The Halloween Spirit

Judging from the explosion of dollar-store decorations and the confused responses from my students, everyone in Japan wants to Halloween, but no one quite… knows… how.

Pumpkins are involved, that’s for sure. And costumes–Japan is great at costumes, and they run with this element of the holiday. The costumes–in Tokyo, especially–are insane. But as for why America celebrates Halloween (and what exactly we do for it)… that’s mostly up to the imagination.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a string of Halloween lessons. There’s so much you can do in the classroom with this particular holiday, but the low level of my students and the caution of the teachers has led me to keep it pretty simple. (Although for one of my higher-level classes, I had the students write short ghost stories in groups, and it worked really well).

For the most part, though, we start out with a 7-minute slideshow of the basic history of Halloween (lots of pictures are involved to keep students’ interest), then we move on to vocabulary and team games, finishing off each class with candy prizes from my plastic Jack-O-Lantern bucket. The kids have a blast, especially when my co-teachers really get in the holiday spirit with props… for the past two weeks, I’ve been wearing capes and witch hats, declaring correct answers with a flourish of my dollar-store pitchfork, and it really livens up the classroom.

With my English clubs, though, (both the official one and the unofficial one) there is a chance to get a little more hands-on with the holiday.

And for Halloween, “hands-on” means carving pumpkins.


Of course, American pumpkins are difficult to find here in Japan (and usually, they are quite expensive when you do manage to find one) so we worked with what we had. Which, on Tuesday, consisted of various bell peppers and the decorative pumpkins that I didn’t know you could actually carve.

However, the teacher who monitors my unofficial English club at another school managed to find an unclaimed American pumpkin in the rural mountains of Gunma prefecture, and the students and I spent a good two hours carving their very first Halloween Jack-O-Lantern. We were all surprised to find a few squirming maggots inside, but they were quickly scooped away and my students learned a new English word.


We held a little design contest for the face, and in the end the styles were merged to create the beauty you see above. The teardrop was explained to me as being “punk.”

One of my favorite parts of that evening was seeing the joy on my students’ faces as they carved the face of the pumpkin by themselves… and later, seeing the pride as they showed their Jack-O-Lantern to all the teachers who were left in school at 6:00 p.m. (as it turns out, quite a few).

The history of Halloween might not be known here in Japan, but the spirit of the holiday and the fun that surrounds it–luckily, those both translate really well.


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