art industry. Then the scope of cosplay extended to include the mania of Japanese rock or pop stars. Cosplayers have to prepare their costume so that they look as similar as they can with the characters. During public events, a contest is held to select the best cosplayer in creativity of the makeover and of acting the character in a form of a short drama, usually in a group.

Cosplay communities mushroomed in major cities in Indonesia. There are around 30 communities in Jakarta and ten in Bandung (Antar Venus). Cosplay was initiated by Japanese department of University of Indonesia. There is Nippon Club in Bina Nusantara University, which hold Japanese Evolution, an annual Japanese festival. Currently cosplay is held almost monthly in major cities in Indonesia. It is sponsored by video game magazines such as Animonster. Cosplay has become a social activity. Websites with wide range of discussion topic such as which focuses on cosplay in general, and which displays rate-able pictures of cosplayers throughout the world.

In Indonesia cosplay started to take place in 1990s. The proliferation of cosplay in Indonesia is closely related to Japanese manga and anime. Indonesia has been bombarded by those two things. Comic books or manga, such as Mary Chan, Conan Detective, are everyday reading for children and adults. In bookstores stacks of comic books dominate the space and some people stand around the stacks to read for free. Anime programs are shown everyday on local television channels. The anime such as Saint Seiya, Sailor Moon, Doraemon, Crayon Sinchan have been on television for a very long period of time. There are anime channels like the cable Animax and local channel Space Toon.

Besides manga, young Chinese descent people are also interested in Hong Kong movie stars. Japanese culture is not something Indonesian people are unfamiliar with. They also consume Japanese movies and soap opera like Tokyo Love Story. Pop singers and J-Pop or J-Rock bands are very famous. Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya is opened in some malls in capital Jakarta.

Manga is a plural world of story. Manga can take a variety of story formats and characters, but mostly the fantastic. The fantastic can change a society’s conception of identity. The notion of occult power as woman’s basic femininity is an unconscious sub-text of many fantasy manga (Napier). The image of “cute” (kawaii) shôjo, which is difficult to translate into English, but basically implies sexual maturity, is an important notion of Japanese identity. There are also the powerful yet childlike such as Sailor Moon, the psychic with great destructive and telekinesis power such as Mai the Psychic Girl. Manga also evokes nostalgia for the past, as one of Jameson’s features of postmodernism, for example Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X) for Japan’s Meiji period. Although manga/anime can be divided into two based on the target reader, shojo anime for girls and shounen anime for boys, cosplay can be androgynous. There is no distinction between roman stories for girls and action, science fiction, adventure, comedy and sports for boys. Cosplayers can also be the antagonists: the demonic, cruel, selfish or greedy.

Cosplay is a play between fantasy and reality, building ‘carnivalesque’ space where individuals can be someone or something other than themselves (Bakhtin in Lunning). This aspect is postmodern in nature as postmodernism is the attempts to destabilize concepts such as presence, identity, reality and meaning. The term “postmodern” was first used in Jean-François Lyotard’s book La Condition Postmoderne published 1979. The book is a kind of an experiment in the combination of language games as well as an objective “report”. The rapid growth of technology in the second half of the twentieth century caused the shift of the emphasis of knowledge from the goals of human action to its means. In the topic of art, Lyotard believes that the postmodern sublime happens when the viewer is affected by abundant unrepresentables which have no reference to reason for the origin (Postmodernism).

Postmodernism challenges modernism’s hostility to mass culture and questions the difference between the high arts and the “low”, less serious popular arts. The division between high culture and the pop arts is blur. Pop culture takes in whatever materials it finds, also combines them. Performance, music, film, video and objects can be unified in pop culture. Raymond Williams defines popular culture as culture that is attractive for many people, in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) sees that familiar objects warrant analysis as signs and repositories of organized meaning, like linguistic or ‘pure’ visual signs. He uses subculture to approach art, literature, music, style, dress and attitude together and then analyse it (McRobbie 14).

In our culture today, a clothes is a part of identity. It is a fashion statement of who we are. This is because we want to be seen in certain ways. Wearing clothes is a practice of showing our subjectivity. With postmodern perspective, we can see that Japanese popular culture is a complex combination between the traditional and the contemporary or that is influenced by other countries. Japan has been one of the world’s fashion cities. It creates its own style by modifying other style. Lolita fashion, for example, which is a part of Harajuku fashion, is derived from French ‘high’ fashion. The elegant Rococo dress of eighteen century France is transformed into the subculture. Some of the changes include the more covered bosom part, shorter skirt and thick-soled shoes in Lolita fashion.

In Japan, cosplay is related to Harajuku fashion, which originated in Harajuku district in Tokyo. Like punk style in England in 1980s, Harajuku is a subculture that puts forth its identity by the outfit. Punk style is identical with ‘improper’ dress like torn-t-shirts, safety pins and self-made accessories like chain necklace. Meanwhile, Harajuku style is based on mix concept, without matching the dress. In other words, the more unsuitable, the better.

