Halloween has only recently been widely celebrated in Japan. It got an unofficial start decades ago with infamous raging parties on trains. These consisted mostly of costumed foreigners, much to the consternation of the locals. These train parties, referred to as the Yamanote Halloween Train or “Gaijin Train”, took place on the night of Halloween. The Yamanote Line makes a loop around Tokyo and partiers would typically stay on for an entire loop.
The exact train and meeting time would be posted shortly before the day of, to avoid prematurely being shut down. The notices were in English for the expatriate community, but a few Japanese were known to participate as well. The parties were BYOB, or better yet, “bring whisky”. One expatriate participant reminisced about waiting for the train “with a Halloween costume in my bag and a bottle of Jack Daniels in my back pocket.” Source
For a while, this was the only way foreigners celebrated Halloween in Japan. However, it was generally frowned upon by the populace, mainly for the disruption to a usually quiet and serene commute.
Cosplay may have started in Japan, but dressing up in ghoulish costumes once a year was a strange concept.
As recently as 2009, there were protests in Tokyo against foreigners in these train parties, and they were eventually banned. It should be noted that general public disruption is looked down upon in Japan.
So When Did It Start?
In 2000, Halloween officially took root when Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka held Halloween events. Those events still take place today. Sanrio Puroland, or Hello Kitty Land Tokyo, also has Halloween events. However, the impetus for holding these events was simply marketing. Both Disneyland and Universal Studios wanted to attract more crowds during the autumn season. This was likely the case for Sanrio Puroland as well.
Japan’s season of horror is traditionally in August during Obon, a time when souls of the dead return to visit their family. Inversely, Obon is celebrated with festivals and fireworks, whereas Halloween is costumes and candy. As such, Halloween in Japan isn’t necessarily associated with horror but is more about consumerism. And yet another excuse to cosplay throughout the year.
Cosplay may have started in Japan, but dressing up in ghoulish costumes once a year was a strange concept. Since Halloween is considered very much a Western holiday that made its way East, much of Halloween is present in Japan by the way of marketing. This isn’t the only holiday that appears in Japan in this way, there’s also Mother’s Day and Christmas.
But How Is It Celebrated?
Although Halloween is popular now, some other Western traditions still haven’t made their way over. Such as trick or treating. Stores will have many candies and other foods adorned with Halloween packaging, but they’re not for trick or treaters. Culturally, Japan is very private, which is likely why trick or treating hasn’t taken off. Or why it may never. Instead, treats and gifts are shared personally with friends and colleagues.
Nowadays, major public Halloween celebrations in Tokyo congress at Shibuya Crossing. The streets around the crossing are closed so people are free to mill about and take pictures. There are also Halloween parades in a few different areas around Tokyo. Like its American counterpart, Universal Studios Japan also has Halloween Horror Night. After sunset, zombies roam the park and there are a few themed attractions.
The spooky and death-centric nature of Halloween doesn’t really matter to the Japanese, they don’t have the same association of All Saint’s Day as the West does. It’s mainly just another excuse to wear fun costumes.