Japan’s rowdy, cosplay-themed Halloween celebrations have become famous around the world, with young people congregating in city hot spots and theme parks where they snap selfies in outrageous outfits and ghoulish get-ups.
In recent years, thousands of revelers — dressed up in supergraphic costumes to look like such characters as sexy zombies, stabbing victims and even the eccentric animal skin-clad viral star Pikotaro — have been drawn to the giant street party that takes place on Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing, making movement there nearly impossible.
“From about four years ago, people started going out on the streets rather than enjoying Halloween events in clubs or bars,” Shibuya Ward Mayor Ken Hasebe said at a recent news conference ahead of the Oct. 31 annual celebration.
But where did all the wicked wackiness get started?
According to locals, the history of Halloween in Japan can be traced back to the 1970s, when a bookstore in the nearby pop-culture hub of Harajuku began selling Halloween paraphernalia and organizing costume parades.
“How we absorbed Halloween culture reflects postwar history in Japan,” a spokeswoman for toy and bookstore operator Kiddy Land Co. said.
In 1950, the store’s predecessor — Hashidate Shoten — opened in Harajuku, where many facilities were built for U.S. military personnel after World War II. To meet demand, the store started to sell foreign books and high-quality Japanese toys.
Foreign customers who lived in the area began asking how they could get their hands on Halloween items.
“The staff at the time were asked by foreign customers why we don’t carry Halloween stuff,” she said.
Staff members from the store traveled to the United States to learn about the Halloween tradition and later started hosting children’s costume parades in front of the store around 1983. The event, which first involved about 100 participants, began attracting more and more people each year, eventually spreading from foreign customers to Japanese.
With Tokyo Disneyland introducing Halloween events in 1997, the day is now viewed nationwide as an opportunity to dress up and attend parties, the Kiddy Land Co. spokeswoman said.
The media, which showed footage of youngsters exchanging high-fives and having fun at Shibuya crossing during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, played a big role in the district becoming party central for Halloween, according to Hasebe.
The mayor, who was the first to hold a news conference to address the wild Halloween celebrations, called for a concerted effort to “get people to go home by the last train and keep the noise level down after midnight.”
Around 70,000 people visited the district on Halloween in 2015, with the numbers increasing every year since, according to the Shibuya Ward office. Last year, half the crowd wore costumes while the other half was there to mingle and enjoy themselves, the mayor said.
According to the office, about 7.8 tons of garbage was collected last year. That refuse included broken glass, bottles, cans and costume parts that were strewn about the streets. And the toilets in the area’s shopping district that were used to change into outfits ended up being covered in makeup, fake blood and other Halloween materials.
This year, the ward office is asking 17 retail stores around the scramble crossing to stop all bottled alcohol sales.
“I’m sure the celebration can be carried out in a good and moral spirit, so I want to avoid regulating things if possible,” the mayor said. “(Halloween) is beginning to take root in the culture of Shibuya. I want to foster it,” he added.
In the past, several people — just a tiny number considering the massive crowds — have been arrested on suspicion of stealing or groping women, according to police.
The Metropolitan Police Department has also taken measures in recent years to prevent accidents, such as deploying its so-called DJ police, officers who marshal the crowd with a spirit of goodwill, rather than issuing stern orders.
Just as Japanese soccer fans garnered a positive reputation for cleaning up stadiums during the World Cup in Russia, so too have many locals who volunteer to take part in cleaning up Shibuya streets before and after Halloween. Led by a committee, comprised of businesses and the Shibuya Ward office, volunteers for the past three years have been provided with pumpkin-shaped orange garbage bags, work gloves and tongs for the cleanup effort.
Aside from setting up temporary waste collection centers this year, the committee will also install boxes where people can discard their costumes and other unwanted items. Anything that is in good condition will be offered for sale online, with the proceeds going toward future cleanup efforts in Shibuya.
“I hope this new attempt will encourage people to be conscious of reusing, rather than throwing things away,” a member of the committee said.