November 1, 2008

Don't Forget to Make it Cute: Halloween, Japan-Style

(Halloween decorations in a café in Tokyo.)

Christmas and Valentine's Day have long been celebrated in Japan, but in recent years, Halloween has also become visibly popular. Perhaps influenced by the expanding gaijin communities or Japan's eternal fascination with the West, what was once limited to learning about jack-o'-lanterns in English class and seeing pumpkin chocolates at imported-goods stores has now become something more widespread.

The idea of Japan adopting Halloween, originally an Irish pagan holiday before it was aligned with the Christian All Saints' Day, may cause some to scratch their heads. But for better or for worse, Japan recognizes Halloween, to say nothing of Christmas and Valentine's Day, in its own way: by ignoring the historical and religious connotations and embracing it through consumerism and consumption.

Walk around any commercial area in Tokyo in October and it's easy to spot the evidence. A string of jack-o'-lantern lights in a café window, tiny pumpkins stacked on top of each other in flower shops, paper decorations hanging in conbini. By making Halloween cute and stylish (the ultimate Japanese credo), businesses are capitalizing on the holiday to lure customers.

Yet, Japan's acceptance of Halloween doesn't necessarily include practicing the actual customs. While seeing young people dressing up in costume to go out on the 31st has become less unusual, in an age where friendly relationships with neighbors have become rare, one doubts that trick-or-treating will ever be greeted with anything other than nervous suspicion.

On my way to work on Halloween Day this year, I was surprised to see a small procession of toddlers and preschool children walking down a main street in costume, accompanied by parents and minders. Clutching their paper pumpkin bags filled with candy very tightly, the younger children seemed slightly dumbfounded to find themselves dressed up, with their Power Ranger and Peter Pan teachers snapping photos of them. One hopes that when they grow older, they will wonder why they were wearing orange that day and eating candy, and eventually be spurred into learning more about this day.

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