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Halloween in Japan: a commercial break from global nightmare

by Noriko Hama

Since when was Halloween such a big thing in Japan? Admittedly, you could see it coming these past few years. But this autumn it is simply everywhere.

Those violently orange pumpkin faces with black grins spring out at you in the most incongruous settings, be it on real estate agents’ doorsteps or under pachinko parlor canopies.

“Trick or treat” may not slip quite that easily off Japanese children’s tongues, but it’s getting there. And they are certainly well advanced in the costume department. They go about in ghostly white sheets and admirably Gothic witches’ cloaks with great aplomb.

Now Halloween parties are all the rage. Local communities organize them and put up announcements on public notice boards, and party goods stores and the like are simply chock full of Halloween paraphernalia ranging from giant lanterns to the tiniest of tiny tin badges.

Granted that all hell has just broken loose in financial markets, it is probably entirely suitable that Halloween capture the Japanese imagination at this point in time. Many people must be feeling pretty hellish now, although the stock market has recovered somewhat since the huge losses it took at the onset of the crisis. And the government’s economic stimulus package, which came out last week, contains little to put people in a more heavenly mood.

Indeed, some elements of the package look positively mummylike in their time-old familiarity. Other aspects are so skeletal that it is difficult to see how they are meant to be helpful.

The whole thing feels much more like a trick to make the government look as though it is doing something, rather than a treat that will help the economy keep itself out of the pit of recessionary hellfire.

It would be actually quite nice to think the Japanese people have cultivated enough of a sense of humor to embrace Halloween and pay tribute to a financial situation that appears to have come out of a horror movie. In fact, the notion of all things horrible and evil coming out to parade themselves on a certain day is not an unfamiliar one in Japanese culture.

Many of our painters and wood-block print masters in previous centuries had great fun depicting such creatures and their processions on paper screens, sliding doors, hanging scrolls and more.

But alas, it really seems a bit of a stretch to assume we are embracing Halloween in celebration of financial gloom and doom. It is probably just the product of some astute marketing wizard who said the time was ripe for concocting another bit of commercial magic to capture the Japanese love of pageants.

In fact, the genius who thought up the whole strategy must be one of the few not lamenting the current economic circumstances, a creature with a witchlike cackle escaping his or her lips, no doubt.

A bit of spine-tingling fun is not at all a bad thing. We should not begrudge the kids such entertainment. However it is just a little bit worrying that Japanese children are taking to Halloween with such glee. One cannot help thinking it might just possibly have something to do with some of the increasingly gruesome crimes and bullying on the rise in Japanese schoolrooms and playgrounds.

Japanese children may know nothing about the antecedents of Halloween, but they are sure to know a lot about the splatter movies that have been filmed round the whole idea.

I hope it is not that aspect of the thing that has captured their youthful psyches. We have nightmares enough on Wall Street and elsewhere in the financial world.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University Graduate School of Business.