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Halloween Spooks Shibuya
A neighborhood’s love-hate for the holiday boils over
Japan is a famed home and haven for cosplay. You might naturally expect the nation to embrace Halloween with a fervor, and increasing numbers of revelers do. Shibuya is Japan’s most popular gathering spot for Halloween parties, but the Tokyo ward has decidedly mixed feelings about the subject. In 2019, it put up enormous billboards celebrating pride in “Shibuya Halloween.” Now the reception has cooled. “Shibuya isn’t a venue for Halloween events,” declared the ward’s mayor Ken Hasebe in a September press conference. Instead of warm welcomes, he ordered an enormous warning sign posted outside of the station, then released a bilingual public-service announcement exhorting the public to stay away on October 31st.
It’s hard to imagine the mayor of one of Tokyo’s – and the world’s – most popular leisure destinations actively disinviting visitors, but he cited two incidents in the decision to discourage Halloween celebrations. One was the notoriously chaotic Halloween mayhem of 2018, when a mob of drunken revelers flipped a truck, and thirteen people were arrested over the course of the evening for sexual assault, theft, and vandalism. The other was the 2022 Halloween tragedy in Seoul’s Itaewon district, where 159 people lost their lives in a crowd crush on dangerously overpacked streets.
Halloween is of relatively recent import to Japan. Traditionally speaking, the spooky season here isn’t harvest time but late August, when the spirits of dearly departed ancestors are said to make an annual visit to the world of the living. This is the origin of the Obon holiday, when families tidy up the communal grave plot and commemorate their ancestors with traditional foods, festivals, and dancing. When the “lid of the underworld” loosens to let our relatives out, however, all sorts of other creepy-crawlies get the green light, too, which is why the doldrums of summer are also associated with all sorts of yokai and ghost stories, as you might recall me writing about a few months back.
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For a long time, Japan didn’t think about Halloween much at all; then, suddenly, the word entered the public consciousness through a tragedy: the 1992 murder of Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dressed for a Halloween party, he rang the doorbell of the wrong house, whose owner shot him dead. The case shocked Japanese citizens, even more so when the killer was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing under American home defense laws. (A civil trial eventually compelled him to pay damages to the Hattori family.)
It was Tokyo Disneyland that rehabilitated the holiday’s image in Japan, decking out the park in Halloween colors and costumes in the late Nineties. But it wouldn’t be for another decade, until the late Aughts, that the idea of Halloween as a celebration started to gain traction among society at large. That is when Glico and other major candy companies, hungering for the seasonal sales boost Western counterparts enjoyed from trick-or-treat season, began releasing their own Halloween-themed snacks through the nation’s many grocery and convenience stores. “Autumn traditionally represented a gap in terms of marketing opportunities for Japanese companies, so it’s only natural that Halloween would attract their attention,” an investment banker told Yahoo Japan News in 2013. “Plus, it has great visual appeal, especially for kids, so I think there’s potential for even more growth.”
Grow it did. Trick-or-treating never really took off here, as the idea of sending your kids off to beg neighbors for snacks wasn’t a great fit for local cultural norms. But another aspect of the holiday certainly did: the dressing up. In contrast to the efforts of Disney and Big Candy, this aspect wasn’t pushed on the public from above. It was a grassroots phenomenon, inspired by foreign-organized Halloween parties.
One of the most beloved or notorious of these, depending on who you asked, was an annual “takeover” (or “hijack,” depending on your viewpoint) of the Yamanote train line, on or around October 31st. Nobody is precisely sure when the tradition started, but it was already well established in 1993, when I spent a year abroad studying at Keio University on an exchange program from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We learned of its existence through the foreign whisper network. In that pre-Internet era, organizers would also place ads in the pages of English-language magazines, providing specific directions for those so inclined to participate:
JR Shinjuku station, platform 13
(Yamanote bound for Ikebukuro) Meet where car 10 stops,
in front of the escalator from South exit
Everyone boards the 21:07 northbound and loops around clockwise
BYOB, or better yet, whisky
In those years, when the vast majority of humanity still regarded Japan as an exotic and out-of-the-way destination, there simply weren’t enough young Western expats to get into serious trouble. So these spontaneous flashmob-style get-togethers remained curiosities. They attracted little in the way of public outcry, save perhaps from the hapless riders who found themselves unexpectedly surrounded by drunken revelers.
