Japanese Wedding Rituals Are A Little Bit Different...

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Love is universal, but every culture has its own unique wedding traditions. When a bride and groom say “I do” in Japanese, foreigners probably won’t understand the words — but chances are, much of the ceremony will look familiar. Although, that’s not to say that the country doesn’t have its own rich heritage with a gorgeous marriage ceremony that would wow any wedding guest. However, the manner in which the Japanese have adapted and incorporated Western wedding traditions, while retaining a distinctly made-in-Japan flair, gives new meaning to the phrase "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The Ceremony
Something Old: When Americans were singing “Going to the Chapel” in the 1960s, Japanese brides would’ve sung “Going to the Shrine.” That’s because until recently, Japanese wedding ceremonies almost always took place at Shinto shrines. These atmospheric wooden structures, usually quite old and tucked into a wooded area, each house a god of the indigenous Japanese religion. In the understated and reverential marriage ritual, the priest chants prayers asking for the couples’ marriage to be blessed by the 8 million gods in the Shinto Pantheon, but especially Izanami and Izanagi, a pair associated with matrimonial happiness. The shrine maiden, or miku, may perform a sacred dance, and the newlyweds offer a branch of the holy sakaki tree to the altar.
Something New: Since Princess Diana and Prince Charles tied the knot on TV in 1981, Japan’s love affair with Western-style nuptials has taken off like the urgency of a shotgun wedding — so much so that today less than 20% of Japanese couples get married the Shinto way. Instead, the majority opt for a Christian-style white wedding in an imitation chapel, even though only 1% of the Japanese population are Christian.

The ceremony follows typical Protestant customs, with the bride walking down the aisle (or as it’s known in Japan, the “virgin road”), and an officiant leading the audience in Christian hymns and prayers (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese). For authenticity’s sake, foreign “priests” are in high demand. It’s fairly common for local white guys living in Japan to perform weddings on the side, and while some are actually ordained ministers, foreignness is the essential qualification because the religious aspect of the ceremony is irrelevant in secular Japan.

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

The Dress
Something Old: The traditional costume for Japanese brides might sound familiar: all white everything, plus specialized headgear. But replace your mental image of a puffy dress with a white kimono with floor-skimming sleeves — the last time the bride-to-be will wear long sleeves, since they are reserved for single ladies. An old-fashioned bride would style her hair in a special wedding-only topknot, but since that requires long, black hair and can take hours to create, heavy wigs have become a popular option. On top of that, in place of a veil goes one of two types of oversized white hoods: the wataboshi and the Tsunokakushi, which symbolically covers the wife-to-be’s “horns of jealousy” on her big day.

Something New: Though many Japanese brides still get dolled up in formal kimono for wedding photos (with the groom in a black kimono jacket and a pair of samurai-style pleated pants called hakama), these days it’s more common for brides to say yes to the dress. And yes, and yes again — because, as foreign guests at Japanese weddings will be surprised to see, it’s standard for the couple to disappear for multiple costume changes throughout the event. Besides the Western-style white wedding dress and tux, the line-up will usually include one or two (or more) princess gowns in a bright color (bringing in the “something blue”), plus a variety of snazzy suits for the groom.

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.

Something Old: You won’t find a Japanese bride-to-be browsing flatware at a department store for her registry, because Japanese couples are usually given cash rather than gifts. And compared to the typical American newlyweds, they can clean up: we’re talking $200 to $1000 from each guest, depending on how close they are to the family, which adds up to an average of about $18,000.

There are tons of superstitions surrounding the gift, which is placed in a special envelope, just for wedding money: The cash must be freshly minted notes, never in an even amount (because that symbolizes the couple splitting up), nor in multiples of four (because the Japanese word for four sounds like the Japanese word for death). Traditionally, this money has contributed to the expense of the big day, which, according to one survey, costs an average of $31,000. It also goes toward the yuinou, a kind of reverse dowry given from the groom’s family to the bride’s, though this practice is becoming less common.

Something New: When you get a gift in Japan, it’s normal to give something small in return. These okaeshi, return gifts, have always been a part of Japanese culture, but the recent trend for over-the-top wedding favors has taken the concept to a new level. Often, guests will pocket one gift when they sign the guestbook, and then receive more swag a few weeks later as a way for the couple’s families to say “Arigatou” for coming. Some newlyweds even send guests home with a catalog of posh return gifts to choose from, ranging from fruit baskets to horseback riding excursions.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
Something Old: Getting sloshed is a hallmark of weddings the world around, and Japanese nuptials are no exception. In fact, alcohol is an integral part of the traditional wedding ceremony, which is sealed with a sacred exchange of sake. In this ritual called the san-san-kudo, the bride and groom and each of their families take three symbolic sips of sake from three different cups. Interpretations of the practice vary, but some say that the number three represents the three couples (the newlyweds and their parents), while others believe it stands for heaven, earth, and mankind, or even the three human flaws: passion, hatred and ignorance.

Something New: Whatever the meaning of the san-san-kudo, it’s just the start of a long series of toasts, which last the duration of modern Japanese wedding festivities. It is also customary to pour someone else’s drink for them, and each guest will approach the sweetheart table to toast the bride and groom with a bottle of beer or sake in hand. Often, a bucket is kept under the table so that the newlyweds can discretely empty their glasses and still be able to stand up at the end of the reception. This is especially important considering the couple will usually attend at least two formal after-parties (one for friends and one for family)—which means a whole lot of kanpai-ing.

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
The Reception
Something Old: Look closely at the seating chart of a Japanese wedding reception, and you’ll notice that the parents of the bride and groom get stuck with the worst seats in the back of the wedding hall. That’s because the families are the hosts, whereas everyone else is an honored guest and treated as such. In fact, the VIPs are usually the couple’s at-work superiors. It’s probably hard for a lot American couples to imagine opening their reception with a speech by their boss (let alone even inviting their boss), but that’s the norm in Japanese nuptials. This comes from the tradition of the osumitsuki, an official stamp of approval from a person of authority that used to be required for all Japanese marriages, much like role of the witness in the West.

In the modern adaptation, the bride and groom’s bosses kick things off with a laudatory speech which talks about how much the fiancée has contributed to their company, apologizing to their intended for the future of long working hours which will surely take them away from marital bliss, and giving their support for the union.
Something New: If that sounds a bit dry, the rest of the wedding guests ensure that everyone has a good time by providing entertainment at the reception with surprise musical performances, videos, games, and more speeches. One thing foreigners might expect at a wedding that they won’t find in Japan is a crowd of relatives cutting a rug on the dance floor; there’s rarely dancing at a Japanese wedding. At the climax of the reception, it’s become popular for brides to read a letter thanking her parents for raising her—guaranteeing all the tears we’ve come to count on at weddings, no matter the culture.

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