As the yen and the ruling party's ratings fall through the floor, it's a scary time to be an LDP politician in Japan. Halloween revellers in Shibuya, Tokyo, 2019,. Photo: AFP

The most terrifying creature prowling after-dark Japan tonight won’t be a ghost, a demon, a ghoul, or a vampire; it’s an invisible virus that can be held at bay by a mask, but thrives in dense crowds.

In recent years, Japan has embraced the American holiday of spooks and scares with both arms – despite considerable official disapproval and some heavy handed policing.

The tradition, after all, meshes perfectly with Japan’s domestic tradition of spooks and spirits, as well as with the national mania for dressing up and adopting fantasy persons – cosplay.

Halloween is big business in Japan: Over 135 billion yen ($1.2 billion) was spent in 2016. While trick-or-treating is not the norm, costumes sell out on Amazon, Halloween-themed menu items show up at high-end and low-end restaurants and pumpkins sell like hot-cakes.

And it draws big numbers. In 2015, a 3,000 person costume parade in Tokyo’s Roppongi district drew 98,000 onlookers, while the informal October 31 gathering at the capital’s famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing, and its surrounding area, customarily draws over 70,000 costumed partygoers.

How pervasive is the holiday spirit? Even the (truly) fearsome yakuza have leveraged Halloween to upgrade their image.

But that was before Covid-19. This year’s Halloween is going to be different for everyone – from party-going ghosts to tattooed mobsters.

A participant in costume poses for a photo during a Halloween event in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo, Japan, on October 27, 2019. The most famous Halloween parade in all of Japan is the Kawasaki Halloween Parade. Photo: Hitoshi Yamada/NurPhoto

Spooks, specters, microbes

On the face of it, Halloween seems like the ideal holiday for the pandemic era: Everyone has to wear a mask. Conversely, close-quarter drunken revels are fraught with danger. 

On October 29, the total number of recorded coronavirus cases in Japan passed the 100,000 mark. Japan’s infection rates are low, and mortalities are strikingly low compared to every other G7 nation – less than 1,800 in a nation of 123 million people.

But with Halloween retail activities peaking today, and parties kicking off tonight, authorities fear festivities could lead to funerals. And with the flu season expected any day now, Halloween looks scarier than ever.

There is particular concern that the annual Halloween party in Tokyo’s Shibuya may become a super spreader event – to the point where Shibuya ward’s mayor begged people to refrain from visiting, despite the boon they represent for bars and restaurants. 

“Please do not come [here] for Halloween this year,” Ken Hasebe told a press conference on Thursday. “I would like you to refrain from being rowdy on the streets and consider other ways to celebrate during the pandemic.”

Shibuya is encouraging people to enjoy a virtual Halloween on an elaborate website and virtual reality app the ward has created. You can create your own avatar, show off your costume and chat with others – there is even an English-language page here.

While it is an impressive re-creation of Shibuya, the cheesy music and awkward interface makes it a less than thrilling. There is no virtual beer, either – probably due to laws which banned public drinking in the area last Halloween.

Shibuya is not alone in promoting online celebrations. The city of Kawasaki has cancelled its annual costume parade which drew 120,000 people last year. Instead, they are holding an on-line costume Grand Prix. The person chosen for the best costume wins 500,000 yen ($4,800). 

Signage in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward urges people to have a “Home Halloween” this year. Photo: Jake Adlestein

Spooks, specters, mobsters

The US Halloween tradition has plentiful traditional backing in Japan, a land awash with spooky folklore.

Annually, the festival of the dead, O-bon – during which spirits are said to walk the earth – usually falls in summer. Local ghost tales take modern form in manga and anime. Movies, too: International audiences have been chilled by such classic Japanese horror films as Ring.

Japan’s Halloween comes from slightly less scary roots: Disney is widely cited as a key factor driving modern Japan’s love of the holiday.

From 1997 onward, the Halloween Parade at Tokyo Disneyland became one of the amusement parks biggest attractions. Yet, until 2010, Halloween festivities beyond Disneyland remained primarily the province of the country’s rowdy expatriates.

