Let me be honest about something–I never quite got the hang of Seoul Comic World. So far I’ve attended five events, so don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the cons a whole hell of a lot. What were my issues? Well, obvious challenges arose, such as cultural differences and language barriers. What I hadn’t expected, however, was an abundance of rules that cosplayers were asked to adhere to. And while it was navigating all those rules that ended up making me feel a little bit off to the sidelines, it also ended up teaching me a lot about the state of the anime fan in Korea.
I occasionally have grouchy “back in my day” moments where I lament how mainstream cosplay has become, but overall I’m quite happy about how accepted it’s become. I love that conventions are nerdy free-for-alls and how, when a convention rolls to town, most cosplayers will cruise through streets and parking lots without much of a care. With nothing but US con experiences under my belt, I went to Korea expecting that same sort of atmosphere, only to find out, not so much…
To further explain, first it’s important to note that Seoul Comic World is an event that ends in the early evening. Its a day trip thing, not a save-and-plan-all-year-and-book-a-hotel-room thing. Therefore the question arises–how exactly do I cosplay?
Thankfully, the event has an organized system with dressing rooms and makeup rooms that cosplayers can access, as long as they register (registration involves an extra fee, early check in time, identifying armband, and a separate entrance). With my limited Korean, the whole registration process seemed incredibly daunting, so I figured I’d just wing it. Mind you, the Comic World website makes it clear that they’re against you wingin it. The website states they don’t want you changing in the venue bathrooms, wandering the nearby area in costume, or riding the subway in cosplay. They also state they reserve the right to turn away any non-registered cosplayers. While I see the logic behind these rules, they’re a bit of a hassle so I didn’t expect many people to actually follow them.
While there were a couple stragglers slipping on wigs and applying makeup in discreet hallways right outside of the venue, the majority of cosplayers played totally by the rules and did register. The events are overall very organized, orderly, and most of all, well-contained. The fact that my friends and I were jumping on the subway in cosplay seemed to phase everyone. Even in a subway car filled with congoers sporting tote bags filled with anime swag, there was nothing but wide-eyed stares and mouths agape. Despite the fact that Seoul has a larger population than New York City, even in a subtle costume, you will not fly under the radar.
If you’ve spent extended time in Korea then this should come as no surprise to you. A lot of people outside the country, however, are under the impression that Korea is similar to its neighbor Japan in terms of fandom and comic and animation culture. But I came to learn that all nerd culture is not created equal in Korea, and most anime fans remain in hiding. I first got that impression at Comic World when I saw how fearful everyone seemed of letting any cosplay slip outside the convention walls, and then my feelings were repeatedly affirmed in conversation with Korean friends.
“What’s your hobby?” is one of the questions most commonly asked when meeting someone new in Korea. My response of “I cosplay” was usually met with confusion, laughter, or jaw-dropping intrigue. “Cosplay is very uncommon in Korea,” I’ve been told more than a handful of times. When I finally did make some anime-loving friends, their fandom was always situated in the past. Once person explained that he loved anime but he absolutely never talked about it–his coworkers could never know. Another friend would wistfully reminisce about attending Comic World 10 years ago, which he explained was a very different time when anime was popular in Korea.
So what happened? Why were anime fans and anime fandom more common 10 years ago, but not today? When I asked another Korean friend if he had any incite on the matter, he said so quickly and matter of fact, “It’s because of a Korean reality show where a man married his anime body pillow. Since then, everybody thinks anime fans are all crazy otakus.” Oh, well okay then…
Is it really as simple as that? Was it really one mega otaku that ruined the reputation of anime fans and ruined Korean fandom culture for everyone? I seriously doubt it can be that simple, but the fact remains that cosplaying and anime fandom is far less common and accepted than I initially thought. That’s not to say it’s impossible to find, of course. Comic World is still going strong. Though small, it takes place about monthly in Seoul and bi-monthly in Busan. Also, anime mega-hits such as One Piece, Pokemon, Gundam, and anything Studio Ghibli are embraced by the mainstream. And if you travel to Hongdae in Seoul, you’ll find two nicely sized manga shops and a random peppering of anime merch throughout a number of stores.
The fact of the matter is, South Korea can be a lonely place for the anime fan, but all is not lost. If you don’t know the language, you’ll have to do some major digging to find events and resources. And if you’re searching for like-minded folk, be patient–they’re out there, just not in plain site. As for cosplayers, you’ll certainly find a home at Comic World, although for a more comfortable experience I suggest brushing up on your Korean or taking along a Korean friend to help you register your costume and access the dressing rooms.
Do you have any questions or comments about cosplay and anime culture in Korea? Also, can you identify any of the characters in the Comic World cosplay photo snaps above? Feel free to leave any feedback below!