“So, do you like Halloween?”
“Cause I can eat lots of candy!”
“I have a general knowledge question. How old is Halloween?”
Thus went every conversation with my students last Friday in our Halloween themed class (also known as the thank-God-I-don’t-have-to-teach-grammar-today lesson). I think it nicely sums up the celebration of Halloween in this country – a relatively novel idea, an excuse to eat sweets and have fun, without any real idea why it exists or what it means.
It’s fair to say Halloween fever has infected Japan. There are pumpkins, decorations and spooky songs in every shop you walk into. My students have been talking about it for weeks. They know more Halloween-related vocabulary in English than possibly any other subject. Its mention guarantees sufficiently girly squealing and clapping – though maybe that’s due to the afore-mentioned grammar reprieve.
“Another general knowledge question: where did Halloween start?”
“America!”came the resounding answer.
And who could blame them for thinking it? It is the second most popular holiday in the United States, after Christmas, and a reported two billion dollars is said to be spent on its celebration in the U.S. every year. To my eye, admittedly fresh off the boat, the spread of Halloween to Japanese shores is another example of the creeping (or should that be creepy?) Americanisation here: Starbucks, baseball, a tendency towards American English, Osaka’s America-mura, and so on.
The actual answer that Halloween originated in Ireland earns my little fair island new respect in my students’ eyes. The Irish wall in my classroom has pictures of Colin Farrell, U2 and Riverdance – judge me not, I chose things that I thought they would recognize – how could I have excluded Halloween?!
I stay away from the in-depth history of the Pagan festival; my job description doesn’t take me that far. Halloween is early in its career here and the Japanese have no idea what the hell it’s all about. They’ve just cherry-picked the best parts and welcomed them with open arms. The gay pride parade here in Nagoya last weekend was one part drag queen to four parts people in fancy dress. The jury’s still out on whether the latter actually knew they weren’t taking part in a regular Halloween parade. Saturday night saw the streets full of costumes, which were appropriately video game, manga and anime influenced.
Really, it’s no wonder that Halloween is popular here. Dressing up, fantasy, scary films and all the spooky elements are right up the Japanese’s street. Trick or treating, despite being one of the many phrases that my students knew, doesn’t seem to be as popular as the fancy dress or sugar-bingeing elements. It’s probably only a matter of time.
So what does it matter that the history or tradition of Halloween has been glossed over in favour of just getting on with the scary costumes? This isn’t Christmas, when everyone complains that commercialization has taken over from the importance of family and friends. Halloween really is just an excuse to dress up and have fun. And no one is better at that than the Japanese.