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Visible Minorities: The Xeno-Scapegoating of Japanese Halloween

SNA (Tokyo) — “Madness.” “Mayhem.” “Chaos unfolded.” “Anarchic behavior.” “Police try to subdue massive crowds running amok.”

That was how one single article in the Japan Times depicted the big party at Shibuya Crossing last Halloween Night. Other media echoed similarly riotous language, noting the heavy police presence and suspended alcohol sales. Sheer anarchy!

Reading all that, you could be forgiven for thinking Shibuya was set aflame and Hachiko knocked off his plinth. But drop by sometime; everything is still there just fine.

Why the alarmist attitude towards Halloween? We don’t see it for the revelry at, say, Japanese sporting events, where Hanshin Tigers fans take over Shinkansens and leap into Osaka rivers; or for annual Seijinshiki Coming of Age Days, where binge drinking and youthful hijinks disrupt boring official ceremonies; or any time of the year in entertainment districts nationwide, with public urination, people passed out on sidewalks or subways, and drunk chinpira picking fights.

Why not? Because those things are normalized. After all, it’s often hard for adults in Japan to have fun without alcohol, and excesses are tolerated as anzen-ben, a “safety valve” for letting off steam given the stresses of life.

Why isn’t Halloween treated the same? Some might say that the difference is crowd size and mob rule. After all, last year the Shibuya Halloween crowd overturned a light truck, and a handful of people, all Japanese, were arrested for disorderly conduct this year.

But this column argues the real reason for all the police and media-manufactured alarmism is a matter of xeno-convenience: Halloween is seen as something foreign.

Even though Halloween isn’t celebrated in all other societies, officials frame it like it’s a foreigner magnet. A Shibuya representative reportedly claimed that foreign tourists travel to Japan especially for Shibuya Halloween, pointing out that “the people who gather are mostly from outside the ward” (as are, ahem, most people who venture to Shibuya Crossing every day). Yet most people who came to party at Shibuya Crossing were Japanese.

Halloween as an adult event in Japan is relatively new. During the 1990s, after a group of American revelers made an annual tradition of partying on the Yamanote Line, the tipping point came when Tokyo Disneyland held its first successful Halloween event in 2000. It’s since grown to the point where even Japan Rail advertises (in English) BYOB Halloween street events in Roppongi Hills and Shibuya, and organized train parties you can sign up for.

Regardless, wherever foreigners go, Japan’s xenophobes follow, and they have decried Halloween as a corrupting influence for at least a decade. In 2009, the Yamanote foreign drinkfest got taken up by 2chan online trolls, who came out in force at train stations to shout abuse at anyone in costume. They, and flag-waving ultrarightists flanked by multitudes of cops deployed to keep order, wound up disrupting things far more than any foreign partiers.

Indicatively, the xenophobes bore signs like “Motherf*ck-foreigners” to “Go to Hell!” because “This is not a white country!” and “We Japanese don’t need Halloween.”

Au contraire, I say. If anything, Halloween has been culturally appropriated by Japan. Like a meal being an excuse for Italy to make pasta or for South Korea to eat garlic, Halloween is an excuse for Japanese to indulge their fantasies and dress up in costume. Japan gave the world the word “cosplay,” remember.

The Japanese police and media portraying Halloween as an opportunity for foreigners to swarm and disturb the wa isn’t supported sociologically or statistically.

What’s in fact going on is simple: Japan’s control-freak authorities don’t trust a crowd. To them, there’s a feeling of unpredictability and a frisson of revolt. However, you can’t easily stop Japanese having their anzen-ben, even in large numbers, and even if they decide to dress up and drink on the street or train. However, Halloween means you can: Just blame the event on foreigners and, hey, presto! alcohol bans passed and police budgets justified. In the end, it’s merely a convenient ruse to spoil everyone’s fun.

Advice for next year: Sure, control the crowds, litter, and disruption. Keep the peace. But don’t bring foreigners into it. Don’t mask Japan’s primal urges with foreign scapegoats.

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