Japan’s “Mundane Halloween” Party and the Glorious Aesthetics of the Everyday

A boring woman sitting at a desk with pencils in a cup.
My mundane Halloween costume next year. Peter Dazeley/The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus

In 2014, Japanese website Daily Portal Z began holding a “jimi Halloween”—“mundane Halloween”—celebration. According to the blog Spoon & Tamago, those who started “mundane Halloween” “kind of wanted to participate in the festivities of Halloween, but were too embarrassed to go all out in witch or zombie costumes.” Instead, they wear wry, understated “costumes” like “lady who tried too many makeup testers” and “guy who is too shy to yell ‘bingo,’ ” and attend an event that, to this card-carrying Halloween wet blanket, looks completely wonderful. Witness “guy who spotted a cockroach right before going to bed and grabbed whatever he could find”:

The internet, to judge by the appearance of aggregated “mundane Halloween” posts on sites like Kotaku, BoingBoing, and Kottke, as well as a viral Twitter thread by reporter Melissa Martin, agrees that this is funny. But is this stuff delightful because it’s “relatable”? Because it’s specific? Because it’s subtly ironic, like normcore? Is this just good old Seinfeld-esque “recognition humor”? I propose it’s something more. I wonder if “woman who showed up at a BBQ with no intention of helping out” agrees:

Philosophers interested in the “aesthetics of the everyday” argue that the way we think about aesthetics is too focused on heightened ideas of beauty. In fact, they point out, repetitive tasks like chores, unremarkable objects like trash cans and diapers, and common interactions between family members and neighbors can all be considered to possess “aesthetics.” This is aesthetics in the broader sense: anything that has to do with our reactions to, and judgments of, the information that comes in through our senses. “Everyday aesthetics seeks to liberate aesthetic inquiry from an almost exclusive focus on beauty (and to a certain extent sublimity),” Yuriko Saito, a philosopher who has published several books on the topic, writes in a 2015 summary of the field for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here are some aesthetic qualities that these philosophers might study along with beauty: “Pretty, cute, messy, gaudy, tasteful, dirty, lively, monotonous.”

Saito points out that although the idea of studying everyday aesthetic experience has only recently reemerged after a century of inattention in Western philosophy, some cultural traditions, including those from Japan and China, have long believed that “aesthetic practices permeate people’s daily life.” Is “mundane Halloween,” which calls for people to wear costumes celebrating these everyday feelings and experiences, a particularly Japanese reaction to the standard Western costume, which evokes the flashier sensations of lust, fear, and amusement? I have no idea! But it’s fun to imagine it might be! Perhaps this “person who only intended to buy lotion” has some thoughts:

One set of questions within the field of everyday aesthetics has to do with the “negative aesthetic” of some quotidian experiences—the way you feel when you encounter a “stain, wrinkle, peeling paint, fishy smell, mess and clutter” (Saito writes). The many examples of “mundane Halloween” costumes that feature stains and rubbish show how powerful these “negative aesthetics” can be. Philosophers argue that negative aesthetics are uniquely “activist” among all aesthetic reactions—they make you want to fix the problem—and my desperate need to help “guy whose pen is leaking” or “girl who forgot to take out the trash” change their clothes proves it.

Is it possible, some philosophers of everyday aesthetics wonder, to consider some of the most boring and trying parts of life as having any aesthetics at all? Yes, others believe; just because life can be annoying, repetitive, and exhausting doesn’t mean that we experience it as aesthetically barren. Say what you will about “couple that just got into a fight at Disneyland and now have a tense atmosphere between them,” but you can’t argue there’s nothing to look at there.

Philosophers, Saito writes, wonder whether it’s possible that the sensory experiences of everyday life—“scratching an itch, receiving a massage, drinking tea, or smelling fishy odor”—can ever be truly shared between people. So many other factors affect the way a sensory experience unfolds: the circumstances of your life, the kind of body and brain you have, the reasons why the itch surfaced in the first place. These costumes make a great argument that, in fact, yes! Some bodily responses to the world’s provocations are universal! Or, at least, universal enough to make “guy who washed his hands and wiped them on his clothes” go viral.

The mundane activities of life, philosophers of everyday aesthetics argue, have an aesthetic texture all their own. Domestic chores like hanging laundry or cooking provide all kinds of negative and positive sensory experiences. The fog on someone who’s drinking something hot’s glasses; the tray clutched in the lady who can’t find a place to sit at the food court’s hot hands; it’s all art.