As regards outer appearance, there is an interesting fact about Indonesian or Asian people and human representation in manga. In spite of manga plurality in themes or content, we can still see the unique characteristics of Japanese manga characters. These include simple lines and form; big face and eyes; unrealistic hair style and color, slim figure; and the use of common trends, exaggeration, emoticons also cultural elements (Yuliani 9). The characters may have green, blue, yellow or purple hair. Japanese people generally have slanted eyes, but this is not depicted in the manga. It is more or less the same case with Indonesia. There are dark-skinned people, big-eyed, those who are not Chinese descent. Cosplayers who are not aware of these physical appearances are of the characteristic of the postmodern condition, which Jameson describes as the death of subjectivity and the emergence of social schizophrenia. The simple forms and lines are an abstraction of the real forms by focusing on certain details. This is based on the psychological research that people identify themselves by simple or iconic forms.  (McCloud in Yuliani)

This is in line with the concept of the hyperreal in Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The hyperreal is the separation of an ideal existence and the existence that can come to the senses. The imaginary representation loses connection to the real. “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control—and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these.” The real is irrational and operational (Baudrillard). Hyperreality is closely linked to the concept of the simulacrum, where an image has no reference to an original. In postmodernism, hyperreality is resulted from the technological mediation of experience, what passes for reality is a network of images and signs without any external referent, what is represented is representation itself. It is the final stage of simulation. The cosplayers create artificial identity by imitating the characters not only through the costumes, but also the actions—the attitude, the postures, etc. They hold the weapons such as sword and human-size scissors. Cosplayers worship an anime character and want to be the latter. They enact the character and pretend to be the character. They create the simulation that they are the character. However, a character can be reproduced endlessly. Anybody can be that one specific character.

Furthermore, a cosplayer can also be the hyperreal. Within media culture, people can easily access any kind of information from anywhere in the world. Indonesian cosplayers do not only have sources of how manga characters look like from the manga itself or magazines, but also from the internet. They can even browse how other cosplayers in many parts of world dress.  A cosplayer becomes the hyperreal when he or she stands as the model for another cosplayer, the second level of “representation” of the anime/manga character. It is “that which is always already reproduced” (Baudrillard). By cosplaying, people also temporarily forget their age, sex, class and location or nationality. Cosplaying imagines a totally different world. The adults can become kids again. Like going to Disneyland, an example in Baudrillard’s book, reading a comic book brings us back to the fantasy we have when we were children.

After stripping off identity from age; sex and class, one of cosplayer’s obstructions to looking similar to the character is the body posture. While skin colour may not be too significant and can be concealed by make up, body posture to some level forces a cosplayer to seek characters whose figure is the same as his or her. More importantly, body is also a site of cultural and religious contestation. Schulte Nordholt in Hansen says that Indonesian clothing is a product of the changing relationship between indigenous, Muslim, and Western influences. People wear t-shirts and jeans also Islamic dress such as Muslim hat and headscarf or veils. Cosplay becomes problematic bearing in mind that Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Islam recognizes aurat, or parts of the body that must be covered, and thus veil and full-body covered clothes, to conventional Muslims, are obligatory for Muslim women. Meanwhile, a lot of manga female characters wear clothes which expose body such as Sailor Moon’s miniskirt school uniform. Visual culture in postmodern modern nourish voyeurism desire in human beings. More pornographic images appear in films and advertisements. Pornographic anime can be traced back to 1932, that is Kimura Shirayama’s Suzu Fune or Suzu Ship (Yuliani 61). Meanwhile there is also pornographic manga genre, known as “hentai”. Cosplay also shares sexual connotation. In Japanese slang the term cosplay is a euphemism for sexual play using costumes. It describes aspects of sexual roleplay and fetishism. For example seifuku cosplay means wearing a schoolgirl uniform before or during sex. Some hotels and clubs also provide costumes for rental (Cosplay).

The tie between popular culture and business can be seen here. After all, popular culture is created by mass production and therefore is subject to industrial and capital power. Baudrillard in The Consumer Society argues that the consumption of popular products within a sign system is actually the consumption of the sign or image of a commodity. Commodity is consumed not for its utility function, but rather the sign it represents. Under this light, lifestyle plays a role in determining the signs of identity. This leads to consumptive culture in the so-called modern society. Indonesian people in major cities are not free from consumptive lifestyle. Some upper-middle class people are brand-minded and live ‘Western’ lifestyle. They, for example, buy sophisticated communication gadgets and go to coffee shops such as Starbucks and The Coffee Bean. Following a certain fashion is assumed to be gripping one’s identity. Teenagers with the spirit of freedom believe in the signs of fashion. Thinking of being resistant by taking in a subculture, they actually do not execute the freedom. In Jamesonian phrase, they are ‘schizophrenic’. Napier states that manga is one of the most omnipresent products of consumer culture. It is also an important part of the industry (94). With regard to cosplay, people can buy the costumes. A person can spend around Rp300,000 to Rp2 million (US$30 – $200) for a cosplay (Fenomena Cosplay…) In Bandung, West Java, Harajuku fashion is booming. In a shopping center for example, there are stores which sell Harajuku clothes and accessories as well as costumes for cosplay. However, cosplayers must still need creativity in making the full costumes and styling the hair to be fully become a manga/anime character. ‘Garasi’ band members appear on stage with cosplay. To more complicate the distinction between fans and idols, imitators and trend setters, cosplayers themselves can become idols, like Indonesian nationals Pinky Lu Xun and Drocin X who have a lot of fans.

