National / Media | Japan Pulse

Halloween festivities in Tokyo appear to embrace a softer side

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Domestic news outlets and social media users love a good scare. Ever since a horde of rowdy Saitama-types turned Shibuya into something akin to “The Purge” last year, many Tokyoites have viewed this year’s Halloween festivities with trepidation.

Reports over the past few weeks in the runup to Oct. 31 took on a downright apocalyptic tone, with TV news programs screening segments on how local businesses were bracing themselves for the throng of visitors they expected in late October, with plenty of shots from last year’s Halloween havoc spliced in for good measure. This was probably expected from traditional media organizations, but online spaces were just as interested in the event. Even social media users — who have long been suspicious of domestic media establishment reports — expressed anger at the event, bemoaning the fact that their tax contributions would be used to police public behavior in Shibuya. The only individual or group reveling in Halloween’s impending arrival was whoever runs the Shibuya Meltdown account on Twitter.

Few things successfully manage to unite these corners of Japanese society, but the specter of carnage consuming one of Tokyo’s cleanest urban hubs did the trick. Social media users kept their eyes focused on Twitter feeds and YouTube streams the week before Oct. 31 in an attempt to get an idea of how bad it could get.

However, the Chicken Littles of social media faced one very notable problem — everything seemed uneventful, even on the night of Halloween itself. A large number of people visited Shibuya during the weekend before Halloween, although numerous outlets reported that turnout actually fell this year compared to 2018 (the actual night of Halloween, though, appeared packed as ever, with police making nine arrests). The internet, however, continued to focus on hijinks rather than crowds. A few viral clips emerged, including at least one scuffle, one creep and one pack of loud bikers. Social media users certainly weren’t slow to air their views on such scenes, but last year’s main takeaway was footage of a small truck being overturned — which is virtually end of days stuff.

Over the past year, Halloween in Japan has become synonymous with Shibuya, specifically the negative side of the festivities. As the celebration unfolded in 2019, however, it became clear that domestic social media users and online outlets from abroad were less interested in misbehavior. Instead, they sought out the benign and charming.

The big winner of the celebration this year was “Plain Halloween,” an annual event finding dozens of people showing off costumes that were based on a simple idea. The event tends to gain attention every year, but it seemed particularly buzzed-about this October, possibly because of how it offered some humor for a celebration that has become tagged with negativity in recent years. It trended on Twitter and inspired galleries celebrating the best entries, highlighted by a man who swapped faces with the illustration on a takeaway cup from Starbucks.

Foreign media outlets also latched onto Plain Halloween in a way they hadn’t before. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the influence of “calm Japan,” a phenomenon propelling domestic cultural symbols such as “Terrace House” and Marie Kondo into global popularity. Japan-centric sites such as Spoon & Tamago and RocketNews24 referenced it, but so did content churner 9Gag, with users translating as many costumes as they could.

Whatever the source of origin, Halloween 2019 offered netizens a chance to redefine what the annual tradition could mean in Japan. Celebrating costumes looked to have become common online, made easier by the country’s overall love of cosplay, whether that be by muscular dudes dressed up as “Sailor Moon” characters or people in the games industry just applying some makeup. Fan art set around spooky themes proliferated, some of it more risque than the rest.

Perhaps the best way to see this more wholesome approach to Halloween was to pay a little more attention to Shibuya. The entertainment district was still rowdy, of course, but besides the heavy police presence and a ban on alcohol, a lot of the viral stories included greater social context. Besides the usual rush of posts about volunteers offering to clean up the mess, one of the bigger stories in recent weeks has been a group of people organizing a flash mob protesting China.

Other stories were just plain boring. The Burger King near Shibuya crossing riffed on the anticipated dangers of Halloween — fooling some goofballs in the process — before revealing that it was actually “ghost-themed” and full of zombie customers from Oct. 23 to 31. Coupled with a shoe named after the celebration, branded creations got just as much attention as anyone misbehaving.

After 2018, there was no way that this year’s Halloween festivities in Shibuya would approach the same woe-is-us hype expected by traditional media ahead of the event. The significant development this year, though, is that the simpler charms of the holiday finally appear to have outshone the hedonism previously witnessed on the streets. After spending the 2010s going through something of a difficult patch, Halloween in Japan appears to have calmed down a bit.

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