Rooted in tradition and deep symbolism, Japanese weddings are elaborate, formal affairs. It is as though each ritual and every custom has been put there after a lot of thought and to fit in the entire whole. And though the number of details in a Japanese wedding can be staggering – like the overall wedding cost the newlyweds or their families may have to bear – the outcome is beautiful and meaningful without comparison.
Matchmaking and engagement
Traditionally Japanese culture has had a system of arranged marriages where parents of young people choose the marital partners for their children. Thus one of the most important persons in arranging the wedding would be the matchmaker who would introduce the two families to each other for a prospective marriage. Once both families agreed upon the match, they would meet at a formal dinner on an auspicious day according to the Japanese almanac. After the dinner,"Yui-no" or engagement gifts, meant to symbolize happiness and fortune, would be exchanged between the two families. An important aspect of the engagement gifts would be the "Mokuroku" or the list of gifts which included customary presents like a "hakama" or a skirt for the groom-to-be thought to represent fidelity, "Shiraga" or hemp believed to symbolize strong family ties, “Yanagi-daru” or a wine cask, "Yui-no" sake casks meant to symbolize a pledge for obedience and gentleness in marriage and most importantly, an "obi," or a traditional kimono sash for the bride-to-be to represent female virtue.
The most popular time of year for Japanese weddings is spring, with June being the first choice. This is not really difficult to understand since most parts of Japan experience harsh, snow-bound winters. Couples try to select a tomobiki day for their wedding; Tomobiki, which means drawing friends, is considered the most auspicious day for the purpose according to the Japanese almanac.
Both the bride and the groom wear the traditional kimono for the ceremony though couples today may change into Western wear at the reception. Indeed the Japanese bride and groom may undergo as many as three - or even more - outfit changes through the entire wedding ceremony. The custom dates from the 14th century and is called "oironaoshi”. Traditionally, Japanese brides don the shiromuku or a white silk "undergarment" that meaning literally "white pure," for the earlier part of the wedding ceremony. This a formal gown passed down over the ages and still used today as traditional bridal dresses. In Japan, white symbolizes purity, elegance and "new beginning". Only very traditional Japanese brides don white face makeup, painted red lips and a detailed headpiece with expensive combs and decorative ornaments. Originally a Japanese bride would be painted white from head to toe as a way of declaring her maiden status to the gods. Another interesting aspect of the elaborate bridal dress would be a white hood is attached to the kimono, which the bride wears like a veil to hide her 'horns of jealousy' from the groom's mother, who will now become the head of the family. Japanese grooms wear black kimonos known as haoiri-hakama for the traditional wedding ceremony or a tuxedo to perhaps for the reception.
After the wedding ceremony, the bride usually changes into a red, exquisitely embroidered silk kimono while for the later stage of the wedding reception she may put on a western white gown.
The Wedding ceremony
The majority of Japanese weddings take place at a Shinto shrine even though a minority follow Buddhist ceremonies. A Shinto Japanese wedding may also take place at home in a temporary sanctuary on the "Tokonoma" (alcove) of the family. Some contemporary couples propelled by practical concerns may even set up a shrine inside the hotel where the reception will be held.
The importance of the binding of two families in a Japanese marriage is evident from the wedding ceremony during which both families face each other as the bride and groom exchange marriage vows. However the most important part of a traditional Japanese wedding is the ‘Sake ceremony’ or the "sansankudo," which means three sets of three sips equals nine. This ceremony involves the sharing of sake or traditional Japanese rice wine first by the groom and bride and then by family members. The ceremony dates back to the 8th century and is one of Japan’s oldest traditions. Using the smallest of the cups, the groom takes three sips. Then the bride does likewise. They do the same with the medium and large cups. At the end of the sake ceremony, both families drink a cup of sake, which represents the union of the bride and groom and merging of the two families. Drinking the wine is a sign that the marriage vows are sealed. However modern couples may wish to exchange wedding rings too as part of their wedding ceremony. At the close of the ceremony, symbolic offerings are given to the kami or the ‘Gods’, consisting of three small twigs of Sakaki, a sacred tree.
The wedding reception
In Japan, the Kekkon Hiroen or wedding reception is a formal affair even though the style and scale of wedding receptions vary depending on the regions in Japan. At a Japanese wedding reception, guests are seated according to their relationship with the couple. The names of guests and their table assignments are on a reception table at which guests are asked to sign the guest book. Traditional Japanese bride and grooms partake in a ritual that consists of lighting a candle at every table to symbolically share their warmth and light with the guests. The music at the reception can vary but traditional stringed instruments called Samisen and Japanese drums are a particular favorite. Traditionally the bridal couple receives two gifts from each guest. Friends and relatives send a wedding gift to the couple before or after, but never on, the wedding day since it is considered their personal gift to the new couple. Guests attending a traditional wedding reception on the other hand are expected to bring oshagi or a cash gift for the newlywed couple. The amount depends on their degree of closeness to the couple and the family. In traditional Japanese invitations, that relationship will be indicated on the invitation card and even the amount is specified on the invitation. The cash is presented in a decorative envelope called Shugi-bukuro. Since wedding guests are highly respected in Japan, it is not uncommon for the bride and groom to spend money on hikidemono or parting gifts for the guests which could range from the traditional dried bonito or beautifully wrapped traditional Japanese candies, to more expensive items like silverware, a clock, sake and modern novelty items. Less pricey are the kohaku manjyu, round steamed buns with bean paste filling, which are often presented in pairs to guests, one red bun and one white bun. At the very end of the party, the newlyweds are expected to give a speech, thanking all the guests for their gifts and good wishes.