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A GaijinPot Field Guide to the Halloween Costumes of Japan

A primer on the ghastly creatures you may encounter in the wild this Halloween season.

By 4 min read

Few countries have adopted the foreign festival of Halloween quite like the Japanese. Long forgotten are its Gaelic roots and instead, in Japan at least, the festival has become a celebration of the country’s アニメ (anime), コスプレ (cosplay) and 漫画まんが (manga) culture.

However, these uniquely Japanese celebrations can be quite confusing for a first-time visitor. After all, until you’ve been here for a while, it can be tough to know exactly what 衣装いしょう  (costume) or character the person you are talking to is dressed up to be. To help you get the most out of your October partying, here is a spotter’s guide to some of the more common ones.

Luckily, a lot of the costumes that you will encounter are Western horror staples that most people are likely familiar with — with English names, to boot! Expect to see plenty of ゾンビ (zombies), ヴァンパイア (vampires) and デビル (devils).

Everything is not as simple as it may seem on first glance, though. After all, Japan has a long history of interactions with traders from all over the world, so there are plenty of monsters that Westerners would recognize that have names English-speakers are likely unfamiliar with. A ミイラ (mummy) is likely taken from the Portugese word “mirra,” while 魔女まじょ (witches), 魔法使まほうつかい (magic users) and 骸骨がいこつ (skeletons) are also examples of non-English words.

One of the more interesting examples of this is the キョンシー (hopping vampire). Popularized by the schlock horror movie Mr. Vampire — or 霊幻道士 for any film buffs out there — this bizarre monster is a reanimated corpse wearing clothing from the ancient Qing dynasty (to show its Chinese origin). It moves around by hopping at its victim with its arms extended. Yes, hopping! That motion that bored school kids do on the playground is this creature’s preferred method of attack. When confronted this Halloween (and you will be), best to run away. Or at least walk briskly…

To accompany the ヴァンパイア, ミイラ and 骸骨 are an entire army’s worth of different ghosts and ghouls from horror movies. You may stand agape at 貞子さだこ (Sadako) from The Ring or tremble at 伽椰子かやこ (Kayako) from Ju-on, aka The Grudge. Despite the ease of making the costume (just brush all your long black hair forward for 貞子), speaking about them is another matter entirely as there are — somewhat confusingly — a large amount of words for these mystical Japanese spirits, ghosts and gods — from かみ to おけ to 幽霊ゆうれい .

Generally speaking, the 神 are venerated spirits that are typically found in temples and are rarely costumes as not many people have a clear idea what they look like (and are worried about upsetting grandma). Instead, whenever people talk about the types of spirits that they see on Halloween, the more common word is 幽霊. Both 貞子 and 伽椰子 would be examples of some scary 幽霊, for example.

… whenever people talk about the types of spirits that they see on Halloween, the more common word is ‘yuurei.’

On the other hand, お化け are formed from the word “化ける” which means to decompose, hide or conceal something. Therefore お化け is a broader word which includes things like shape shifting monsters as well as ghosts such as the faceless のっぺらぼう (a faceless creature that tries to pass for human, often found in legends) or even the heart-meltingly cute 化けねこ (goblin cat).

Not all monsters from classic Japanese lore are お化け. One of the most interesting of these is the おに. This is a kind of demon found in Japan often represented by its 金棒かなぼう (club), its loincloth, red skin and the horns poking out of its head.

Other creatures from Japan’s (and Super Mario’s) rich annals of folklore are the 河童かっぱ, a beaked, green water monster similar to a deranged turtle; the きつね, which is a kind of fox that uses its magical powers to torment unwitting humans; and the 天狗てんぐ, a long-nosed, bird-like monster.

Naturally, no Japanese コスプレ would be complete without hundreds of characters from Japanese アニメ. These include the obvious tropes drawn from Japanese legends such as 忍者にんじゃ (ninja), さむらい(samurai) and くノいち)   (a powerful female assassin similar to a ninja).

These are joined by classic fictional characters like 美少女びしょうじょ戦士せんしセーラームーン (Sailor Moon), characters from 進撃しんげき巨人きょじん (Attack on Titan), ドラゴンボール (Dragon Ball), the スタジオジブリ (Studio Ghibli) films and many, many others.

With this spotter’s guide, you should be able to recognize the major types of コスプレ — scary, funny and sexy alike. Have fun out in the field tracking down these beasties in the wild.

Of course, like any good コスプレ spotters, we are always interested in any rare or unusual species you may find. Let us know in the comments if you come across any — and have a Happy Halloween.

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