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Commentary: Tokyo’s Shibuya wants to cancel Halloween. That's a mistake

TOKYO: Tokyo’s Shibuya was once the centre of raucous Halloween celebrations. But revellers are about as welcome this year as a box of healthy raisins in an elementary schooler’s trick-or-treat candy haul. 

For the past decade, Tokyo’s youth had flocked to the district’s streets to drink, party and gawk at costumed zombies, Marios and Pikachus. But Shibuya no longer wants any part of it: This year, it’s spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an information campaign aimed at dissuading people from coming at all.

“No events for Halloween on Shibuya streets,” proclaim posters plastered across the railway station; Mayor Ken Hasebe has taken to speaking to the foreign press to get his message across. 

It’s quite the contrast from years past. In 2019, those same posters read “Let’s make Halloween a part of Shibuya to be proud of,” encouraging good manners while having fun.

Lurking in the background, of course, is the specter of Itaewon, a similarly hip Seoul neighborhood where nearly 160 people were tragically killed in a crush during Halloween weekend in 2022. Tokyo has had its own brushes with Halloween disaster; two years ago, a man dressed as the Joker stabbed another on a train and attempted to kill others by starting a blaze. It’s a miracle no one died.  

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HOW HALLOWEEN TOOK OFF IN JAPAN

Halloween is a recent invention in this part of the world. When I first came to Japan more than 20 years ago, few had even heard of it; pumpkins were for eating, not for decorating. A parade at Tokyo Disneyland, started in 1997, is often credited with popularising the celebration, giving partiers a reason to dress up.

Around 2011, young people in costumes began to assemble in Shibuya in the hundreds, and then the thousands, as Halloween approached. While overseas it might be considered more of an event for kids, in Japan it became something for university students and other young people, who drank in the streets while stumbling from bar to bar.

Why it took off when it did is a matter of debate. Some cite the rise of Facebook and Twitter, which grew in popularity in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011 and the release of the movie The Social Network that same year. Others cite the Harajuku icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s song Fashion Monster, released in 2012, whose music video features a Halloween party.  

Regardless, Shibuya was at the centre. And initially, authorities were on board: For several years in the mid-2010s, the city blocked off the main thoroughfare of Dogenzaka on multiple nights, freeing up the city centre to cosplaying pedestrians.

As a long-term resident of the area, there was something quite heartwarming about watching the event grow organically. Tokyoites don’t tend to interact much with strangers compared with, say, locals in Osaka; to see the one night a year when a group of costumed Super Marios could encounter a completely unfamiliar group of Luigis – and instantly become friends – was faintly magical. 

But as the number of attendees peaked pre-pandemic, Shibuya began to lose patience. Bad press circulated when a small truck was overturned in 2018; the media highlighted reports of sexual harassment and other assaults, though serious incidents were limited. 

Hasebe, the mayor, says the quality of the event has declined, even as the number of people increased to some 40,000 in 2019, with fewer attendees dressing up in costume, and more coming to gawk at (or ogle) those who did. That year, in an attempt to limit rambunctiousness, the city began asking stores to stop selling alcohol; drinking in the streets is perfectly legal in Japan, though Shibuya has passed a rather powerless local ordinance that limits it around Halloween and New Year’s Eve. 

FEAR OF ANOTHER ITAEWON

Although COVID-19 kept the event low-key over the last few years, things have now changed – and foreign tourists are back, with some 25 per cent more in the capital than in 2019. Hasebe is worried that around 60,000 people could gather in the area this year. 

To some extent, one sympathises: It’s not like the local economy is being boosted much by the costumes and canned drinks, and any tax surplus is probably cancelled out by the cleanup on Nov 1. Local residents complain about the noise and inability to access nearby businesses. Certainly, no one wants to risk another Itaewon

But it’s hard to think this isn’t another heavy-handed decision more likely to backfire. Shibuya’s reputation is built on being a haven for the young people who transformed it into a worldwide music and fashion sanctuary. That reputation is why so many congregate there, Halloween or not. Its bars and restaurants are what make the area famous – the reason tourists flock to Shibuya rather than, say, a business district such as Shiodome.  

Hasebe says he wants to make Shibuya into a global icon like Paris or New York. Some would argue the area is already, in many ways, far ahead. But those cities didn’t make their names by turning people away: Hasebe should perhaps observe how New York handles events such as the Times Square ball drop on New Year’s Eve, when up to 1 million revellers attend. 

Young people will come anyway. It would be better for authorities to lean into the event, and in doing so, manage it. Itaewon ultimately occurred not because of Halloween itself but because of insufficient planning, policing and crowd control. Those are easier to do when you know when people will congregate. Next year, let’s give the capital’s young people a spooky season – without the uncompromising shocks. 

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