On a larger scale, we can see cosplay as a form of cultural imperialism. The term ‘cultural imperialism emerged in the 1960s coinciding with the decolonization and national independence of the “Third World”. This is when the underprivileged and oppressed were given a voice for the first time. They are the countermeasures and inevitable consequences of Western imperialism and colonialism (Ching 213) citing Tsan Hung-chih and Anthony D. Smith, Ching concludes:

In today’s global cultural economy, cultures are becoming decontextualized and dehistoricized as they cross national boundaries with unprecedented ease and speed. In a world of transnational corporations, telecommunication, information networks, and international division of labor, “national” cultures are in danger of becoming obsolete, resorting only to tourist sites and museums. (Ching 214)

Through the production of culture and information, the borders in geographical map of the world are redrawn by the exercise of the ‘logic of late capital’ (Jameson, 1984). Late capitalism coincides and even synonymous with postmodernism. « [T]he economic preparation of postmodernism or late capitalism began in the 1950s, after the wartime shortages of consumer goods and spare parts had been made up, and new products and new technologies (not least those of the media) could be pioneered.” Late capitalism is the pervasive condition of our age, which affects both economic and cultural structures. There has been a transformation in life which is different from the shock of modernization and industrialization. One of the new products of late capitalism is the media. It is a new means for the capitalism to take over our lives. Mediatization of culture causes us to be more reliant on the media’s version of our reality, a version of reality that is filled primarily with capitalist values. Commodified cultural practices lose the meaning of identity amid the global capitalism. Foreign cultural products are easily imitated and provided.

Japanese culture, from fashion to food to leisure, has been obvious in Asia. After the NIE (Newly Industrialized Economies) countries of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, the phenomena spread out to Southeast Asia including Indonesia. This cultural regionalization suggests a process of cultural integration undercutting national boundaries. However, this process is restricted to a specific region of the world-system (Ching 200). Japan’s economic expansion is something that Asian countries are afraid of. This is mainly because Japan has inflicted great suffering on Asian countries during World War II and it is still reluctant to deal with its wartime responsibilities. The Japanese government has never made any formal acknowledgment or apology for its wartime brutalities and slaughter (Ching 205).

Japan occupied Indonesia between 1942-1945. Before Japan, Indonesia was colonized by the Dutch, from 1800 to 1942. In spite of the brief period, Japanese occupation is generally regarded as much more hurtful compared to Dutch occupation. During Japan’s colonization era, Japanese military imposed three things that are against the human rights. First is forced labor, where men were taken away from their family and sent for construction works or other heavy works. Many of them suffered or even were missing. Second, the military took people’s goods such as food, clothes, by force without giving any compensation. Lastly, the soldiers made women into “comfort women” or sex slaves for them.

Culture is a means of diplomacy besides the formal political diplomacy. Culture is more public and effective to build positive images about a nation. These images can make other countries forget about its dark history. In the case of Indonesia, in addition to all the sufferings of Indonesian people during its occupation, Japan broke her promise to give Indonesia independence. It can be argued, in a very simplified way, that cosplayers forget the experience of Japanese colonization in Indonesia. Further studies into cosplay and Japanese culture in general would be: what are Japan’s ideology and its effects which are detrimental to Indonesia in economical and cultural senses? Is this cultural phenomenon something that we should celebrate or lament? Or can we do both?

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation (Simulacres et Simulation). Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981), trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. University of Michigan Press, 1994.

“Chinese Indonesian” Wikipedia. 24 November, 2010

Ching, Leo. “Imaginings in the Empires of the Sun: Japanese Mass Culture in Asia” in boundary 2, Vol. 21, No. 1, Asia/Pacific as Space of Cultural Production (Spring, 1994), pp. 198-219. Published by: Duke University Press

“Costume play” Wikipedia. 24 November, 2010.

Febrian. Idola, Musik, Fashion. Postgraduate thesis. 2009. Padjadjaran University.

“Fenomena cosplay Indonesia” . TransTV 23 Oct 2008. Youtube. 24 November, 2010.

McRobbie, Angela. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. 1998. London: Routledge.

Napier, Susan J. “Vampire, Psychic Girls, Flying Women and Sailor Scouts: Four faces of the young female in Japanese popular culture” in Martinez, D.P., The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

“Postmodernism” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 November, 2010

Venus, Antar. Transcript of “Japanese Pop Culture and Its Influence to Indonesia” seminar. October 28, 2010.>

Yuliani, Andy Christine. Studi tentang film animasi Jepang (anime) dan perkembangannya di Indonesia: tinjauan deskriptif pada periodisasi 1980-2003. Thesis. 2003. Petra Christian University. <;

“Sejarah Nusantara (1942-1945)” Wikipedia. 24 November , 2010

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