Autumn is my favorite season, and with it Halloween is here again. Halloween is one of my favorite festivals because it represents chaos and decay, and it takes place in the midst of my favorite kind of weather - cool and cloudy and early dusk. It is the season in which World War One ended. The season of orange and read leaves and the smell of wet earth. A time for Snoopy and the Red Baron, and a melancholy kid with a bag full of rocks. It is one of the celebrations I missed the most when I first came to Japan. It irks me no end to hear foreigners occasionally speak of Halloween as one of their favorite holidays because it misleads the Japanese. Then I realized that those people were themselves misled and couldn’t help it. So listen up, everyone. Halloween is a liturgical (church) holiday - All Hallow’s Eve, followed by All Saints Day - but it is not a statute, public holiday. Halloween is not a holiday. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a great occasion.
In the old days it was difficult to find Halloween decorations here for my apartment. I had to make my own by hand. Finding an American carving pumpkin was next to impossible, and if I could find one it was at a florist’s shop and cost over $100. These days, though, Halloween has caught on in Japan, partly because of the antics of partying foreigners, partly because of the opening of a large Costco store near Tokyo, and partly because the custom of dressing up plays to the Japanese fetish for Cosplay, or Costume Play. Of course, for Japanese Cosplay mostly entails young-to-middle aged adults dressing up as their favorite anime characters, not as ghouls, ghosts, goblins and other creatures of the night. Japanese have no use for the latter because they have their own festival of the dead in August, O-bon, when many people still dutifully visit cemeteries to wash family headstones, pray and burn incense to those who have gone before.
I do not want to neglect mentioning, as well, that Japanese folktales abound with scary ghost stories, first collected in English by Lafcadio Hearn (a.k.a. Yakumo Koizumi). Even today Japanese novelists and movie directors excel at the frightening, macabre and occult. Witness Ring by Koji Suzuki (1991), movie directed by Hideo Nakata (1998). The Japanese film is scarier than the English-language American version partly, I think, because Japanese culture lacks so many of the silly, artificial pretensions and ideologized delusions ofAmerica. I mean, there are no holds barred for decency’s sake.
I had never attended a Halloween Party in my life until I came to Japan. For me growing up in Ontario Halloween was serious devilish business, not silly merry making. So I was unsure how to go about it in the 1990s when part of my work as an English teacher involved planning and participating in parties. It was easy to plan pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating among friends and neighbors for my own children. But for Japanese people who currently observe some kind of Halloween activity, a party revolves around a Costume Parade, and Trick-or-Treating devolves to a free candy giveaway rather than a bribe to threatening children wandering freely about the streets after dark. The atmosphere is one of happy play, not hysterical, wet-your-pants fear. Japanese rely on manufactured Jack-o-Lantern decorations as orange carving pumpkins are still rather uncommon. Pumpkin, or “kabocha” is a popular food here, but as I have pointed out before, a kabocha is really a small, green gourd, not a large orange pumpkin. Yes, a large American pumpkin is a kind of gourd. But not all gourds are pumpkins. So the translation of “kabocha” is not entirely accurate. No one cares, though.
Japanese call a Halloween Jack –o-Lantern a “kabocha obake,” or “pumpkin ghost.” For years people have been surprised when I explain to them that the pumpkin is a good thing. It’s a kind of good luck charm. (The notion of Luck is pretty sure to strike a hord among Asians. Asians put a lot of currency in Luck - hence their propensity to gamble.) It looks frightening to protect your home by scaring away the ghosts. The pumpkin itself is not a ghost. Go figure.
At the American Costco bulk store in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, all manner of authentic Halloween goods and accessories are easily available. Every other holiday of the North American calendar can be accurately recreated here. But for me that is a bit too far to go, and it’s a bit too easy. I grew to appreciate the effort I had to put in to my festival observance.