For a culture that likes to dress up Japan doesn’t really like to dress up. Wait… I think I did that wrong. Japan is a culture that practices the look of foreign holidays without practicing foreign holidays. What? Two contradictory sentences and I’m not even a paragraph in? Oh this article is off to a good start. Okay, some elaboration is required on this one. Ontakesan (the neighborhood my dorm is in) just had it’s big Halloween festival. Now, coming to this country I thought Japan really had a thing for Halloween; they met in high school, started dating, and then went steady for a while. Wait, no, that’s something else entirely. What I meant was Japan really seems like an environment where Halloween would be readily accepted. One is all about dressing up and ghosts and scaring people and generally acting strange, and the other is Halloween.
All kidding aside I really believed Halloween was a big thing over here. At least half the subcultures here are about dressing up, the streets are some of the safest in the world, and companies individually wrap every sweet from cookies to candies. And I was right, to an extent. Halloween is big in Japan, it just isn’t celebrated. Everything takes on a Halloween theme, just like in the States, but the kids don’t Trick or Treat, which is kind of the point these days. There are Halloween cakes, Halloween cookie tins, Halloween rice balls, Halloween pachinko machines, Halloween maid cafes, and you can bet your Halloween hat that all the figure makers push out Halloween themed merchandise.
But despite all of that Halloween, I’m told that nothing particularly special happens on October 31st in Japan. Well, in most places at least. Ontakesan is a little strange, since there is Trick-or-Treating here. I’m not entirely sure how it’s organized, but on the Saturday before Halloween the shops hand out candy to any kid that shows up. And boy do they show up. According to the organizer I spoke to last year saw somewhere in the vicinity of 700 kids and this year even more showed up.
I was on photography duty and what I saw surprised me, or rather what I didn’t see. The bulk of the costumes were of witches, ghosts, wizards, the usual G-rated fair. No zombies or anything gory, which was a bit or a surprise considering how laxer the Japanese rules are about violence than the American rules. But what was really surprising was the lack of kappa, oni, tengu, nurekabe, and other Japanese monsters. The Japanese have a really diverse folk lore full of monsters, especially ones that will play tricks on people who don’t give them offerings. Instead the vast majority of costumes I saw were imports from America, no different than the ones held in costume stores across the US. On one hand I can kind of see why it makes sense to use American costumes for an American event, but I still can’t shake this uneasy feeling that the Japanese are ignoring their own culture. I blame zealous liberal arts teachers for these feelings.
From what I’ve been told and read the same can be applied to Christmas; a holiday everyone decorates for but don’t celebrate. I don’t know how much that’s true though, I don’t live with any Japanese nor will I be here for holiday, so I can’t say for sure. But after seeing how Halloween is done, I wouldn’t be surprised if Christmas was treated the same.
I will say this, the Japanese are efficient with their Halloweens. I’ve never seen Trick-or-Treaters queue up before. Where I come from sugar addled kids generally move in frenetic, amorphous mobs. So kudos to the Japanese for keeping their children together in the face of unlimited sweets.