Friday, November 8, 2013

Halloween: Japan's Most Recent Holiday

Hey guys, do you know what today is? That's right, it's only the best holiday ever, Halloween! A few months ago I happened to bring the subject of Halloween up with some Japanese friends in the US, wondering what the holiday was like in Japan. The answer I got from them was: "We don't celebrate Halloween in Japan."

"Don't celebrate Halloween in Japan?" Honestly, I was a bit shocked to hear that since Japan is so big into some other Western holidays such as Christmas and Valentine's Day. As a big Halloween fan, I prepared myself to spend the coming October in a sadly terror-free land (oh, the first world problems ;;). So, you can imagine my surprise when I was greeted by tacky black cat cardboard cut-outs and plastic jack-o-lanterns in literally every konbini (convenience store) and shopping mall I found myself wondering through."Well, this is a pleasant surprise." I thought, thinking back on what my friends had told me. I would have called them liars-liars-pants on fire, however, their claim would have been true only a few years back.

The truth is, Halloween is a very recent development in Japanese culture. That's right, 10 years ago, Halloween was viewed as the day when scary gaijin (foreigners) would randomly roam the streets in outrageous costumes, haphazardly drink on public transportation, and perhaps accidentally summon satan (or a lesser oni) along the way. Nowadays, however, it's not abnormal to see people on the streets decked out in their Halloween swag a week before the 31st. In short, it's taken just a few years for Halloween to effortlessly go from an alien blood ritual to a legitimate holiday with all the toppings. The question is: why?


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Up until about ten years ago, the only sign of Halloween in Japan was the occasional sighting of Jack Skellington on living room TVs. In other words, people heard about it through movies and other popular media sources, but Halloween still remained a foreign concept for quite a long time.

However, that all changed as soon as Tokyo Disney decided it was time to spread the party (and make more moolah). In 1997 Tokyo Disney had its first"Disney Happy Halloween," inviting all guests to take part in the festivities. Although it took a couple years to spread the word, Japanese people started to become excited about this new tradition, and in 2000 Tokyo Disney was able to have its first "Halloween Twilight Parade" featuring 400 visitors and Disney characters in costume.

As Japanese people already had a fascination with Disneyland, it was easy to make the concept of Halloween seem enchanting and magical. Every year after 1997 the Halloween celebration has grown as word of mouth has spread, and now the party starts as early as late September. Of course, Disney isn't hogging the fun all to itself. In 2002, Universal Studios crashed the party and introduced "Hollywood Halloween," another major success. Together, these two theme parks have contributed to bringing the Halloween tradition to Japan.


These girls are looking . . . foxy? Wouldn't you say? Image by

Although Tokyo Disney and other amusement parks sparked Japan's interest in Halloween, it would be crazy to owe it's growing popularity to them alone. Of course, there are other reasons why the tradition has spread like wildfire in the past decade. For example, there are many ways in which Japanese culture nicely meshes with the concept of Halloween, making it easy for the Japanese to adopt it as their own. One of the most obvious points is the appreciation of costuming.

I mean, just think about it. We're talking about the country that gave the world the gift of cosplay. So, it's only natural that a tradition involving costuming would catch on eventually. This might be playing into stereotypes too much, but seriously, can you imagine Japan turning down any excuse to run around the streets in a pikachu suit. I can't.

The fact that many Japanese street fashions fit so seamlessly into Halloween aesthetics also makes it easy for Japanese people to participate in the festivities. Into Lolita fashion? Great! All you need to do is walk out of your front door and you're part of the party. Plus, who would turn down the opportunity to dress in scantily clad outfits while still being accepted into mainstream society? Apparently, not the Japanese (or anyone else I know for that matter).


Another way in which Japanese culture meshes nicely with Halloween is the fact that it strongly resembles Japan's own tradition of Obon. "Obon?" you ask. In summary, is a Buddhist tradition in which families honor the return of the spirits of their ancestors. Although Obon takes place in mid-August, it too is a time for appreciation of the supernatural and is sometimes even called the "ghost season."

As you can imagine, during "ghost season" people are especially aware of scary happenings, and ghost stories can be heard pretty much everywhere. Besides this, the Japanese have always appreciated a good scary story - just take a look at all the horror movies in Japan's film scene.

