People about Cosplay...
Ancient peoples dressed up as animals and gods. They dressed up as powerful characters of myth and reenacted stories that were important to them.
Modern people do the same. On Halloween, people dress as archetypes of many kinds, At Christmas, you see people dressed as Santa Claus in the US, reminding us to be kind to others, even if we don’t put change in this particular pot.
Once, I was in an Indian restaurant and as I waited to be seated, I looked at pictures of a party at the restaurant. They had two people cosplaying Krishna and Radha.
I attend anime/manga gatherings and I know from talking to many, many people about this, that the drive to dress up as characters you love comes from wanting to participate more deeply in the narrative.
At Renaissance Faires, I was quite often told by people “this is my real self,” as opposed to the normal worker bee they were during the week.
And then there is cosplay as a sales technique. Booth babes are hired at tech and industry shows because getting a dorky guy over to the table takes work. Geeky folks are cynical folks, but a pretty girl will draw many men without working at it. Once they are there, they must of course be engaged and thrilled by the tech, but the hook is the girl. Or in a maid cafe in Tokyo, having someone be kind to you, call you “Master” and do your bidding feels good, even if you’re paying by the hour.
So, why cosplay? To engage with our mythical/narrative roots; to take on skills and powers that we don’t normally have, in the context of ritual – or fun; as a visual hook to drive commerce; to enjoy, for a moment, the thrill of being something else than we are or who we feel that we really are.
We may not all cosplay, but we all play dress up from time to time. Next time you slip into tux or a really nice dress, think about the cosplay you’re engaging in – what are you projecting? What makes this you different than the everyday you? What powers, skills, qualities are you pretending to have?
It depends on what you mean by popular. It’s more or less exclusive to conventions, which have the benefit of only happening once each year per con. Attendees like myself have time to craft and sew awesome things. I know why I like it-it pushes my creative boundaries and has become my full time hobby and side-job. It’s very fun to be someone else, but it’s also fun to show off your work. I made my husband a great Groot costume for DragonCon last year and it was one of the best weekends ever. We had a blast as ‘Rockette’ and Groot. There’s something about participating in a huge fandom that is just pure fun.
I don’t think it’s really all that popular with the general public, when people don’t know who you are it can be disappointing. They don’t really know what to make of you when you come into a restaurant painted blue with a handful of storm troopers after an event or convention. Kids seem to go nuts over it though, I’m also a member of Rebel Legion and dress as Princess Leia for events. Adults are amused but kids go crazy for Darth Vader. Popularity really only seems to stretch as far as known characters.
When judging whether something is cultural appropriation, ask first: is there a cultural double standard that praises the borrower while punishing those whose behaviors/styles are being borrowed from? If not, then the second test is to see if the thing being borrowed has religious/spiritual/historical significance the borrowers are disregarding or disrespecting for the sake of ‘cool’. Finally, does the act of borrowing reinforce stereotypes?
To answer your question, No. Cosplaying in the past hasn’t been used to marginalize, dehumanize, or stereotype the Japanese people. Cosplay has no major religious, political, or spiritual significance, even in Japan it is considered a commercial hobby. Cultural Appropriation is problematic because the hegemonic group (in the US case, white people) get praise for behaviors the group that they borrowed the practice from get penalized for (in this case, Japanese otaku). However, Japanese otaku have the same or superior status as American Cosplayers at US Conventions and English language internet. Japanese Otaku are not facing a double standard when compared to white otaku that favors White otaku.
There are some racists who may say white cosplayers look more like the anime/video game characters then Japanese cosplayer, but those types tend to be seen as racists and pariahs in most well-balanced cosplay communities. Most people tend to think the Japanese have very high quality cosplay.