TOKYO (Reuters) - A handful of giggling Japanese women wearing devil’s horns and cat costumes gather under a giant neon-orange pumpkin outside a Tokyo shopping mall.
A Halloween street party?
“Ah, no, this is cosplay,” says 20-year-old Saori, referring to costume role-play, or the Japanese past-time of dressing up as their favorite animation movie character.
“Halloween is different,” Saori says, giggling as she tugs at her hooded cape with cat ears.
The cult around fancy dress, and Japan’s love of quirky festivals and eccentric trends in general, may go towards explaining why Halloween has turned from an obscure foreign celebration into a popular cultural event here.
“Japanese wear suits every day, so at the weekend they like to be different,” says Saori’s friend Akiko.
The two point the way to the real Halloween party, which is taking place a few streets away. Amid inflatable ghosts and pumpkins in all shapes and sizes, hundreds of spectators crowd around a singer wearing a pumpkin-shaped hat.
In fact, the street party in Kawasaki, on the outskirts of Tokyo, is just a warm-up to Halloween on October 31.
The big bash happens on the Sunday before Halloween, when thousands of Japanese witches, vampires, devils and ghouls fill the streets of Kawasaki in a giant street parade.
Similar extravaganzas are erupting all over town. Tokyo Disneyland has been throwing Halloween fetes since mid-September -- starting even earlier than theme parks in the United States.
“PLAY! PARTY!! CUTE TRICK!”
Unlike in the United States, most Halloween activities in Japan appear to target adults rather than children.
Mainstream clubs advertise “Fetish Halloween” and “Erotica Halloween” parties. Fashion retailers decorate their windows with slogans such as “Play! Party!! With cute trick!”.
Japan’s passion for Halloween extends a long tradition of festivals that liberate ordinary Japanese from the extreme control they face in everyday life, according to Patrick William Galbraith, a researcher at Sophia University’s Japanese Studies faculty.
“The matsuri, or festival, might be seen as a communal experience that allows behaviors outside rigid behaviors and etiquette, one reason this social pressure release valve has been so crucial in Japan historically,” he told Reuters by email.
Galbraith sees costume role-play as characters from manga comic books and “anime” films as a similar escapist fantasy.
In addition, Halloween and cosplay encourage another popular Japanese pastime: enthusiastic consumption.
Shopping malls in other Asian countries, too, have picked up on this aspect of Halloween. Around this time of the year, cobwebs and jack-o-lanterns adorn shops and bars in Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore and Seoul, tapping into a deeper Asian interest in the otherworld that shows through in local festivals for the dead.
Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, has its roots in Celtic tradition and marks the night before All Saints Day.
Japan also has a celebration for the dead, known as Obon, but many Japanese don’t seem to realize that Halloween has a similar meaning. They prefer to focus on the party.
“Japanese people like festivals very much, you see. We even celebrate Christmas, but we don’t celebrate Christ, we just enjoy,” says Yoshiaki Ei, an affable entrepreneur wearing jeans and a blue long-sleeve T-shirt.
Ei, a father of two, has organized trick-and-treat evenings for children in his Tokyo neighborhood for the past four years together with other Japanese, American and European families.
“I think that’s why Halloween is popular: it has nothing to do with Christ or the church, like other events in Western countries. It’s very easy to have fun,” he told Reuters.
Last year, Ei dressed up as a huge traffic cone to watch over little princesses and Spider-men trick-or-treating in his street. Some twenty-odd families in his neighborhood agreed to open their houses that year, and were swamped by more than 500 children. “I hope it doesn’t grow more,” he said.
As the underground train rolls back into town after the early Halloween party in Kawasaki, two teenagers dressed as what can best be described as gothic nurses check their mobile phones and giggle.
They are wearing white nurse’s caps embellished with red crosses and bits of black lace; red-and-black stockings; skull earrings and skirts stitched together from red, white and black rags.
This being Japan, they could be on their way to another Halloween bash, a cosplay event -- or simply a normal party.
Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins and Manny Mogato in Manila, James Pomfret in Hong Kong, Neil Chatterjee in Singapore and on Jon Herskovitz in Seoul