This article by Shristi Karki was first published in Nepali Times. An edited version will be re-released under a content sharing agreement on Global Voices.
On September 17, 2022, over 9000 people – mainly from Nepal, India and Bangladesh – attended Otaku Jatra Fall 2022, a Nepalese anime and cosplay festival in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Suki Manandhar grew up in Nepal watching anime and cartoons and reading manga whenever she could get her hands on them. Pokémon, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z and Haibane Renmei brought her joy and comfort.
At the time, Manandhar wished she could dress like the characters she saw on screen. She sometimes engaged in “closet cosplay” (using her own items to recreate outfits), making costumes and dressing like anime characters and sharing them with other anime fans on online forums.
“I had no idea what they meant when I was a kid, but I appreciate them more when I look at them now,” says Manandhar.
Cosplay (formed by combining the words costume and play) is an art form in which performers dress up and accessorize as characters from across pop culture—anime, cartoons, comics, video games, and other television and film sources.
Although masquerade balls, carnivals, and pageants featuring costumed people have been commonplace since the 15th century, cosplay in mainstream media and art emerged from fan culture in the 20th century through science fiction conventions.
The San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC) was established in the United States in 1970. Five years later, Japan opened its own convention, Comiket. But the subculture would only find its way to Nepal decades later.
Rohit Shrestha started watching anime in 8th grade, started cosplaying in 2014 and is among the earliest cosplayers in Nepal. Today he is one of the organizers of Otaku Jatra, Nepal’s largest pop culture conference.
Realizing that there is a growing community of pop culture fans in Nepal, their collective Otaku Club joined forces with another collective, Otaku Next – which used to publish its Nepalese manga magazine – to host small pop culture events, which became smaller pop-ups hosting events, fanart and cosplay competitions, and exhibitions.
Upon hearing about the otaku event in 2014, Suki Manandhar sewed her own costume and often sewed it out of sight of her teachers, even while attending her college lectures. The day before the convention, when her outfit wasn’t ready, Manandhar stayed up all night to finish it.
Manandhar went to her first cosplay event as Taiga from the anime Toradora. She’s been to many conventions since then, but remembers her disguise as Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan as one of her most memorable cosplays. Depending on the characters, Manandhar spends up to five months creating intricate costumes.
The 26-year-old communications officer, who also illustrated and wrote a four-chapter manga, The birdsongShe had spent a year preparing for the 2022 Otaku Jatra Fall held on September 17, 2022 in Kathmandu, working on her costume whenever she had time.
Kriti Chamling Rai began cosplaying in 2016 after she and her friends visited the Otaku Store where they met organizers who informed them of an upcoming convention.
“We were so surprised that there was even a shop selling manga and anime paraphernalia, let alone hosting conventions,” recalls Rai, who grew up watching anime and cartoons with her aunt. “We didn’t have internet; We went to the DVD store and bought CDs.”
For the convention, Rai started out with characters that didn’t require complex props or detailed costumes, choosing to go as Tenten from Naruto.
“I’ve seen so many people dressed like characters that I’d seen and loved on screen as an adult – it was amazing to see them walking around in real life,” she muses. “I’ve been to so many conventions since then, but the first one will always be special.”
Rai’s cosplay as Saber from the Japanese visual novel Fate/stay night, which she worked on for three months, would earn her 2nd prize at Comic Con Nepal 2017 and take her to New Delhi to represent the country.
Finally, back in Nepal, Otaku Jatra held a large-scale conference in 2017 – a Jatra. By 2020 they had grown to become a special event as part of Visit Nepal 2020, but those plans were scrapped due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My hobby became a passion and passion became a business,” Rohit Shrestha says of otaku jatra, speaking to the Nepali Times ahead of their convention, which features cosplay, animation, K-pop competitions, e-sports competitions, arcade games, and much more will encompass more.
Shrestha remembers a man in his 60s attending a convention with a cowboy hat and a prop gun. He was happy to finally find a place in Nepal where he could live out his childhood dream of being a cowboy. We also get a lot of expats, little kids dressed up as Naruto or Dragon Ball Z characters with their parents in tow, Shrestha adds.
Otaku Jatra has branched out into India, reaching out to content creators across South Asia to attend events in Nepal with plans to transform the country into a mecca for pop culture fans on the subcontinent.
“We have mountaineering and adventure tourism. Why not pop culture tourism?” says Shrestha. “It will take a long time to get there, but it’s a rush.”
The collective is also looking at ways to expand its digital platform to help artists and content creators make their hobbies profitable. Conventions like Otaku Jatra have also given them a space to showcase their work – be it cosplay itself, animation or other art forms.
“These conventions are also networking opportunities for artists and companies,” adds Shrestha. “We hope that content creators can expand their work beyond hobbies into something more sustainable.”
Additionally, the collective hopes to expand Nepalese pop culture itself. One of the most recent ventures is Jatraverse, a digital universe through which they plan to introduce and integrate characters from Nepalese folklore and mythology – like the Yeti, Pisach and Kichkandi – into their art form.
The cosplay community around the world has had to confront racism, misogyny, harassment and homophobia. In Nepal, cosplayers say they have experienced sexism and body shaming, as well as a degree of ignorance and active rejection when artists have attempted to express themselves. In fact, body shaming and online bullying have kept many people from being part of the community.
For their part, organizers say they will ensure the event is a safe space for artists to express themselves. “Cosplay is not consent,” says Shrestha.
Suki Manandhar says, “This is a community where you can be anything, regardless of who you are. I’ve met many people who chose to be kind, understand approval, and stand up for one another.”