I remember as a child, decades ago, there was a huge scare related to Halloween in the United States. Shockingly, despite all the religious discussions floating around in the media then and now, it had nothing to do with people claiming that the pagan holiday would lead their children into the gaping maw of Satan. Rather, it focused on the prospect of children eating candy that had razor blades or drugs, like heroin, hidden inside. As a result, concerned parents everywhere insisted on inspecting their children’s candy to ensure safety. It even led some scholars, including University of Delaware sociologist Joel Best, to begin studying the phenomenon. Spoiler alert: there has never been a documented case in the United States of a child dying from eating tampered or poisoned Halloween candy.
At the same time that all of these parents, mine included, were panicking about the situation, parents in Japan were blissfully happy to let their children attend annual Halloween parties put on by the Yakuza. Depending on who is talking, the Yakuza are either community-oriented charitable organizations or organized crime syndicates. Internationally, the Yakuza are better known for their criminal enterprises, including extortion, smuggling, and racketeering. Members are identifiable by their missing fingers and large tattoos, which sometimes include the emblem pictured below.
Nevertheless, in Kobe, Japan, home of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest of the Yakuza organizations, beginning in the 1990s children were encourage to dress up and head to the group’s headquarters for Trick-or-Treating. Once there, these youths were encouraged to demand, some may say extort, Japanese candy from members of the mafia. According to locals, it was a well-attended event. It was all part of the charitable aspect of the organization, providing a safe space where parents and children could procure candies. Similar community events include an annual rice cake and alcohol distribution to residents at the start of the year, and handing out envelopes stuffed with cash to children every New Year. Few images of these events make their way into the media, but one reporter captured the distribution of candy at the 2014 Yakuza Trick-or-Treat party.
If all of this strikes you as strange, you’re not alone. For residents in Kobe, the concept of a family-friendly safe space is suddenly not at the fore. Earlier this year, the Yamaguchi-gumi had an internal feud and split into two factions. Because of the potential for violence between these two factions, the annual Halloween party was canceled, causing great disappointment for the city’s children. On the other hand, parents willing to speak to the media, off the record of course, expressed relief that their children would be out of harm’s way, and confidence that they could find safer avenues to give their kids a sugar high.