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From fantasy to reality: Cosplaying youths find identity in Tokyo's Ikebukuro

Cosplayers participate in the Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival held in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

TOKYO -- While numerous youngsters in costumes were attracted to Halloween in the capital's Shibuya Ward this year, countless others flocked to join a cosplay event in the Ikebukuro district of Toshima Ward, many of whom dress up as anime characters and others to find their new or true selves.

The sixth Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival began on Oct. 26, in this district considered a hub for cosplayers, attracting some 20,000 fans from all over Japan. A Mainichi Shimbun reporter who arrived at the venue on the JR Yamanote Line was surprised to see no one disguised in the train, due to an unspoken rule among Japanese cosplayers against traveling around dressed up and "corrupting public morals."

Shortly before the reception opened at 10 a.m., women carrying suitcases surged from the east exit of Ikebukuro Station to the Sunshine City shopping complex, where changing rooms are located.

A 20-year-old participant, who was left behind, stood alone by a map of the surrounding area. "It's my third time in Tokyo, if I count the time I came here on a field trip during high school. I'm lost and lonely," said the woman, who arrived early morning on a night bus from Akita Prefecture in northern Japan.

She introduced herself by her nickname Mion. One isn't expected to give out their own name, as cosplayers usually keep their personal information hidden as they enjoy interacting with others.

Mion developed a distrust of others after being subjected to bullying in junior and senior high school. She was raised by her grandparents, and came to like communicating with elderly people, which encouraged her to become a nursing care worker. Having a hard time dealing with human relationships, she tried out various ways to relieve stress including karaoke, but cosplaying worked best for her.

"When I wear costumes, I feel like I can become a different person," says Mion, who sees cosplaying as a way for her to escape from harsh realities.

She planned to dress up as "Akita Toushiro" from the popular game and anime series "Touken Ranbu," in which Japanese swords are depicted as male characters. "This character works extremely hard, and makes a lot of effort so others will need him. I want to learn to become like that," she explained. With the help of such characters, and by projecting herself onto them, Mion says she can think positively.

Cosplayers participate in the Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival held in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

At the rooftop area near the changing room in Sunshine City, a photo session had already begun, with participants who signed up as photographers taking pictures of cosplayers. People formed a line in front of "Rara" a resident of Tokyo, who dressed as a member of the all-female idol group AKB48's sister unit.

"Venues for cosplay events are like the world of social media. You don't know the actual name, age or job title of other people, but we're all connected because we have the same interest. I like to come here and let people take my photo rather than posting a selfie and getting likes on it," Rara said as she made poses while holding a microphone.

"I work in sales, so cosplaying is also a good experience for my work. It's important to have good communication skills and I can also learn the kind of facial expressions and ways to talk that leave a good impression."

The 25-year-old took an interest in wearing costumes at the age of 16 while working at a maid cafe -- where waitresses dress in maid costumes to serve customers -- in the capital's Akihabara district. Rara suspended her activities after getting married, but could not put an end to her hobby.

She explained, "I have a 3-year-old child, and my parents can look after the child now. I'm currently a wife and a mother, but there's no me." For Rara, cosplaying is an extraordinary chance where she gets to be her true self.

Around 1:30 p.m., the Mainichi reporter happened upon a tall cosplayer wearing a head accessory with a flower motif at a crossroad near the venue, who would not answer or look in the eyes of the reporter when being addressed.

"Shikuike," a university student from Saitama Prefecture north of Tokyo, revealed, "Actually, this is the first I time ever cosplayed. I was born a man, but had the desire to dress as a woman since I was in elementary school. I'm satisfied that my internal (gender) identity and appearance are finally matching."

"But no one has taken my picture yet," said the 18-year-old, who used a sewing machine to make the costume. Shikuike twirled as the reporter took photos on burst mode. In the end, the cosplayer looked up with a bright facial expression.

Shikuike refers to Ikebukuro as "otome no machi" (town for maidens). An area located to the west of Sunshine City is called "Otome Road" (maiden road) by fans, as several stores situated there sell anime goods, cosplay items and other merchandise aimed at women. The place is known as the female equivalent of Akihabara, another popular location for otaku, where a different kind of pop culture developed among male fans.

"I'm usually a hard-working salaryman," said a man in kimono wearing a replica sword, walking down Otome Road on Nov. 27 -- the second and final day of the Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival. "Medo," 41, works at a research institution in Tokyo. A graduate of La Salle High School in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, and the University of Tokyo, he lives as a fast-track businessman.

Medo, who wore a blond wig for the event, said he usually parts his hair to the side when working, which is a common salaryman hairstyle in Japan. He "always has to suppress" his feelings to appear as an obedient and ideal subordinate. But when in disguise, he can become his true self. He planned to show photos of him cosplaying for the first time at his workplace at the beginning of the week. Though he "could lose the trust of his superiors," Medo said he wanted to break out of his shell and present who he really is.

A cosplayer participates in the Ikebukuro Halloween Cosplay Festival held in Tokyo's Toshima Ward on Oct. 26, 2019. (Mainichi/Taro Fujii)

Another cosplayer wearing a bat-motif costume told the Mainichi that through cosplay, she overcame how she felt inferior about "not being beautiful enough" when she was a student, though she performed well in her studies and sports. "Reika," 38, lost weight and learned how to apply makeup since she began to cosplay.

"I changed completely and I became extroverted," she said pointing to the possibility that cosplay can change someone's life.

Reika, who worked as a plastic surgery nurse stated, "Some of the girls who came to the hospital were subjected to bullying when they were younger, and saw themselves as unattractive." Another woman at the venue told the Mainichi that she was called "ugly" and made fun of due to her 170-centimeter height at school. Reika believes "such people feel a sense of belonging when they cosplay."

The characters appearing in the famous anime series "Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon" are role models for Reika. "The five main sailor guardians are independent, strong women, and never allow injustice. Their strong sense of justice is at the base of my inward beauty." By dressing up as the characters, she realized how important it was to have a beautiful mind.

The sun had completely set as the Halloween event in Ikebukuro neared its closing time around 6 p.m. A cosplayer raised a sign reading, "Reality beyond this point," to see off other participants.

(Japanese original by Kozue Suzuki, Integrated Digital News Center)

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