Halloween seems to be the new imported-holiday darling of the ’10s. As I wrote last year, businesses’ creating and selling Halloween-themed goods and services has exploded in the last 5 years, and yet, this isn’t the Halloween I celebrated as a child.
A comparison to Japanese Christmas may be helpful in understanding how imported holidays function. There is this bothersome assumption that if you are American, you 1. are Christian, 2. you celebrate Christmas, and 3. you celebrate it in the same way the Japanese do, with Christmas cake, KFC, and small gifts. There is not enough of an emphasis on cultural plurality when the Christmas lesson time in English language courses comes around. To compare this to my experiences growing up, when I was in elementary school, despite my school district lacking much in the way of diversity, there was an emphasis on our “tossed-salad” multicultural heritage, so we actually learned about winter holidays from other religions (namely Hanukkah) and Christmas celebrations all over the world. Not perfect, perhaps, but definitely worth noting in comparison.
Aside from assumed universality of traditions, Christmas in Japan is quite fun. I may never buy KFC or a Christmas cake, but I will also probably not be trampled on Black Friday. I won’t have to suffer through “Christmas Shoes” at the mall. I won’t be tempted to tell the Salvation Army Santa that my donations will be going to The Trevor Project, thanks. I can make my holiday whatever I want it to be. In this way, a cultural import can mean a fresh start.
As for Halloween, which, of course, was imported to the US via Irish and Scottish immigrants, this holiday is my absolute favorite. I love assembling my own costumes, going to bars and parties to see others’ costumes, cooking fall foods, drinking pumpkin beers, watching scary movies, and just the general feel of this harvest/day-of-the-dead festival. Halloween appeals to my love of autumn, to my creativity, and to my love of a good ghost story.
Halloween in Japan, though, seems to be trending more towards iconography and cuteness. Obon already dominates the cultural need for a spooky time in which the realms of the living and the dead blur. The traditions that the Americans brought over often can’t be realized– trick-or-treating is a neighborhood event, but without candy-giving neighbors, it’s limited to costume parties for international clubs. As for the costumes, my friend who runs an annual Halloween party for children says that most of the children come dressed as witches with store-bought costumes and are under the assumption that this is a “Halloween costume” insomuch as a white wedding dress is a “bridal costume.” This is similar to what I’ve observed at bar parties–store bought costumes from Don Quixote abound. (But making them is more fun, in my opinion.) Pumpkin-carving is difficult because of the thick skin on most of the domestic types of squash here. Some American pumpkins are imported, but it seems excessive to purchase one just to have at home, though English-conversation schools and multicultural events use them. Without our normal avenues for enjoying a holiday that is very much about being seen in public and interacting with others, what traditions will Halloween in Japan take on as the holiday is absorbed into popular culture?
This year, I’ll be covering the visual anthropology of Halloween in Japan again to see how, where, and to what level it is incorporated into mainstream Japanese culture. Next time: Halloween KitKats and sweets!