A look at the Japanese military enthusiasts re-creating Ukrainian and Russian battle dress with astonishing realism
After nearly seven years of war in eastern Ukraine, the familiar-looking images shared by a Kharkiv-based Japanese translator on February 9 were easy to skim past. One photo captures a young man, apparently exhausted by conflict, lounging with his weapons next to a jumble of tinned food and ammunition.
Another image purports to show one of the “cyborgs” from Ukraine’s 79th Air Assault Brigade who fought, sleeplessly and stubbornly, to hold the Donetsk airport from Russia-backed separatists for months in 2014.
But these photos did not come from the Donbas. They were taken in a derelict building in Japan.
It is the work of a growing number of military enthusiast cosplayers (costume players) in the Asian country who are precisely replicating the look of the conflict in eastern Ukraine for photo shoots and hyperrealistic battles using "airsoft" guns.
Airsoft is a sport invented in Japan in the 1970s in which players fight with toy guns that fire pea-sized plastic pellets. The players rely on an honor system in which those hit are required to raise their hand to become a “casualty.”
Restrictions on airsoft guns vary between countries, but in Japan it is legal to own relatively harmless toy guns that are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Japanese laws require the replica guns be made from flimsy materials such as plastic or aluminum alloys, and have a limited muzzle velocity. A Kalashnikov-style airsoft rifle can be purchased for around $265 in Japan.
Hayato Sato, who has been involved in the airsoft scene in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture since 2016, told RFE/RL that when he first took up the hobby most groups were interested in re-creating the look of American militaries, but recently the trend has turned towards the gritty aesthetics of conflict in the former Soviet Union.
Sato says the prominence of weapons maker Kalashnikov first got him interested in the Russian military and "from Russia I started to become interested in the militaries of neighboring countries."
As well as airsoft battles, some Japanese military fans hire specialized “studios” in derelict buildings and forests for photo shoots replicating the conflict in the Donbas. The most well-known of these studios, in a forest near Mount Fuji, charges about $320 per hour for cosplayers to create their battle fantasy in a crumbling building reminiscent of an urban battleground.
Two Japanese cosplayers stressed to RFE/RL that there is no ideological motivation behind the hobby. The uniforms represent a kind of advanced game of "cowboys and Indians" where the visual signatures of real-life conflict are used to mark opposing sides in a game.
A Japanese blog kept fans up-to-date with the minutia of Ukrainian and Russian infantry clothing and weapons before migrating to Twitter in 2017.
Most of the equipment for the military cosplay is bought in social-media forums such as Japan.ru-Airsoft where military apparel is for sale alongside handmade and 3D-printed imitation weapons accessories.
The owner of Demych's Gear Bakery, which sells modern Russian military and special-forces equipment to the Japanese market, told RFE/RL that the often well-used equipment he sells on his site is authentic. But when asked how it is sourced, he responded that it's "a commercial secret."
Much of the imitation equipment used by Japan’s cosplayers is made after studying photographs of real equipment in the field.
According to Sato, getting outfitted with exactly the look of a Ukrainian or Russian fighter costs up to $2,000 and can take weeks of searching to find the exact components.
Other former Soviet elements are easier to find. The photo above, taken by a Japanese cosplayer, shows a dedication to the genre that extends to lunches of vodka and cheap sausage.
Some cosplayers have managed to re-create the outfit of Russia’s police forces, as well as the stereotypical “gopniks,” or low-level Russian street criminals of the 1990s.
Veteran war photographer Andriy Dubchak from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service responded to these images of the unusual Japanese cosplay by saying, "It's difficult for me to see people dressing in both army's uniforms. But it's reality and it's an interesting fact."