I've dedicated this month's Nippon Day posts to subjects relating to the western holiday of Halloween. First we explored Kaidan (Japanese ghost stories), then I delved into the world of J-Horror (Japanese horror films), and last week I made a great sacrifice and ate a bunch of Japanese candy. This week, the last installment before halloween, we will discuss how they do the holiday in Japan.
Obviously, the christian holiday, which itself is co-oped from a Celtic pagan celebration, has not always been a Japanese tradition. In fact, it is sometimes called Japan's most recent holiday, as it has only really taken off in the past ten years. It doesn't seem surprising that it would, considering that halloween has been picked up in a lot of places due to the influence of American pop culture. Add to that the tradition of costumes and it would be weird if Japan didn't embrace it, considering how popular cosplay* is there. However, as might be expected, the trip that halloween took to another country and culture has morphed it a bit.
First let us consider what halloween has become in America. It started as an old world holiday where people would dress in frightening costumes to try and scare the spirits and ghosts. The American puritans really disliked the holiday and discouraged its observance, so halloween didn't take off until the 19th century when Irish and Scottish immigrants revived it. by 1910 it was celebrated all over the country and today is the second biggest American holiday, only being topped as a money maker by Christmas. Trick-or-treating has it's roots in Medieval practices but didn't become a staple until the thirties.
This weekend millions of children will put on costumes, grab pillow cases or buckets and go door to door begging for candy. Many teenagers will opt for the "trick" option and toilet paper houses, egg unsuspecting pedestrians, smash pumpkins and engage in other petty crimes for the traditional mischief. It could almost be considered a adelesent's holiday except that many adults also engage in dress up and even a little deviant fun. The horror genre has taken advantage of the "spooky season" to market scary movies and television shows, making it so that through October you can't turn on the television without seeing a ghost or a vampire. Thusly we spend October 31st in the states.
Japan was, of course, aware of halloween, but it remained a foreign concept and occasion until Tokyo Disney Land decided to hold a halloween celebration and invited visitors to come in costume. It was a huge success and other theme parks soon followed. That may have just been the introduction but it wetted the appetite of Japan for more. Companies soon saw an opportunity to make some extra holiday money and started marketing heavily and pushing halloween merchandise.
Those of you familiar with Japanese street fashion can easily see this holiday catching on, as some people don't even have to make any extra effort to fit right in. As we've already seen, Japan has a tradition of ghost stories, so the horror aspect fits in too. However, Japan already has its scary season and that is August, so that particular flavor hasn't come to the forefront. Instead it has taken on more of a "cute" flavor. Even stranger, the children's holiday part hasn't really sunk in either, it is very much an adult's game.
In recent years there has been an outcry from some people in Japan complaining about how halloween celebrations have gone too far. It's a generalization, but Japanese citizens are usually pretty considerate about things like making a mess in public and being irresponsible. On halloween, many people consider it to be a time when you can let your hair down and do whatever you want. On November 1st, there is a lot of trash to clean up all over towns and cities from the all night party the day before, and it's usually not the people responsible for it who doing the cleaning. Even in America I can see that being a reason to complain.
Now I'm going to tell you about something that is going to sound very strange. Maybe you've heard that the biggest yakuza (Japanese mafia) syndicate, Yamaguchi-gumi, has had a recent split. It's a big story and has gotten some American news coverage. The big fear is that there will be a violent gang war, which could be quite serious. Another consequence is that the Yamaguchi-gumi has cancelled it's annual halloween children's event. Yes, that's right, the yakuza are some of the only people in Japan to have embraced trick-or-treating.
In Kobe, children and parents can come to the Yamaguchi-gumi's head quarters and get free candy. And they do. Obviously it's a don't fear us we have candy, sort of publicity thing. However, this year a notice was put up on the door a few days ago saying "The Halloween event that has taken place annually on 31 October will be cancelled this year due to various reasons...We regret disappointing parents and children who are looking forward to the event, but we promise to hold it next year, so please look forward to that.” We can only hope that their troubles can be peacefully resolved and next year the children of Kobe can once again enjoy free candy.
In America we often accuse stores of starting the holidays way too early. For instance a few weeks ago I was in Rite Aid and they had a selection of Christmas ornaments on display. I couldn't help thinking who on earth puts up a tree in the beginning of October? (Nightmare Before Christmas fans I guess). In Japan, the halloween celebrations often start in the end of September. Here in the US, Halloween parades aren't unknown, but in Japan they have pre-halloween parades. That's right, last weekend when you thought about making a costume for next Saturday but decided to wing it on the last minute, people in Japan were just getting started with a little warm up parade. If you scroll through those pictures, you'll notice that they are all amazing and creative costumes. I haven't seen so many well put together outfits in my life, and I go to comic book conventions.
So all in all, Japan is rocking halloween and I think they might be doing a better job than us. Aside from the not much trick-or-treating part, that's just sad. But even there we have some good signs, obviously the yakuza are all for it, and elementary schools are getting into the spirit of things by teaching about halloween in English classes. When children discover that in other countries they would be getting free candy, it's only a matter of time before there are riots.
I'm hoping that I will be able to go and experience harou-in in person sometime soon. In the meantime, I'm spending my halloween at a convention, dressed in my Hogwarts uniform cosplay.
Until next time, put on a costume and enjoy the holiday!
*Cosplay: Dressing up as a character from a movie, book, television show, comic book or other pop culture genres. Originally this practice came from comic book and sci-fi conventions, but has become a whole cultural movement for some. It is particularly popular in Japan.