As the numbers of young foreigners who found their way to Japan for work or pleasure rose, the scene began to grow rowdier. This sparked anger and attracted the attention of news media. In 2009, a group of Japanese demonstrators, probably whipped into a nationalistic frenzy on the “net-right” boards of 4chan progenitor 2channel, paraded through a station waving discriminatory protest signs. Obnoxious drunks were one thing; race riots were another. This is when the police and JR became truly serious about stamping out the Halloween joyrides.
In the years to follow, the crackdown sent revelers out of the stations and into the streets – and the streets of Shibuya in particular. This made sense: big chains like Tokyu and Seibu built flashy stores here in the Seventies with the specific aim of turning the neighborhood into a fashion destination. By the Nineties it was the place to hang out for teens and twentysomethings, packed with shops and bars, an incubator for trends, streetwear, and tech. One can (and I often do!) make an argument that social media really started here, when schoolgirls began mobile texting, swapping selfies, and slinging emoji a decade before any of these things were a twinkle in an American techbro’s eye.
This is fitting, because social media is what fueled the rise of Halloween in Shibuya as we know it today. As refugees from the Yamanote takeovers began partying on Center Street, fueled by a mix of cheap canned “chu-hi” cocktails and a lack of open-container laws, they attracted the attention of young Japanese who wanted to join in the fun. The advent of smartphones turbocharged things, making it easier to organize get-togethers and publicize what happened in them. And the rise of Japan as a fantasy superpower fed the desire to cosplay all the more, among locals and visitors alike.
All of this combines to give us the situation we have today: thousands of revelers in search of Insta clout shuffling along shoulder to shoulder, with as many or more Japanese participating in the festivities than foreigners, and the police whistling mightily to keep everyone moving along. To the consternation of the authorities, the Halloween scene has exploded from the foreign fringes into the Japanese mainstream. Ironically, this is precisely what Shibuya is designed to do: amplify weird styles and fads. It is by nature a trendsetting place. Even the logo for the ward’s anti-Halloween efforts feels hip, as though it is doing double duty branding the very scene it is trying to quash.
Which it very well may be. Consider what happened with another out-of-control celebration in Shibuya: the New Year’s Eve countdown (tellingly, another custom imported from abroad). Starting at the turn of the Millenium, large numbers of people began descending on the Scramble at midnight on December 31st to ring in the New Year. Concerned about the raucous crowds, the ward began erecting barriers around the area in a semi-successful attempt to prevent parties from forming. But then in 2016 came a great about-face. That’s the first year the ward planned out an official countdown party, taming a chaotic street celebration into a family-friendly corporate-sponsored event. I suspect Shibuya has similar plans for future Halloweens. It’s simply too popular for big business to ignore.
We are already seeing this mainstreaming playing out, in realtime. A plot arc in the latest season of the anime Jujutsu Kaisen is set against the backdrop of a Shibuya Halloween. There’s something odd about seeing animated costumed revelers in real-life Shibuya locations, incorporated with the full participation of local department stores and other landmarks. In an echo of those Yamanote takeovers of old, the ad campaign even features the characters goofing around on a train car. Mix messages, much?
Then again, Shibuya has always been a fantasy space in the heart of the city, a place where art imitates life, life imitates art, and companies hunt for the Next Big Thing. Is it happening again with Halloween? If this crackdown really does lay the groundwork for a safe, corporate-sponsored, family-friendly costume party in years to come, Shibuya will have played the biggest trick of all.