Halloween in Tokyo: A mistake or brilliance?

Yesterday, Tuesday, Oct. 29, my wife Lisa and I had the following text exchange:



Yes, Halloween ghouls and goblins invaded Tokyo this past week. And really, it’s about time.

Last year was my first autumn in Japan, and thus my first Halloween. I was surprised to find that that it wasn’t much of a thing. Sure, there were a few foreigners and young Japanese running around Roppongi and Shibuya decked out in costume, but that isn’t much different from other days.

Japan is the homeland of cosplay, the creepily awkward hobby where somewhat frumpy folks dress like their favorite anime or comic book characters.

They usually congregate in Harajuku or other pockets of Tokyo Lisa won’t take me to, but last Halloween they spread their plastic wings a bit and migrated into the general public.

Still, I was surprised it wasn’t the family tradition it is in the States. None of my English language students knew what trick-or-treating was and they sure as shit didn’t pass out candy. A few stores hung up some half-ass decorations but there were no jack-o-lanterns to be found.

This year it all changed. Halloween exploded on the scene like the buckets of blood in the lawnmower scene in Dead Alive.

Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)
Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)

Yes, as I sat on the train the other night two college-age boys giggled amongst themselves and pulled leopard print and white nighties out of their shopping bags, along with other costume accessories. One boy went so far as to adorn a nightie over his sweatshirt right there on the train. It seems like something he probably could have waited to do at home.

He was just too overcome with excitement.

As Lisa said, like other western holidays before it, Japan has imported Halloween. While calling it a “mistake” might be hyperbole, the country has embraced the tradition with gusto as only Japan can.

Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)
Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)

Where did it start? According to this article on the Rocket News 24 website, Halloween in Japan started from corporate influence. Just as KFC somehow convinced millions of Japanese that you are supposed to eat fried chicken on Christmas Eve, Tokyo Disneyland introduced the “Happy Halloween Twilight Parade” in 2000.

Because what is Halloween without a parade?

Universal Studios got into the act in 2002 and the celebration began taking on a life of its own. These days Disney drags out the pumpkin and witch decorations in early September. Japan already celebrates Oktoberfest in nearly every month of the year, why not Halloween as well? It makes good economical sense.

 Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)
Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)

It’s not like Halloween holds a lot of traditional value in America anymore. It was originally a Celtic pagan new year celebration hijacked by the Christians. Heck, it’s even evolved since I was a kid some 20-odd years ago. Kids go trick-or-treating while it’s still light out. Sometimes they don’t even go trick-or-treating on the 31st.

That being said, there are still the same costumes, the same parties, the same treats and the same scary decorations.

While Japan has adopted the costume aspect of Halloween, this year they finally grasped the concept of trick-or-treating. Of course, it’s a bit askew from the American custom.

For one, kids don’t bounce around the neighborhood from home to home, dinging the bell of whomever has their light on. Regardless of how safe Tokyo is, parents new to the tradition aren’t quite ready to accept the idea of sending their youths into the maw of strangers.

No, according to Lisa’s co-worker, Japanese trick-or-treating is a highly organized affair with maps and strict guidelines. This is the country after all that painted foot prints in convenience stores notifying where to stand in line. Never leave anything to the freewill of the individual, is Japan’s motto.

Lisa’s co-worker’s neighborhood had 40 pre-selected homes diligently plotted out where the children could go trick-or-treating. This actually sounds reasonable.

However, they’ve added a new concept to the treats.

For one, they hand out sushi. That’s right, sushi.

Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)
Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)

Take a second to watch this Japanese commercial.

You didn’t watch it, did you.

Anyhow, the commercial is for Halloween sushi. The small rice balls are covered with a slab of salmon whose color can only be described as Fukushima orange. Small bits of green seaweed carved into the crooked mouth and eyes of a jack-o-lantern are then stuck on this round mound of raw fish.

Pre-packaged in plastic wrapping, the beatific mothers in the commercial delightfully hand out these sushi balls to the overjoyed children. Who doesn’t want a bag of warm sushi to bring home at the end of the night?

I brought up this phenomenon to one of my English students who knows a thing or two about consumer trends. While he had never heard of trick-or-treating, and it took me five minutes to explain it to him (I’m not a great teacher), he did come up with an interesting theory.

He compared this new trend to the recently widespread Japanese holiday of Setsubun which is held every Feb. 3. He said this holiday used to be held exclusively in the Osaka area. People throw beans around their home to ward off bad luck and they eat these long sushi rolls called eho-maki for good luck.

Over the past few years the sushi industry encouraged Japanese citizens far and wide to celebrate Setsubun, mainly because February is a slow month for sushi sales, and what better way to increase sales than to create a national holiday.

His, and now my, theory is that the sushi industry has a hand in lifting Halloween to more national prominence in Japan.

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it is a brilliant marketing strategy. It just harkens back to Lisa’s comment that Halloween in Japan is a mistake. This holiday holds no intrinsic meaning or cultural significance. It is merely a commercial past time designed to increase sales. We’ve been saying that about Christmas in America for years.

Though I tell you one thing I can’t wait for  – Japanese haunted houses. Those things’ll be awesome.

Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)
Photo by Lukasz Palka (Lkpalka.com)

My friend and brilliant photographer Lukasz Palka was kind enough to share his photos with us. Find more of his  work at Lkpalka.com.

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