Festivals are woven tightly into the cultural fabric of Japan. The summer season in particular brings with it a plethora of celebrations that span dancing, mikoshi shrines, fireworks and more. But it’s the autumn when the young residents of Tokyo descend upon Shibuya’s iconic scramble crossing in the thousands to drink and party until the early hours.
This is Halloween done Tokyo-style. The way it has manifested in Japan is not steeped in any long history or tradition equivalent to Halloween celebrations in countries such as the United States, nor does it promote any values beyond sheer hedonism, but it has nonetheless become a landmark event, one which intrigues and polarizes in equal measure.
Last year, the Halloween celebrations in Shibuya were marred by 13 arrests for misdemeanors including assault, groping and theft. Online footage of a small truck being overturned by street revelers ignited debate as to whether Halloween was harmless fun or societal scourge. Although isolated as an incident, it was not a surprise for regular participants who have seen both the scale of the festivities and the bad behavior of participants escalate with each passing year.
Halloween in Shibuya is very much a product of the 2010s, having first begun to attract real crowds in 2011 before growing organically in size and stature through the decade. Local government officials fully expect it to continue to grow. Shibuya Ward Mayor Ken Hasebe told Kyodo News in 2018 that Halloween was “beginning to take root in the culture of Shibuya” and that he wants to foster it — an acknowledgement that Tokyo’s fascination with the holiday is unlikely to dissipate any time soon, as well as a tacit recognition that this is a lucrative holiday for businesses and neighborhoods that can find ways to leverage its cultural clout.
The season was responsible for generating over ¥130 billion in revenue across the sales of related products and services in 2017, according to the Japan Anniversary Association. That put it almost on par with the quintessential Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, which brought in ¥138 billion that same year.
It’s important to note, however, that research by Line Corp. reported a single-digit decrease in participation across all age demographics in 2017 compared to the previous year’s Halloween, as well as a decrease in per capita expenditure. Google search volume for the katakana word “ハロウィン” (Halloween), also peaked back in 2015, although that could simply suggest that the season has now fully permeated into wider Japanese culture, and fewer people have felt inclined to look it up since. Nonetheless, there are indicators that the overall Halloween market has either stabilized or is even shrinking, which makes the continued growth of Shibuya’s celebrations a stand-out phenomenon.
That means big opportunity for the area’s businesses. While Don Quijote and convenience stores have always made a killing in sales for obvious reasons, this year even the likes of Burger King is taking advantage of the celebrations, with the fast-food chain’s Center-gai storefront turning into a “ghost store” complete with zombies and limited-edition seasonal additions to the menu, like the Ghost Whopper.
A space on New Year’s Eve
While monopolizing much of Tokyo’s foot traffic on Halloween night can be a boon to certain businesses, it also poses a logistical challenge. Shibuya crossing was established as the de facto location for public celebration during Japan’s co-hosting of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Supporters would come out en masse following the Japan national team’s group-stage successes, in a similar way to how Hanshin Tigers fans have long celebrated their team’s wins by jumping off Ebisu Bridge into Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal. These spontaneous celebrations at Shibuya crossing, however, clashed with its primary purpose — facilitating the movement of thousands of pedestrians and vehicles in an orderly manner, a feat now rendered impossible on certain special occasions.
It’s not just for Halloween that Shibuya turns into a makeshift block party — the same is true on New Year’s Eve, with more than 100,000 people turning up for the countdown celebrations in 2017. Starting out as a way for tourists and non-Japanese residents to ring in the new year communally, New Year’s Eve in Shibuya has been developed into a proper event, with stages erected in front of the Shibuya 109 and Shibuya Modi department stores, and wall-to-wall brand sponsorship by Coca-Cola. In recent years, police have even blocked streets and restricted access to the crossing itself due to overcrowding to the consternation of many visitors that had been told Shibuya crossing was the place to be. But as an official from the Shibuya Ward Office told The Japan Times last year, New Year’s Eve and Halloween are very different holidays, and “People come at different times for different reasons.”
New Year’s Eve revelry is predictable, with people amassing late in the evening in anticipation of the midnight countdown, whereas Halloween is more chaotic. From as early as late afternoon, you’ll start to see groups of costumed youths — from G.I. Joes and blood-spattered nurses to Minions in miniskirts — raid nearby convenience stores for alcohol before they run out of stock. It’s the one occasion in the year where the atmosphere deems it socially acceptable to be flirting with strangers on the street, and its reputation as a holiday for hook-ups makes Halloween look like a very different creature from what is celebrated overseas.
A cathartic carnival
In many ways, it’s the closest Tokyo comes to the carnivalesque, a term attributed to the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which connotes circumstances under which normative hierarchies are subverted through the strategic deployment of humor and chaos. As its etymology suggests, it is rooted in the real-world historical practice of carnivals: therapeutic role reversals in which servants become masters and paupers become kings for a day, and vice versa. In this case, it’s young office workers ditching their suits and skirts for, well, bodysuits and miniskirts.
The strictly defined temporal impermanence of carnivals means they act as a controlled cathartic release, of sorts, and the widespread popularity of Halloween in Shibuya points precisely to the issues in everyday life that participants are seeking to escape: the uniformity of work culture, stifling social hierarchies and the relative absence of communal interactions typical of any major urban metropolis. Its organic evolution into a huge, sprawling street party perhaps points to more concrete factors in regards to Tokyo’s urban planning: Few people reside in apartments large enough to host house parties, and there are hardly any conveniently located urban squares or public spaces that facilitate the specific sort of sociality that comes with a celebration like Halloween in Shibuya. It functions as a novel break from social gatherings that are otherwise compartmentalized within izakaya, bars and nightclubs, and the rules of each respective institution.
But while Halloween in Shibuya might look like unhinged chaos, even the carnival has its codes. Foreign visitors and residents should be particularly cognizant of their behavior, given that the international community is already associated with disorderly conduct following years of co-opting Tokyo’s Yamanote loop line for makeshift Halloween celebrations, and it was also widely publicized that three of the 10 men prosecuted over last year’s incident of overturning a truck were international students from France, Belgium and England.
Gabriele, a resident of Tokyo who has partied in Shibuya at Halloween on several occasions, says he has noticed the event change in tone over the years.
“Last year, there was a moment where we were drinking on the street, near a street where they allow cars in,” he recalls. “There was a drunk girl dancing around and, because the cars were moving so slowly, she decided to get up on the hood of one of the cars to dance on top of it. The owner wasn’t happy and got out and grabbed her leg, which made her fall over and she almost hit her head. People were shocked at the guy’s behavior, throwing her to the ground like that, and a fight kicked off. I didn’t see it, but my friend even said he spotted a guy coming out of the car with a hammer!
“At that moment I decided I wasn’t coming back to Shibuya for Halloween.”
While this is an extreme example, anyone who’s regularly attended Halloween in Shibuya over the years will have noticed the increasing potential for things to get out of hand. As much as party-goers can be encouraged to rein in their behavior and refrain from drinking alcohol, there is something inherently anarchic about Halloween. If the neighborhood of Shibuya wants all of the treats that come with fostering the event, then they might have to expect to deal with a few tricks along the way.
The Japan Times has planned a series of articles and essays that will review the 2010s over the next couple of months in different sections of the newspaper.