[Anime Culture Monday] A Brief History of Halloween in Japan

With a rather convoluted history, Halloween’s origins can be traced all the way back to various Celtic festivals, especially the Gaelic festival Samhain, which was then incorporated into Western Christian tradition with All Saints' Day and later developed further to become the recognizable holiday in North America starting around the 1930s and spread to many other places worldwide since.

But what about Japan? Like many other holidays originating outside the country, Halloween in Japan has its own peculiarities that make it unique. In this piece, we’ll be covering Halloween’s introduction to Japan and how the popular holiday is celebrated in the land of the rising sun. Don’t get too spooked, let’s start!

Theme Park Foundation

While there likely had been smaller cultural exchanges beforehand, Halloween wasn’t first properly introduced into Japanese pop culture until 2000 with an event in Tokyo Disneyland. This was soon followed by similar celebrations at other popular theme parks like Sanrio Puroland and Universal Studios Japan and has since become very well-known across the country. These parks, and others, still hold big Halloween events every year but the holiday is no longer strictly centered around them.

What About Obon?

Folks familiar with Japanese culture might know about Obon, a Japanese Buddhist-Confucian holiday revolving around the return of ancestral spirits to their homes for their annual visit to celebrate and reunite with their living family members. While for some people Obon is also a time to tell ghost stories, light lanterns, and visit haunted locations, which would seem like a natural connection to Halloween, these similarities are only superficial and the holidays are in fact not related or celebrated at the same time (Obon is usually in July or August, depending on the region).

Halloween is for Cosplay!

Obviously, Japan is no stranger to costumes with its well-developed cosplay culture so it’s not surprising that the focus of Halloween in Japan is definitely getting into character with festive outfits. This is where some differences arise. Halloween in Japan is more focused on adults and trick-or-treating, for the most part, just doesn’t happen. Instead, Halloween in Japan mostly involves teens and adults dressing up and going out into the streets for huge public parties, drinking and eating with their friends, and generally “letting loose” in a way that taps into the mischievous aspect of the holiday. Candy and other sweets are still present, of course, as is jack-o'-lantern carving but with the twist of most of the pumpkins being purple instead of orange due to the species usually grown in Japan. In recent years, street costume events have become extraordinary big, especially in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Trash, Gangsters, and Backlash Against the Holiday

Unfortunately, Halloween has also generated quite a bit of controversy, particularly in how these street events have created large amounts of trash from candy wrappers, drink containers, fake blood spillage, and even discarded costumes, which has become a major headache for locals accustomed to Japan’s usual cleanliness. Thankfully, many people have started voluntary cleanup groups to help with the problem.

One stranger phenomenon involves Japanese organized crime syndicates, known as the yakuza. One of the largest yakuza organizations, the Yamaguchi-gumi, has reportedly been regularly giving out generous bags of candy out at their headquarters on Halloween to any children who wanted them. While arguably a publicity stunt, the yakuza have had a long history of doing charitable work including providing assistance to victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake when it hit Kobe.

Final Thoughts

Despite the backlash against commercialization, trash generated, the sometimes rowdy behavior associated with the holiday, and more, Halloween seems to only grow in popularity every year and is likely to remain part of modern Japanese pop culture for years to come. It’s definitely exciting to see so many people applying their cosplay skills in creating elaborate spooky outfits and hanging out together so we hope that the modern tradition can continue with less trash and more fun in the future.

As always, we hope you enjoyed this article! Would you want to be in Japan for Halloween? Let us know your own thoughts in the comments section below and be sure to stick around Honey’s for more of all things awesome, anime and otherwise! Stay spooky!

Starmyu-dvd-372x500 [Anime Culture Monday] A Brief History of Halloween in Japan


Author: Oskar O.K. Strom

Call me Oskar or OkiOkiPanic or other things depending on how whimsical you're feeling. I'm an artist and game designer currently working in the indie scene. In true otaku fashion I'm also interested in anime/manga, collecting figures, building robot models, idols, denpa music, retro games and electronics, etc. Judging by the company I keep I figure it's only a matter of time until I'm obsessed with wrestling and mahjong.

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