In years past, the “Halloween train” was a carriage taken over by costume-wearing foreigners, who turned it into an impromptu space for merrymaking and boozing. Tokyo’s Halloween train even sparked protests! My, how things have changed.
When riding the Midosuji Line in Osaka in late September of last year, I saw an advertisement that, no matter how many times I see it, still surprises me. “Halloween on the subway,” it read.
“Looking for participants!” read characters in yellow font. Similar events were held last year website Osaka Subway points out, and according to the poster, there will be two Halloween trains: One for the kids and a scary one for adults. These highly organized events, however, are nothing like the Halloween trains of old in which flash mobs of costume-wearing, beer-swirling foreigners descended on train cars in Osaka and Tokyo.
Halloween trains were already in full swing by the mid-1990s. They weren’t only about dressing up, drinking and, in Tokyo’s case, shouting the name of the Yamanote Line stations, but as evident in this video from 1994, silly string was also involved.
They were a way for ex-pats—even those coming from countries that do not celebrate Halloween—to have any excuse to get together, get drunk, and cause a ruckus.
Early on the Halloween train was already causing meiwaku (迷惑) or “annoyance.” Make no mistake, that’s exactly what these trains were, especially because this well before Halloween became a thing in Japan.
In 2009, Halloween still wasn’t a mainstream event in Japan. Retail hadn’t yet put its full weight behind the event, and Japan was still figuring out its own take on October 31. Imagine getting on the train after a long day of work to discover it’s been taken over by a band of drunk, noisy young people in funny costumes. If you had never celebrated Halloween, your tolerance for the whole spectacle would probably be diminished.
Imagine the mess left for station staff to clean.
Year after year, the Halloween trains continued to get more and rowdier. At the turn of the century, I remember hearing English-teacher friends say that if their school found out they rode the Halloween train, they’d lose their jobs.
Everything seemed to reach fever pitch in 2009 when protesters appeared at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo carrying signs that read, “Stupid Gaijin, Get out of Japan!” and “We Japanese Don’t Need Halloween!”
This was after police had to patrol train station platforms on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line the year before, holding up English language warning signs for the Halloweeners.
After 2009, Tokyo’s Halloween train was never quite the same. But that didn’t matter. By 2012, Halloween had caught on in Japan, with parades and events held all across the country. Trick-or-treating isn’t done like it’s traditionally been done in the U.S. (though, from what I understand, it’s changed in America somewhat), and the emphasis is more on Halloween events or, in Tokyo’s case, over-running Shibuya. Who cares about a train car when people, Japanese and foreigner, have taken over a major city hub?
The Halloween trains, however, have returned. They’re nothing like the foreigner-driven parties of the past, but instead, are highly organized tame events with webpages, rules and sign up forms. If anything, these new Halloween trains might be a way to get Halloweeners from the unbridled chaos on the streets.
Or for a new generation to become connected to All Hallows’ Eve.
This article was originally published on October 23, 2017.