Sunday 28 October 2018

Halloween in Japan: It's all about the Costume

When I first came to Japan, Halloween was pretty non-existent and nobody really knew what it was. This was in 1992, when a Japanese exchange student in the US was accidentally shot to death after going to the wrong house for a Halloween Party (and failing to understand the word "freeze"). For most Japanese, it was probably the first time to hear about Halloween and newspapers at the time had to explain the "foreign" custom. Today, it couldn't be more different. As with other imported festivals like Christmas Eve and Valentine's Day, Halloween has become big business with every kind of shop you can imagine using the occasion to sell its products from September onwards (pictured is a flyer from my local dry cleaners - note the special Halloween font used to write the Chinese characters!).

But despite sweets and candy being heavily promoted in supermarkets and department stores, one big difference between Halloween in the UK/US and Japan is the absence of trick or treat. One explanation for the lack of kids knocking on doors and collecting goodies is the Japanese "golden rule" never to bother, trouble, or be a nuisance to others known as meiwaku (迷惑). Personally, I think it's more that Japanese parents don't want their kids wandering around the neighbourhood and knocking on stranger's doors - but in the case of "exotic" Japan especially a cultural explanation is always favored over one based on simple common sense. Whatever the reason, Halloween in Japan is definitely more for young adults and the focus on the festivities is firmly on the costumes.

And how amazing the costumes are. For the last three or four years, the Halloween period has reportedly seen up to a million (!) young people, dressed up as anything from zombies and Wally to superheroes and nurses, descend on the Shibuya crossing area for a giant street-party, creating total mayhem and gridlock in the area (the downside is lots of rubbish and not a little bad behaviour - on Sunday there were 5 arrests and a small-truck was over-turned, while on the day itself there were 13 arrests, including for sex crimes, theft, and indecent exposure). Many buy costumes at stores like Don Quijote (known as Donki), the biggest discount store in Japan, change in local toilets after work, and apply make-up on the street. The costumes, as hinted at above, are by no means limited to horror and any kind of character goes. Certainly, Halloween feeds into Japanese people's love of costume play known as cosplay (コスプレ) though real cosplayers, who take great pride in recreating every detail of their favourite manga or anime character, look down their noses at all the generic amateurs out on Halloween. See here for a video of some of the revellers in Shibuya from a few years back (crowds have grown since); for a list of other 2018 Halloween events, including Tokyo Disney Resort celebrations and official parades, see here. Since last year, multilingual police and automated voice guidance have been in operation - not to mention the famed "DJ Police" who control the crowds with a mixture of humour and parental concern.

One final mystery - despite the ubiquitous image of the orange pumpkin, Japanese pumpkins (at least the ones they sell in the supermarket) are actually green. They are also as hard as rock and eminently unsuitable for carving - another custom that nobody in Japan seems to be aware of. As the title says, it's all about the costume - everything else is white (or orange?) noise. Happy Halloween!