What’s Weird about Japanese Halloween
Happy Halloween! The Japanese bring their own twists to October 31
TOKYO — In Japan, data show women prefer vampires and men prefer witches―at least on Halloween. But judging by the huge numbers of women in sexy nurse uniforms and the dearth of male vampires we see around this time of year in Tokyo, apparently the two sides haven’t figures this out. No wonder the population is shrinking. If the government would only play cupid, toss in some Abenomics, eye of newt, and weird sisters into the mix, Halloween in Japan could possibly be the new Valentine’s Day―and in terms of spending it’s coming close.
According to the Japan Anniversary Association, the market size of Halloween this year is estimated to be over a billion dollars (122 billion yen) coming very close to Valentine’s Day, which is 125 billion yen. Of course, Japan celebrates Halloween differently from the United States, just as it does Valentine’s Day or Christmas.
On Valentine’s Day in Japan, women give chocolates and gifts to the men. On White Day (not yet available in the U.S.), men give white chocolate and gifts back to the women. Christmas celebrations in Japan often includes young couples checking into fancy love hotels―where rooms can be rented for two-hour shifts or longer―on Christmas Eve. That may not be our way of celebrating Christmas but it can certainly be enjoyable.
The newly launched experimental series “Nonalog” on Japan’s YouTube has a special Halloween edition that is as amusing as it is informative. The bits of information sprinkled in the Japanese language episode, subtitled in English, “Things you never knew about Halloween!” was painstakingly researched by the staff and then filmed in a combination of J-Horror Ringu-type cinematography with American B-grade slasher film clichés and is in itself a wonderful example of how Japan incorporates foreign cultures into its own memes and entertainment.
“Nonalog” itself is an odd “data-driven” drama series. According to the director, Kohta Asakura, the staff and writers look at internet usage in Japan, and from search data, they look into what Japanese people are really searching for and then “turn the data into original drama and comedy shorts about how young Japanese people connect with each other in the 21st century.”
The program has some interesting findings and is worth a quick peek to gain some insight into Halloween in Japan. While one might expect traditional Japanese ghosts and goblins to top the most-wanted Halloween costumes, witches and vampires are what opposite sexes wanted their partners to dress up as.
Of demographic groups dressing up for Halloween, Japanese women in their thirties were at the top. Why do Japanese women in their thirties dress up more than other generations? Perhaps women in their thirties desire transformation so much because they are reaching the glass ceiling in their professional and personal lives―especially in a country that is not even in the top 100 countries in terms of gender equality.
The matter of gender equality may be reflected in Halloween spending as well. Men spend about $70 on their costumes, while in comparison women spend about $55. In Japan, Men earn significantly more than women in most jobs—except for pornography.
Another difference between Western and Japanese Halloween is that our orange “Halloween” pumpkins are used primarily for decoration in Japan, rarely if ever for eating. They are considered soggy and really only fit for feeding livestock. Japanese pumpkins, kabocha, are harder outside and firmer inside, and used year round in many dishes. However, if you ever try to eat a “pumpkin pie” made with kabocha, you’ll realize that pumpkin spice and kabocha go together about as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and historical accuracy.
There is some unintentional irony in the “Nonalog” episode, or perhaps it’s a cultural blind spot. It’s noted that, “Halloween is October 31st which is believed to be the day that deceased, as spirits, cross over and join the world of the living.”
This is something that might explain Japan’s cultural assimilation of the holiday. Japan has held a version of that belief for centuries; the event is called O-bon and takes place every summer, although the period it is celebrated differs between regions.
But instead of wearing costumes to ward off evil spirits, as some explain the origins of costumes in the West, the Japanese people traditionally hung out lanterns to welcome their ghostly ancestors home. Dances are performed, food, and often sake is offered. There is no trick or treating―just straight up handouts to the deceased, not the living. Trick or treating is only starting to make inroads as a custom in Japan, but it is still unusual. Thus the yakuza group, the Yamaguchi-gumi’s celebration of Halloween—sadly cancelled this year, seems to have struck many Japanese as odd for that reason as well. Many wondered, “What parents take their children to a yakuza headquarters begging for candy?”
On the other hand, during Japan’s “traditional Halloween” after a few days, the families light incense or perform other rituals and send the spirits back home, like house guests who have stayed too long. And perhaps to accommodate relatives who can’t travel far, many Japanese go to visit the graves of their relatives and ancestors during the period.
For a country that created its own alternative universe version of Valentine’s Day, one wonders when Japan will find a way to turn O-bon into a marketing extravaganza. There could be big money in going native.
It doesn’t matter. For the moment, Halloween is big business in Japan and for this country its also really scary.
However, Halloween in Japan isn’t scary in the “will ghosts haunt me?” creepy sort of supernatural scary way. It’s scary in a paranoid and slightly xenophobic way.
In the last two weeks, Nikkan Gendai, The Sankei Shimbun and other major newspapers have all run features on how the nation’s police are on full alert for acts of terrorism against the trick-or-treaters―or acts of terrorism by them. “Halloween Terror Ahead” scream the headlines. The subtext of the reporting seems to be that trick-or-treaters equals large numbers of foreigners―foreigners equal rioters, hooligans or terrorists and since they have on masks it will be hard to spot them—therefore they will cause chaos. Or now that Japan has passed the probably unconstitutional but strongly pro-US security laws, which will enable Japan to fight in wars for the first time since the end of WWII, the other fear is that the large groups of people gathering Saturday night will be human targets for anti-US elements. Those terrorists striking at Japan will, of course, probably be foreigners.
If you don’t fear terrorist attacks apparently, the place to be—if you’re going to be anyplace at all—will be Shibuya Crossing, the mecca for Tokyo youth. It is expected to become a human traffic jam of costumed partiers―zombies, vampires, witches, Nintendo characters, ninjas, geisha, zombie-geisha, and of course―sexy nurses, possibly even sexy-zombies-nurses. The great majority of the people there will be Japanese citizens.
Yet, still Halloween remains a slightly scary foreign thing to the powers that be. Japan is slow to change. It will take a while for the police and the older generations to realize that Halloween is quickly becoming as Japanese as O-bon … or even White Day.