Halloween in Japan
As far as festivals of the dead go, Japan can do without American Halloween because it already has Bon-odori in August, the traditional season for honoring the dead. At that time many urban dwellers return to their families’ rural hometowns - if they have rural hometowns - and pay respects to their ancestors by washing gravestones, burning incense and praying. Others just make a holiday of it and go to the beach (if there’s not too much radioactive fallout). But the power and attraction of American pop culture has slowly forced Halloween into Japanese life, and not only in Japan but elsewhere - Europe, Australia - for better or worse. It might even be challenging Mexico’s revered Day of the Dead.
I take note of Halloween because I enjoy it so much. Not that I dress up in costume and attend parties. Not any more, or not in public, at least. In my childhood in southwestern OntarioI did just that, with fond memories of Jack-o-lantern carving, Trick-or-Treating, and Devil’s Night prowling with my brothers. (In hindsight, our Devil’s Night prowling was kind of pointless. We didn’t do anything except enjoy being our after dinner, romping around in the dark like Wild Things.) I enjoy it for the dark necromancy it pretends, and because it falls in my favorite season, featuring days humming with the warm orange glow of low-angle refracted sunlight, and suffused with the addictive tangy perfume of wet earth and rotting leaves.
That’s my attraction. But what is it for Japanese? Japan has no history of Celtic immigration, no Celtic New Year tradition of the dead mingling with the living at a time when the boundary separating their two worlds is precariously thin. Although Japan is ripe with ghost stories, in this culture ghosts do not impinge upon this world from the world beyond. There is no world beyond. Japanese ghosts are part of this singular world. And, Japan’s Christian population is so small that the liturgical holidays of All Soul’s Eve and All Soul’s Day don’t translate into the wider popular culture.
But Japan does have a robust custom of dressing up in costumes - called Cosplay, short for “costume play” - familiar to many around the world today from “Otaku” conventions of Japanese manga and animation fans. Dressing up is not a modern hobby, either. The transvestism of Kabuki theater spells out a long history of cosplay pretension. Today it’s a common sight on weekends to see young people traipsing around Tokyo streets decked out as Gothic vamps, Victorian maids, or any number of cute or grotesque manifestations. I’ve even seen young people wearing full ceremonial Nazi regalia boldly strolling the streets. Definitely not kosher in Europeor North America. Japanese are absorbing the Halloween custom in the same vein as its native otaku cosplay hobbyists, rather than as a Day of the Dead. In other words, they are absorbing it into an exiting tradition. The way they habitually absorb and adapt foreign things is one of the features of Japanese genius. Cosplay also helps explain the greater popularity heavy metal rock bands enjoy here over what they receive in their own countries. KISS is perennially popular.
Now, I habitually decorate my Tokyo home for all the holidays and festivals I knew as a child. It makes me feel good, and I think it’s good for my children, to be reminded that they have dual nationality and are equally entitled to enjoy these less familiar celebrations and events. It also conceals blemishes on my walls and doors. Although my children are now beyond the age of Trick-or-Treating, I still fantasize about our family living in Canada to experience firsthand an authentic Halloween or Christmas.
Acquiring the Halloween pumpkin has always been the most difficult challenge for me. Japanese pumpkins, “kabocha,”are just small green gourds for eating. Using the word “kabocha” for the familiar American carving pumpkins used at Halloween is misleading. Even though a pumpkin is a kind of gourd, not all gourds are pumpkins, which is a distinction I find extremely difficult to translate. Anyway, in the old days I could only find Halloween pumpkins at flower shops where they cost ¥10,000, or more than $100 with the exchange rate at the time. With the growing popularity of Halloween, though, it is easier to find carving pumpkins now - still primarily at flower shops - and the price has come down by half. But that means they remain fantastically expensive compared to Canadian prices.
When I first came to Tokyo I had to hand craft my Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and Easter decorations using materials from stationery stores and art suppliers, because Japanese stores then did not carry anything. That was before Halloween gained more
popularity, and before the Internet gave us online shopping, before Costco opened two stores in Tokyo suburbs, before dollar/¥100 stores existed to peddle all manner of cheap and convenient goods. By comparison with Halloween, when I arrived here Christmas was already popular, not so much as a celebration of Christ’s birth but as a celebration of young courting lovers. It’s mostly a romantic festival, and certainly not a statute holiday. Christmas Day is usually the last day of classes for Japanese schoolchildren before the start of the year-end New Year holiday, which is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Canada Day all rolled into one. But even with its greater popularity the trappings of Christmas - trees, wreaths, garlands - and traditional foods - roast turkey, roast beef, etc. - just do not fit the architecture of Japanese domestic life. And besides, they have to contend with traditional Japanese evergreen garlands of the New Year’s holiday that still tend to exclude the Christmas ones. So in the beginning I was still forced to hand craft at least some of my Christmas decorations.
So much to remember and be thankful for. So much to look forward to.