Japan loves to dress up. That’s one reason it might not seem so surprising to see the streets of Tokyo flooded with costumed hordes of young people every Halloween. But while we’ve grown used to seeing cosplay anime characters in Harajuku and Akihabara, the electrical stores hub, and retro-US costumes in Yoyogi Park on Sundays for a dance-fest, Halloween was something of a late arrival.
Until as recently as 2009, October 31 was a rather niche occasion in Japan. “Halloween trains,” essentially flash mobs of (often intoxicated) foreigners in costume, were a time-honored tradition among the expat community since the mid-1990s, but locals had remained staunchly against this invasion of Western culture—going so far as to stage protests against the celebrations in major Tokyo train stations.
Japan’s biggest costume party
The Halloween void was soon filled by Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan—long regarded in Japan as glamorous playgrounds of Western culture. Young people began looking forward to the elaborate Halloween decorations each year, even dressing up for the occasion. Soon, businesses caught on to the seasonal marketing potential and youngsters began flocking to trendy spots like Tokyo’s Shibuya to show off their elaborate cosplay designs.
Less than a decade later, the event has made an astonishing transformation. The holiday has become one of Japan’s biggest costume parties, as zombified crowds take over entire city districts for an annual night of fun and terror.
Change afoot for Japanese Halloween?
So far, Halloween has remained just that: a big costume party. It’s an excuse to dress up, have a few drinks, let loose on the town and snap a few thousand selfies for the ‘gram. But one Rakuten Ichiba expert has sensed change afoot.
Jun Shimizu, a.k.a. the Trend Hunter, is Rakuten’s most recognizable professional data miner. As the nickname suggests, Shimizu’s job is to sift through Rakuten’s mountains of e-commerce data to spot consumer trends and offer insights into modern Japanese culture. Earlier this month, he shared his findings on Japan’s Halloween evolution.
Halloween has infiltrated the Japanese home
Shimizu noticed a significant uptick in sales of Halloween-themed household decorations, almost doubling in four years. This data suggests that Japanese people are starting to embrace Halloween as not just a street party, but something to celebrate at home.
Rakuten Ichiba also saw a sharp increase in sales of individually-wrapped candy, presumably for Trick-or-Treating activities—another hallmark of Halloween tradition. Halloween-themed sweets also grew considerably last October, putting a rather Japanese spin on the holiday’s candy culture.
Even the older generations are joining in
Looking at the year-on-year Halloween sales growth for 2017, Shimizu noticed another remarkable detail: The biggest Halloween growth was coming from shoppers over the age of 46, while sales from the 61+ group grew more than 50%.
The data shows a remarkable turnaround from when Halloween was primarily enjoyed by expats and young people and met with little enthusiasm from Japan’s more conservative older population. With one third of Japan over the age of 60, this is a key group influencing consumer trends. Maybe the gray generation is just getting younger at heart?
Japanese Halloween is still uniquely Japanese
Despite this ghoulish embrace of Western Halloween customs, Japan’s All Hallows’ Eve retains its own distinct flavor. The country’s long-standing cosplay culture has contributed in raising the bar for costume quality, while its rich history and thriving pop culture provide an astonishing variety of characters to draw on.
The Trend Hunter’s analysis revealed a sharp rise in the popularity of not only historical figures such as samurai, but also characters from manga and anime such as GeGeGe no Kitaro. Shimizu also picked up on what looks like a 90s revival trend for this year’s Halloween, predicting an uptick in Pokemon costumes, “dad sneakers,” and costumed tributes to J-pop icon Namie Amuro.
Has Japan finally adopted Halloween?
Halloween has taken the long way to mainstream acceptance in Japan, from mild transportation nuisance to Disneyland novelty, and from street costume party to candy and decorations at home with the grandparents.
While it’s still a very unique take on the spookiest day of the year, it looks like All Hallows’ Eve may just have cemented its position as an occasion for celebration in Japan—at least as much as Christmas.