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Weddings and Marriage in Japan - May 2007 Newsletter


May has arrived once again. In Japan, this also means wedding season has begun. Spring and autumn are the most common times of year for Japanese marriages, largely due to the weather; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold. 

The traditional Japanese wedding is a small Shintō ceremony, called a sansankudô, where only the couple’s immediate families, the priest, and, in the case of an arranged marriage, the go-between (nakado), are in attendance. The bride wears a silk kimono, often passed down through generations, as well as elaborate hair ornaments. Her hair is covered at the start of the ceremony, symbolizing the obedience of the woman to her husband to be. This head covering is called a tsuno kakushi (concealer of horns). During the ceremony, the sharing of sake symbolizes the joining of the two families. First the bride and groom drink, then each shares a cup with the other’s parents, and, finally, the two families drink together. Special wooden sake cups are used in the ritual. The cups, decorated in red and gold, are shaped so that they become paper thin near the rim. The ceremony also involves a vow by the groom and offerings to the kami (the Shintō objects of worship). A dowry is exchanged, containing certain food items that have come to take on a symbolic meaning. This includes the phallic shaped katsuobushi, meaning “victorious warrior,” packs of kelp called konbu, from yorokobu, the word for joy, and herring (kazunoko), a wish for many children.

After the main ceremony, a reception is held, where extended families and friends can join in the celebration. As in Western weddings, the reception is a time for speeches, toasts, and sitting down together to enjoy a lavish meal. Guests bring money, presented in red and gold envelopes with a picture of dried abalone on the cover, as a gift to the bride and groom and to help cover the extensive wedding costs. Red and gold are the traditional colors of joyous celebrations like weddings and New Years, and dried abalone, a symbol of romance and an easily storable food item, was once a common wedding gift.

In the past, the majority of Japanese marriages were arranged, a practice that is called Omiai. However, this was not always the case. Before the Meiji period, groups of young people would organize activities to get to know their peers, and were given the freedom to choose their own spouse based on shared romantic interest. The system of Omiai came about with the aristocracy and samurai, who began to view marriage as a mean’s of gaining socioeconomic status or political power. Marriages were thought of as strategic maneuvers to better position your family in society. The idea of marriage for love was almost an oxymoron. It was the duty of the young respect and obey their elders. Community was valued over individual choice. Because the basis of marriage was not a romantic relationship, men often had affairs outside the home, a practice that was accepted and condoned by Japanese society.

Omiai is operated using a go-between, called a nakado, who negotiates the marriage between the two families. A go-between is often someone who knows both families well, such as a neighbor or a work colleague. Their role is to be a liaison, and they may carry information between the families or arrange a formal meeting. It is also the job of the go-between to coordinate wedding details in the case of a match, or deliver the bad news if the arrangement falls through.

Arranged marriages remained the norm up into the 1960’s. During this era, the custom remained strong in rural areas, but began to fade in more urban environments. By the 1990’s, less than 20% of marriages were identified as arranged. However, even today many romantic relationships begin only after a suggestion or setup by a boss, older friend, or family member. When it is time to become engaged, a go-between is often used to formalize the arrangement with the couple’s parents. The family is still a consideration in any union. Parents may take it upon themselves to look into background of a potential daughter or son-in-law. Some may go so far as to hire a detective to do a thorough search of their history.

Another consideration is whether the couple is compatible from a spiritual standpoint. Religious specialists are sometimes hired to compare the birth signs and names of a potential couple to see whether the match is a good one. If they are not found to be in harmony, the couple will be advised not to marry. However, sometimes foreseen conflict can be avoided if one party agrees to change their name. Specialists are also consulted on the wedding date itself so couples can avoid starting out with bad luck.

While the old ways still persist, things are changing in Japan and modern weddings often borrow from Western thought and traditions. This includes both aesthetic choices, like including a white dress, to political decisions, such as marrying for love, and marrying at a later age. The average age for a Japanese bride is now 27.5. In the 1980’s, so many young women were choosing to wait for marriage that fear began to rise over yome busoku (shortage of wives). This fear was strongest in farming communities, where a family provides the labor that is essential to the functioning of the farm. Other Western traditions that have been adopted include the exchange of rings and the honeymoon.

Modern Japanese marriages have come to place more emphasis on the commercial aspect of the event. Most receptions are held in hotels, and many are set up specifically for weddings, with specialists on hand to handle food, flowers, and even kimono rentals. Some hotels have separate Shintō sanctuaries so that the entire wedding can take place on facility property. This increased focus on the wedding celebration has made marriage a heavy financial investment. The money offered by guests usually only covers half of what is expended on the wedding, honeymoon, and complimentary gifts given to those who attend. The price of weddings has become such a problem that alternatives such as home or budget weddings are increasingly being looked to.

To celebrate marriage season, Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen has a variety of marriage themed dolls. These detailed pieces are the perfect gift for a recently engaged friend, so she can always remember this moment, or for a young girl, so she can dream of the future. Whether or not you’re getting married, these figures make gorgeous display pieces. When set up in our Glass Display Case, they will stay in good condition for years to come. We also carry beautiful albums, perfect for housing precious wedding memories.



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