Halloween just offers another opportunity to indulge in all the spooky spectacles anyone could ever dream of - just pick you poison. The difference, though, comes from the fact that Halloween is a recently imported holiday and that takes off some of the cultural edge that Obon carries. So instead of terrifying yuurei, or the vengeful spirits of Buddhist tradition, you're dealing with harmless, and even sometimes cute, obake, or ghosts. For this reason, some people have called Halloween "The children's Obon."

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In mean, you can actually tell your kids about Casper without mentally scarring them for the rest of their lives. Yuurei on the other hand? *shutters*


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As many people know already, English is a required subject in Japanese school systems. Therefore, everyone has to learn it (or at least pretend that they are learning it) these days whether they like it or not. Not only that, but the age in which children start learning their ABC's was recently lowered from middle school to the 5th year of primary school in 2011. By 2020, they'll be beginning their English educations in 3rd grade. What I'm trying to say is that children are learning English from a very young age (and it's only getting younger).

So, what does this have to do with Halloween? Well, I don't know about you, but at the age of 10 it was pretty hard to keep my attention, and last time I checked, learning English in Japan is just about as exciting as watching an episode of "Days of Our Lives" with your grandmother . . . while waiting in the dentist's office. So, something had to be done to keep kids semi-conscious during English class, and what better way to do it than by giving them obscene amounts of candy, I mean, by giving them a healthy cultural education.

And so, Halloween was born into the public education system. Thanks to the Japanese school system, no more will your (grandmother) throw you into the funny farm when you come home demanding to carve pumpkins together or asking what costume she is going to make you this year. Well, she might consider it, but in all seriousness, cultural education in English classrooms from a young age is vastly contributing to the familiarization of Western holidays such as Halloween.


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Hooray! So, Halloween has become somewhat of "a thing" in Japan. All my dreams have come true. But, that doesn't mean Halloween is exactly what you would expect. Like anything else, Halloween has changed a little here and there as it's crossed borders, and of course, Japan has put it's own spin on things.

The first thing I noticed about Halloween in Japan is that things are noticeably less scary and a whole lot more "Hello Kitty" (surprise, surprise). You might see a little ketchup-like blood on some costumes here and there, but the scare factor doesn't reach anywhere near what it is in the USA. I mean, my Halloween decorations include a transparent, mixed-berry scented candle decorated with cripplingly cute black kittens and a plastic pumpkin with a smiley face on it. That was the best I could do.

In general, there is a lot more focus put on merchandising and the novelty of the whole thing, and that gives Halloween a totally different flavor (one can only take so much Halloween Hello Kitty ). For example, on a trip to the grocery store you might see pumpkin shaped bread filled with kabocha, or Japanese pumpkin, seasonally flavored Kit-Kats, or better yet, something like this:

In terms of events there are a few large Halloween parties and parades in Japan such as the in which about 4,000 people participate by dancing and costuming.However, don't be surprised if you hear Rihanna or Lady Gaga rather than the Monster Mash at a Japanese Halloween celebration.

On a smaller scale, there are plenty of Halloween events in various cities. Whether it's bar crawling events or sexy costume contests, you're bound to have a blast. Unfortunately however, the tradition of trick-or-treating has yet to catch on except for in a few STRICTLY controlled areas, which in my opinion takes all the fun out of it.

Costumes in Japan are exactly what you might imagine, and more. Common costumes include popular anime characters, full-body suits and onesies, men in cross-play, Japanese fashion trends such as lolita, sexy nurses and cat girls, and well, the plain bizarre. The fun thing about seeing costumes in Japan is that you can see culturally specific things you would never see in other countries. My personal favorite in this group is gokiburi-san (Mr. cockroach). Below is a picture of the Japanese onesie fashion, Halloweenified!

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In short, Halloween in Japan is highly commercialized and has a lot to do with seasonal marketing, but it is also a fun way for people to let their hair down without all the cultural subtext. Although it is not celebrated by everyone, it seems that Halloween is gaining significant popularity with each coming year. Personally, I'm very excited to see where Halloween will go and what spin Japan will put on it next.

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