When I first came to Japan, so many moons ago, Halloween was not a thing. At all. Well, it was if you were foreigner, but Japanese people just didn't really get it.
Now, more and more, they do, and are putting their own spin on it. So what happened?
The two things that have really made Halloween in Japan are Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan. And they've done this in the last decade. Tokyo Disneyland held its first Halloween event in 2000, and each year it's gotten bigger and bigger. Ditto for Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.
Prior to this, Halloween in Japan used to only mean foreigners wearing funny customs in bars and drinking on public transportation. But Tokyo Disneyland and USJ provided an easy way for Japanese people to enjoy Halloween.
Even before Halloween caught on, it seemed like it would be a logical fit for Japan, being the country that gave the world cosplay. There isn't widespread trick-or-treating (and where there is, it can be highly organized), but more and more kids are going to Halloween parties and dressing up.
Then there's an increasing amount of merchandising, which ranges from small pumpkins (normal sized ones are incredibly expensive), cakes, cookies, ice cream, and more. You now see Halloween decorations in stores and even on some TV shows—things that you never saw a decade ago. The holiday is slightly different in Japan and it's not a national event yet, but each year, it's more and more popular. You can see the birth of a new holiday right before your very eyes.
But it's not as simple as Japan importing an American holiday or just playing dress up. Japan-based game localizer and writer Matt Alt, co-author of Yurei Attack!, calls Halloween a "kid's version" of the Japan's traditional spooky season, which is in August. (Full disclosure: Tuttle, which is republishing one of my books, publishes Alt's book.)
That month, there are the Obon holidays, when the spirits of the dead visit household shrines and when families clean the graves of the deceased. This is what people traditionally are supposed to do—though, I've only cleaned the family grave a few times—when they return home. These days, some people go on vacation or just relax at home for a "death free" Obon. Still, the spooky notion remains, with people telling scary stories on TV. During the hot, sticky month, people traditionally tell spooky stories to send chills down their spines. Yurei, or vengeance spirits, often appear in these stories.
"I can almost guarantee you that you will never hear the word 'yurei' with Halloween in Japan," Alt tells Kotaku. "You'll hear 'ghost' or 'obake', the Japanese word for ghosts, because those are relatively cute. Yurei are fucking terrifying. You can quote me on that—fucking terrifying."
Yurei Attack!'s co-author Hiroko Yoda says that the lesson behind yurei is that if you mistreat someone, they will come back to haunt you. "It's a karmic thing," she says. Yurei, however, are indiscriminate. Alt calls yurei "spiritual landmines" that are relentless and determined to kill pretty much whomever is in their way, and it doesn't matter if you are completely innocent or not.
The West has a wide variety of ghosts—from terrifying, vengeful ghosts to, well, friendly, cute ghosts. Yurei are not cute. They are not friendly. Because of that, Alt points out, you pretty much never see "Yurei" marketed on toys. Instead, toy companies use "obake" (ghost), which seem softer.
What's more, Obon isn't marketable in the same way Halloween is and doesn't exactly inspire a slew of merchandise.
In the West, Halloween is closely connected to death, with its roots in festivals of the dead as well as All Saints' Day. But in Japan, it isn't seen that way; it's a holiday imported from America. It doesn't have the close connection to death like Obon, thus making it somewhat abstract in Japan. That doesn't mean it cannot be scary in Japan—there is an uptick in the number of haunted houses during the fall now. Though, like the Resident Evil attraction now at USJ, they're not centered around yurei. There's still a clear distinction.
"Everyone loves haunted houses, because they're fun," says Alt. "Everyone loves candy and dressing up. Halloween becomes an excuse in Japan to enjoy the spooky season again." In Japan, Halloween is a stopgap of sort, allowing Japanese people the opportunity to enjoy another spooky season, that's slightly more carefree and based in artifice—instead of tangible death and fucking terrifying yurei.
If you are interested in learning more about yurei, Alt and Yoda's book Yurei Attack! is definitely worth checking out.