According to the Japan Holiday Association, 2011 was the year in which Halloween really took off.  It had been a grim year, thanks to the deadly triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. So by October, levity seemed welcome.

The spread of social media also assisted. By 2016 Japanese people were spending more money on Halloween than they were on Valentine’s Day, a hugely popular day that is widely promoted by retailers.

Some neighborhoods have adopted modified “trick-or-treating” events, in which children go from door to door begging candy from the residents.

Even Japan‘s fearsome yakuza – notably the Kobe-based uber gang, the Yamaguchi-gumi – got in on the act, hosting elaborate Halloween parties for local kids.

No more: This year the prefectural government banned gangsters from giving candy to children or having them onto their premises. That will almost certainly end the yakuza’s annual October PR opp. 

Yokai, traditional Japanese monsters, perform prior to a Halloween fest in Miyoshi City, Hiroshima Prefecture on October 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

High spirits vs. party poopers

For many years, Halloween parties were mostly celebrated by unruly expats. But the killjoys have done their utmost to eliminate the annual party of walking dead.

One tradition involved foreign partygoers in full costume getting on Tokyo’s Yamanote subway line, which circles the city, for a non-stop, underground and unofficial party. From 2010, the police cracked down.

As a result, many celebrants congregated around Shibuya crossing instead. People noticed, the media reported, and Shibuya suddenly became Japan’s Halloween Mecca. Alas, that jollity was not shared by the constabulary.

From 2011, leveraging archaic laws, police raided and closed down bars and clubs where people were committing the unspeakable act of dancing after midnight.

Only after massive negative publicity, protests and even politicians taking up the cause, were laws revised to make it possible for Tokyoites to get their boogie on after the witching hour.

Ironically, the war on Halloween, led by stern-faced crime busters with little to do – crime rates have fallen while police numbers have remained static – contributed to the popularity of Halloween among young Japanese, especially in Shibuya. 

Still, in 2018, things got out of hand: Drunken revelers turned over a small truck and committed minor acts of vandalism. The police went after the miscreants hammer and tongs and captured everyone involved. The Halloween hoodlums briefly became public enemy number one.  

And last year, Shibuya prohibited public drinking. That had a sobering effect, and this year looks set to drive another nail into the coffin of Shibuya’s Halloween. 

An officer directs partygoers in Shibuya in Halloween 2019. Photo: AFP

In Japan, every day is Halloween  

One reason so many Japanese fall for Halloween is that it perfectly synchs with Japan’s love of dressing up – aka cosplay – often as favorite characters from comic books and anime. 

Even ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – by no means Japan’s most fun-and-games politician – dressed up as “Mario” from the videogame Donkey Kong, to celebrate Japan’s winning 2020 Olympic bid. 

One could argue that it’s always Halloween in Japan, so frequent are cosplay events.

In Tokyo, once a month, hundreds gather at a downtown theater for “Department H”, a fetish ball where outrageous costumes are de rigueur.  Squares and conservatives take note: Depending on how creative, goofy, erotic or downright sexy your costume is, the entrance charge changes at the whim of the scantily clad doorwoman. Turn up in your salaryman’s suit and you will probably be refused entry.

When it comes to Halloween, the most popular costumes in Japan are edgier than in the US, with sexy nurses, vampires, maids, witches, nuns and a smattering of characters from popular scary comic books like Kimetsu No Yaiba (“Demon Slayer”).

The urge to break norms by adopting costumes and personas could be a way to briefly escape the crushing norms of a strictly conformist society.

“In a country where identity is inscribed in institutional roles, Halloween offers an opportunity to break out and take on a performative identity, if only temporarily,” said Kyle Cleveland, a sociology professor and director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.

Perhaps naturally, theses urges are strongest among younger Japanese, who exist at the bottom of age-based social hierarchies.

“It is revealing that Halloween is, for the most part, age stratified,” Cleveland said. “That says something about the fluidity of youth in Japan – that they can revel in an alternate personae in a narrowly circumscribed and consequence-free arena.”