Field Trip: Hyper Japan

Cosplay, Nintendo and cakes with faces, all in a day’s work for Hyper Japan, the UK’s biggest J-culture showcase… 

The train on the way to Hyper Japan is packed with girls toting Hello Kitty bags, boys with gravity defying hair, and gaggles of shy looking ninjas making Naruto jokes.

An outsider might feel that the strangely dressed passengers are giving off an illicit vibe, as if we’re on our way to a burlesque house. In reality, we’re headed toward a nerd’s paradise where people can unleash their inner-geek.

It doesn’t matter if that geek wants to dress as a game character, a cutesy maid or simply has a thing for feudal Japanese sword fighting. At Hyper Japan you can be geek and proud, surrounded by people who, you know, get your references.

This year’s offering is a weird and wonderful show that includes a Nintendo demo booth, anime and manga stalls, robots (of course), and Japanese foods of all types. 

I lived in Japan for a year, which means that some of the stalls in the cavernous Earls Court Exhibition Centre are familiar.

They have Pocky, a kind of Japanese breadstick dipped in a yoghurt-y  flavouring, Asahi and Kirin beer, and the unappetizing sounding “deep fried octopus balls”. Other stalls are totally alien. I walk past signs for shops called, tofu cutie, and the terrifying “cakes with faces”. It all feels intensely weird.

“It’s embarrassingly obvious that I don’t know the anime character her dominatrix getup is based on”

The first wave of inner-geek adrenaline hits me when I see a guy dressed as a video game character that I recognize: Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy 7. He’s checking out the Nintendo stall. I sidle up to him to ask if I can grab a quick photo, unsuccessfully trying not to sound like a fanboy. I try to compliment his girlfriend’s costume too, but it’s embarrassingly obvious that I don’t know the anime character her dominatrix getup is based on.

After making small talk about his comically oversized sword for a few minutes, I leave him to carry on queuing for a demo of Pikmin 3. The Nintendo staff make it clear that they don’t talk to journalists, not even in passing, and try to get me to phone one of their PR people. 

This doesn’t particularly appeal, so instead I get in the queue behind a bunch of kids to play the HD remake of Zelda Windwaker, which I play for 45 minutes, forgetting that I’m meant to be meeting my girlfriend.

“Hyper Japan is mostly for Japanese culture that you don’t really get in the UK”

“The thing about Hyper Japan is it’s mostly for the offerings of Japanese culture that you don’t really get in the UK,” says Karin, a Manchester University student.

“Things like anime and manga have got a lot of popularity. But it’s interesting meeting people as well that have interests beyond that stuff. This is a great place to do that.”

Towards the end of the expo, booming announcements herald the opening of the cosplay (short for costume play) parade. Japanophiles of all shapes and sizes begin to strut their stuff across the main stage, dressed as a variety of game and anime characters.

As it finishes, I end up talking to a group of girls dressed as “Mei-do”, or “maids” (above). I ask what brings them to the festival. “I’m really interested in Japanese fashion. I came to the last Hyper Japan and I wanted to have a better costume this year. It’s a great place to get fashion inspiration.”

As she talks my eyes are drawn to a bloke in the crowd, also dressed as a maid. He’s cross dressing with enough confidence to look pretty cool. Impressive.

Remembering that I’m meant to be interviewing these maids, I ask  if any of them are fans of Girls’ Generation, a Korean band who were incredibly popular while I lived in Japan two years ago.

“But they’re Korean!” one girl tuts.

“Obviously. But they sing in Japanese too. And they’re way better than most J pop groups,” I respond, idiotically. She looks furious, and for a second I fear she might attack me with her maid fan. 

“I mean, they’re OK, but they’re definitely not my thing,” she says, still looking irritated. The rest of them nod in synch, unified in their condemnation of my dumb opinion.

After the parade I see a girl dressed as a creature called Vivi from Final Fantasy 9. She’s wearing dungarees and an oversized hat, which is made more ridiculous by her being so small. I congratulate her on having excellent headwear, and ask her what her favorite thing about the festival has been so far.

“I’ve been to Hyper Japan for three years now and I’m very much a Final Fantasy fan. My favorite thing is the cosplay, and my favorite character as you can see, is from FF9,” she explains, going on to describe in painstaking detail how exactly she made the hat, which is now looking more like a beaten up traffic cone than an item of clothing.

She puts it on again, and it tears and slips down over her pixie-ish face. It’s so enormous that I now feel like I’m interviewing a walking piece of headgear. I ask if she feels she has a chance of winning the cosplay competition.

“There was some really tough competition this year. The Evangelion costumes were phenomenal, so not sure if I’ve got a leg to stand on,” she says, looking somewhat miserable. Her supportive boyfriend takes off her hat and leads her away to the refreshment tent, either to give her an inspirational pep talk about how she might win the competition next year, or to fix her hat.

As I leave, I overhear an exchange that convinces me there is no longer anything worth sticking around for: “Jack, they’ve got the banana shorts!” shrieks a hysterical teenage girl. Jack looks at her with a joyous expression.

“Have they got them in fat boy sizes? They do? Hang on a sec!”

Oli Rahman

Posted on 13/08/2013 by thedoublenegative