Japan's Imitation 'Azov Battalions'

A look at the Japanese military enthusiasts recreating Ukrainian and Russian battledress 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 foods 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 Donetsk airport from Russia-backed separatists 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 precisely replicating the look of the conflict in eastern Ukraine for photo shoots and hyperrealistic battles using “airsoft” guns.

Japanese "airsoft" players dressed in the uniforms of the notorious “little green men” -- unmarked Russian soldiers involved in the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Japanese “airsoft” players dressed in the uniforms of the notorious “little green men” — unmarked Russian soldiers involved in the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“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 dressed in the uniform of an FSB special forces fighter from the late 1990s, complete with a replica Kalashnikov fitted with a grenade launcher.

Hayato Sato dressed in the uniform of an FSB special forces fighter from the late 1990s, complete with a replica Kalashnikov fitted with a grenade launcher.

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 recreating the look of American militaries, but recently the trend has turned towards the gritty aesthetics of conflict in the former Soviet Union.

A photo from Sato’s collection showing a group of fellow airsoft enthusiasts in Russian FSB Alpha Group uniforms. There is a replica of an “assault shield” used by the FSB’s special forces (center right).

A photo from Sato’s collection showing a group of fellow airsoft enthusiasts in Russian FSB Alpha Group uniforms. There is a replica of an “assault shield” used by the FSB’s special forces (center right).

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.”

A Japanese cosplayer, wearing a badge of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, loads imitation bullets. The battalion is notorious for it links to Neo-Nazism.

A Japanese cosplayer, wearing a badge of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, loads imitation bullets. The battalion is notorious for it links to Neo-Nazism.

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.

Japanese airsoft players wearing opposing badges of Ukraine’s Azov battalion (left) and Russia-backed separatists.

Japanese airsoft players wearing opposing badges of Ukraine’s Azov battalion (left) and Russia-backed separatists.

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 cosplayer dressed in the battle equipment of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.

A Japanese cosplayer dressed in the battle equipment of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion.

A Japanese cosplayer wearing the badge of Novorossiya, a proposed confederation of Ukrainian territory held by Russia-backed separatists that never came to fruition.

A Japanese cosplayer wearing the badge of Novorossiya, a proposed confederation of Ukrainian territory held by Russia-backed separatists that never came to fruition.

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, responded that it’s “a commercial secret.”

A Japanese cosplayer dressed as a Ukrainian soldier.

A Japanese cosplayer dressed as a Ukrainian soldier.

Much of the imitation equipment used by Japan’s cosplayers is made after studying photographs of real equipment in the field.

Hayato Sato dressed in a Russian special-forces outfit. Airsoft pellets can be seen littering the ground. The gun is a replica of the German-made Heckler & Koch submachine gun sometimes used by the FSB’s Alpha Group.

Hayato Sato dressed in a Russian special-forces outfit. Airsoft pellets can be seen littering the ground. The gun is a replica of the German-made Heckler & Koch submachine gun sometimes used by the FSB’s Alpha Group.

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.

A lunch that was served in a Soviet-style mess kit.

A lunch that was served in a Soviet-style mess kit.

Other former Soviet elements are easier to find: this photo, taken by a Japanese “cosplayer,” shows a dedication to the genre that extends to lunches of vodka and cheap sausage.

A group of Japanese cosplayers dressed as Russian police and gangsters.

A group of Japanese cosplayers dressed as Russian police and gangsters.

Some cosplayers have managed to recreate the outfit of Russia’s police forces, as well as the stereotypical “gopniks,” or low-level Russian street criminals of the 1990s.

A young Japanese cosplayer wearing a badge of the separatist People’s Militia of the Donbas, which was listed as a terrorist organization in Ukraine

A young Japanese cosplayer wearing a badge of the separatist People’s Militia of the Donbas, which was listed as a terrorist organization in Ukraine

Veteran war photographer Andriy Dubcak from RFE/RL’s Ukraine 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.”

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