The whole world around, there is probably no event more important, and more common to every culture, than the wedding ceremony. The Japanese take this ceremony very seriously: The amount of money the Japanese spend on clothes, decorations, food and venue can match a year’s wages, and the attention to detail can be uniquely Japanese.
That said, marriage itself has changed much over the centuries in many cultures and countries, and Japan is certainly no different. While the Japanese are eager to honor their own culture, their fascination with other cultures’ traditions – especially those of the West – has transformed the Japanese wedding.
Both of the main forms of Japanese weddings – the traditional Shinto wedding and the “white wedding,” a version of Protestant Christian wedding traditions – are popular in Japan. Both are relatively recent innovations, but the “white wedding” appears to be winning the hearts of the Japanese: In recent years, an estimated 80 percent of Japanese weddings have been done in the “white wedding” style.
This blurring of cultural lines, or combining of different traditions, is common in Japan, and a common Japanese saying sums it up: “Born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist.”
Both Shinto and “white” weddings – the phrase originated in Victorian England – are relatively recent innovations, and both came into vogue after important public weddings: the first Shinto wedding was only held in 1900, when the Crown Prince Yoshihito (later, Emperor Taisho) took a bride, and the “white wedding” became popular with the 1981 worldwide television broadcast of the wedding of Great Britain’s Prince Charles and Lady Diana.
Whichever type of ceremony is chosen, the actual wedding is usually only held for a small group of family and close friends. This is particularly true of Shinto weddings, which are held in Shinto shrines, with an attending priest who purifies the couple and offers their union to the kami (gods) of the temple. Sake is drunk ceremonially, the bride and groom each taking three sips from each of three special cups, with their parents also partaking.
By contrast, “white” weddings are more often held in Western-style wedding halls and, to complete the illusion – the Japanese are masters of detail – are often presided over by an American or European male who may not be an ordained priest at all. This is, after all, not a Christian ceremony per se, but a more secular event in the Western style.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the two styles is in the clothing (and make up for the bride), which is elaborate and traditional in the Shinto style, and much simpler in the Western style. For Shinto weddings, the bride and groom are dressed in elegant traditional styles, the bride in white kimonos known as shiromuku, and the groom in a black kimono with kimono pants and jacket.
In addition to the kimono, the bride often wears some spectacular headdresses, tsuno-kakushi and wataboshi, that go back to the 14th century. She may also be made up in white make up, much like a geisha’s, to indicate her purity.
After the wedding ceremony itself, the bride and groom and their families move to a banquet hall, where they are celebrated by a much larger group with food and drinks, toasts and speeches. Guests generally pay a fee to join the festivities, and should also give goshuugi (“gift money,” as much as 30,000 yen, or $300) for the newlyweds. The giving of actual wedding gifts is not common, as money is easier for everyone, but there is one exception to this rule: the bride and groom are the ones who give small, elegant gifts, hikidemono, to their guests.
Dancing is one Western tradition that has not caught on at Japanese weddings, but at the conclusion of the main reception, younger guests are often offered the opportunity to go to a second reception at a bar or even a karaoke club, where they have more opportunities to have time away from their elders, and perhaps make a marriage match of their own.
Such moments are important in a country that is seeing a declining marriage rate, and, since the economic bubble burst, a rise in the age at marriage. The marriage rate has dropped precipitously in recent years, with the number of people over 50 who have never married having risen four-fold for men, from five to 20 percent, while the number of women who have never married has doubled, from five to 10 percent. The age at which women and men marry has risen to roughly 30 years old, and continued economic stagnation has meant that that age of marriage continues to rise.
Still, the amount of care and money that the Japanese put into weddings remains consistent, reflecting the culture’s ongoing emphasis on marriage as a social good. Shinto or “white” wedding, the style of marriage in Japan may change, but its importance to the Japanese does not.