Getting married is one of the most significant milestones in a person’s life, and should ideally be a day that you’ll never forget (for the right reasons). Unfortunately, international marriage can come with a lot of legal red tape – but don’t let something as boring as bureaucracy gets in the way of your happily ever after.
Perhaps you’re a Western couple with a deep love for Japan who can’t imagine tying the knot anywhere else. Perhaps you’re marrying your Japanese partner in Japan, or opting for a Japanese ceremony in your home country. Maybe you have concerns about what your legal rights to residency will be after marrying a Japanese citizen.
Whatever your concern, we’ve got you – here is our comprehensive guide to all things wedding in Japan.
Japanese Wedding Ceremonies
Traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies honor Shinto traditions. They involve getting married at a shrine by a Shinto priest. These ceremonies tend to be intimate – hosting just the couple and their closest friends and family. In modern times, more and more Japanese couples are choosing contemporary settings for their ceremonies (such as hotels) and inviting larger numbers of guests.
The bride generally wears a white kimono (known as a shiro-muku), but might change into the traditional uchikake (robe embroidered with cranes and flowers) for the reception. Traditional ceremonies will incorporate a sake drinking ritual – where the couple and their parents will share sake from symbolic cups to signify the joining of the two families.
Symbolic food and decorations are used throughout the reception to wish good luck and prosperity to the union. Many rituals in a Japanese reception are similar to that of a Western reception – for example, speeches and cake cutting.
Getting Married in Japan as a Foreigner
Perhaps you and your partner don’t have a genetic link to Japan, but consider it a special place where you would like to start the next chapter of your union. Happily, two foreigners can conduct a legal marriage ceremony in Japan – once they are legally free to get married in their country of origin. Unfortunately, this is only the case for heterosexual partnerships – same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Japan. Many places do offer same-sex commitment ceremonies, but these will not hold water legally in your home country.
For heterosexual couples, the process of organizing a legal union in Japan is surprisingly straightforward. Both parties must be of legal age (over 20, or between the ages of 16-20 with signed parental permission). You will need to show your birth certificate and passport. You will also need to show your application to marry, and your affidavit of competency to marry – this is a document signed by your country’s embassy to indicate that you are legally free to marry. All of these documents must be translated into Japanese.
You must register your intent to marry at the local government office closest to where your ceremony will take place. You should bring along two witnesses over 20 years of age – they can be of any nationality, and do not need to be of any particular relationship to you. You should also request a Certificate of Acceptance of Notification of Marriage from the registrar – this will act as your proof of marriage when you return home.
Be aware that some offices will require you to have your own personal stamp (hanko) rather than a signature when filling out your registration forms. These forms will be in Japanese, so a witness that can help you with translation would be a handy asset.
Once you’ve visited this office and filled out the documentation, you technically are legally married – so congratulations! The ceremony is just the way you mark this in a personal and spiritual way. Your country’s embassy may or may not require that you notify them of your marriage once it takes place – you can check this when you’re sorting out your affidavit.
Marrying a Japanese citizen
A Japanese citizen has all the same documentation requirements as a foreigner in the marriage process – except instead of an affidavit of competency, they must show a copy of an up to date family register.
The local government office where a Japanese citizen registers their marriage must be the office closest to their place of residence, as opposed to the place where they will be conducting their ceremony.
Marrying a Japanese Citizen Outside of Japan
If your partner is Japanese but you are getting married outside of Japan, you will be required to follow the guidelines and procedures of the country you are getting married in. You as the partner will not automatically qualify for a visa to live in Japan – see below section on marriage visas for further information.
Marrying a Japanese person does not mean you are automatically entitled to a residency visa. There is such thing as a spousal visa that you can apply for if you are in a legal heterosexual marriage with a Japanese citizen, but the requirements to obtain this are becoming increasingly tight due to suspicion of sham marriages.
You will need to support your application with evidence of a genuine relationship – for example, photographs, correspondence, records of living together, etc. You will also need to show that your financial and tax affairs are in order to be considered for a spousal visa.
A spousal visa allows you to freely live and work in Japan. It must be renewed on a regular basis, as separation or divorce can result in the visa being revoked.
Marriage Laws in Japan
There are some interesting gender differences in Japanese marriage law. For instance, men must be eighteen years old to marry with parental consent, while women may marry at sixteen with parental consent. Up until 2016, women had to wait 6 months between divorce and remarriage. The reason for this was to avoid confusion over paternity should a woman become pregnant shortly after the dissolution of her marriage. The law changed in 2016 – women who are not pregnant can now remarry immediately after divorce is finalized. Women who are pregnant must still endure a 100 day wait after divorce to remarry.
Divorce is fully legal in Japan, and there are a number of different ways a divorce can be granted. A couple can mutually agree to an uncontested divorce, which is a relatively straightforward matter. If the divorce is contested, the couple must go through mediation. If the mediation process fails, the courts will decide on the terms of the divorce. Foreigners must show evidence that they are legally free to divorce in their home country before filing for divorce in Japan.
Married couples in Japan must choose a common surname, as stated in an 1898 ban on separate surnames. Since 1947, couples have been permitted to choose the surname of either the husband or wife. An estimated 95% of Japanese married couples register their union under the husband’s surname. Many women still use their maiden names on an informal basis.
As previously mentioned, the signing of the marriage registration documents is sufficient in cementing a legal marriage – no ceremony is required.