Halloween came to Japan in 2000 when Tokyo Disneyland hosted its first Halloween event, followed quickly by similar celebrations at Sanrio Puroland and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. Since then, this American holiday has exploded in popularity across the country, but there are a few differences in the way the Japanese celebrate the season.
While costumes and parties are still abundant on October 31 and sweet treats are still part of the holiday, haunted attractions are harder to come by and no one goes door to door trick-or-treating on Halloween night. Still, many Japanese stores get into the spirit by selling colorful decorations and desserts—some made with purple sweet potatoes. McDonald's in Tokyo gets into the act by offering a black burger.
Halloween in Japan is mostly geared toward adults who want to dress in costume, but despite its newfound popularity, not everyone in Japan celebrates the holiday. Some Japanese see Halloween only as an opportunity for foreigners to dress in silly costumes and turn public trains into big parties, thereby disrupting commutes.
Japan's Traditional Spooky Spirit Season
The Japanese celebrate their own spooky season in August, during the Buddhist Obon festival, a time when the ancestral spirits return home for their annual visit to dance and celebrate and reunite with their living family members. This is the typical time when Japanese enjoy telling ghost stories, visiting haunted attractions, and remembering their departed relatives. It is not connected to Halloween.
Halloween Activities in Japan
If you're in Japan in the fall, you'll find that Halloween celebrations are often held in both September and October. Tokyo, Osaka, and Kanagawa are the most popular destinations for costumed fun, but more cities across the country are embracing the holiday each year. Events usually take place in shopping malls and amusement parks and include street parties, parades, flash mobs, zombie runs, and costume parties at bars.
Theme parks around Japan bring in some of the biggest crowds for Halloween thanks to their many diverse events:
- Tokyo Disneyland: Disney’s Halloween takes place at Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea during September and October. Events include a massive parade with more than 100 floats and performers, haunted attractions and performances, and dance parties with ghosts and goblins. At sundown, the parks' many characters transform into ghostly versions of themselves to haunt the streets.
- Universal Studios Japan: Universal Surprise Halloween, held in September and October, features haunted houses and other scary activities, including a special holiday-themed movie ride. Like at Disneyland, characters at Universal transform at sundown.
- Shibuya Hikarie Retail Complex: The International Costume Contest held at this shopping mall invites guests to compete in a variety of categories including scariest costume and best cosplay.
- Sanrio Puroland: The costumed characters at this indoor theme park known for its Hello Kitty-themed area will transform into spooky ghosts and goblins at night. You can also expect to find themed parties and celebrations throughout from mid-September through the end of October.
While dressing in costumes for Halloween may predate the tradition, Kosupure—which is the Japanese word for cosplay (or costume play)—is not only popular among Japanese youth during the holiday but also year-round at special festivals and events dedicated to pop culture. Dating back to the early 1980s but exploding in the 1990s, Kosupure has become a mainstream staple of Japanese culture.
During costume play in Japan, people often portray anime, movie, or computer game characters by dressing in uniforms, samurai or ninja costumes, and kimonos—make-up and masks are also occasionally used. When it comes to Halloween, Japanese people combine the precision of their Kosupure costumes with the more scary traditions of this American holiday.
In recent years, schools and businesses across Japan—especially in major cities—have begun to embrace the fun of the Halloween season by allowing students, faculty, and staff to dress in costume. Additionally, you can expect to find enormous street festivals, parades, and parties in Roppongi and Shibuya, where the famous scramble crossing (street lights turn red simultaneously and everyone scrambles to cross the street) turns the streets into an extravaganza where the best local cosplayers and visiting foreigners flaunt their costumes while enjoying music, dance, and food.
Tricks and Treats
While you'll still find plenty of sweet treats and costumes in major Japanese cities to celebrate the Halloween season, there are a few differences in how Japan has adopted this American holiday. Traditions like dressing up may have survived the journey overseas but those like trick-or-treating were too different for most Japanese people to embrace.
Surprisingly, carving orange pumpkins into traditional Jack-o-lanterns is one of the traditions that Japanese people have embraced. However, pumpkins that are native to Japan have purple skins, so if you're looking to carve a traditional Jack-o-lantern on your trip, you'll have to pay a little more for an imported orange pumpkin.
Desserts and sugary confections are popular year-round in Japan, and Japanese candy companies spare no expense capitalizing on a new holiday to market to consumers. Orange, black, purple, and green desserts are a big hit at restaurants and bakeries around the country, but look out for the purple stuff—it's likely to be made from purple sweet potatoes.