My first (and hopefully not last) trip to Japan was almost exactly a year ago. After the trip, I was certain that I would want to write about it and all the things I saw, but what happened was that it took some time to really let it all sink in and to find words for everything I experienced. For me, it was an exciting and curious trip for many reasons: For the first time in my life, I really didn’t blend in when walking on the street or traveling in the subway (an experience btw which I warmly recommend to everybody). Some things felt familiar from animes and mangas which I studied diligently in my dear art-oriented high school, but simultaneously everything was strange: the food, the manners, little napkin packages, tiny hand towels… and Halloween. I had heard stories about the Japanese way of adopting American festivities (such as Christmas), but I had no idea how widespread some American things were and how unique a form they took, especially in Tokyo. After wandering around the streets and shops of the city I understood just how big of a deal Halloween was: There were several Halloween-parades and parties, pumpkin flavored everything, pumpkin-shaped everything, shops selling decorations, trick or treat candies, you name it. I watched a children’s Halloween parade, where there were hundreds of kids with their parents and costumes – and that was only one mall!
This all came back to me this year, as I heard about my student organization’s Halloween party (which all of you English Students should attend of course). Granted, we sometimes have some Halloween bashes here in Finland, but the interesting part about Halloween in Japan is the way it transforms on the way. Tokyo didn’t seem to celebrate American Halloween; it seemed to celebrate Japanese Halloween.
Reasons behind Japoween? I had a wonderful contact to interview for this piece, since one of my dear Japanese friends has experienced both American and Japanese Halloween. She confirmed that for her, the two actually seemed very different and that in Japan Halloween is actually getting bigger than Christmas, which has been a huge deal for a long time (although it is celebrated mostly by couples). The reason for adopting these new American festivities is certainly not the lack of their own: Japan has a long, huge tradition for festivals, both local and nationwide. The same goes for adopting Disney characters; the reason behind Minnie and Mickey Mouse cellphone pendants, jewels, towels, clothes, toys, slippers etc. is certainly not that Japan didn't have their own cute things (Pokémon, Tamagotchi and Hello Kitty anyone?).
The reason for this Halloween mayhem could be varied: One cynical thing that comes to mind is of course the huge multi-billion Yen industry that pushes out new celebrations which mean new grounds for marketing new cute items for Japanese Consumers. But in my opinion this is not inclusive enough to explain why Japanese Halloween feels distinct from its model. The explanation might just simply be that since there aren’t any proper roots for Halloween in Japan, it’s easier to mold it to their own taste. Also from what I understood from my friend is that American influences are sometimes seen among the younger Japanese generation if not superior, then at least very powerful and cool (and just like in Finland, often among older generations, unnecessary and stupid).
But after experiencing even a glimpse of this magical, controversial, sometimes cruel and sometimes harmonic culture I dare to say that one of the reasons for “Japanese Halloween” is the Japanese people’s will to squeeze something cute, giggly and pretty into their sometimes very hard everyday lives. And the appearance of new celebrations and the readiness to use something new to take the mind off from daily life during hard times in Japan is understandable – even some Finnish newspapers have explored the rough dilemmas which the financial crisis has brought upon the Japanese society.
I think that there’s something to be learned from the Japanese people in this matter: Maybe it wouldn’t hurt us Finns to celebrate the soft and playful side of life, especially when the long dark season arrives. This idea could materialize in the form of Hello Kitty shaped sushis and flower arrangements but also in the process of painting your face with grim colors, eating pumpkin-flavored cheesecake, dressing up and celebrating something full on which you know to be silly, superficial and without any proper national tradition. Tradition is not the only reason to celebrate now is it?
Happy Halloween to you all!