Weddings can be a minefield at the best of times – from knowing what to wear, to what gift to bring, to how to act the ceremony. Throw in the cultural differences of a Japanese wedding and you have an extra layer of complication.
Weddings are a big deal in Japan, and like so much else in the Land of the Rising Sun there are customs that wedding celebrations are expected to adhere to. If you’ve been invited to a Japanese wedding, you might be nervous about what to expect – read on for our guide on what you’re likely to experience as a guest at a Japanese wedding.
If you’re lucky enough to experience a Japanese wedding, you’re in for a day that you’ll never forget – do your research about the customs, but more importantly have fun. Let’s look at what to expect at a Japanese wedding!
Japanese Wedding Gifts
If attending a Japanese wedding as a guest, a gift envelope is expected (known as shugi-bukuro). This envelope is available to buy from all major convenience stores. Do not get this confused with funeral cards, which are black and white. The Japanese are typically generous gift-givers – the going-rate for a wedding envelope is between 30,000 to 50,000 yen. Write your name clearly on the front of the envelope and present it at reception once you arrive at the wedding venue.
If you are invited but cannot attend a wedding in Japan, it is still expected that you will give a cash gift. You are not expected to be quite as generous as if you were in attendance – generally, around 20,000 yen would be an acceptable gift. Deliver it in person to the couple in an official shugi-bukuro if possible. In all cases, make sure the bills you enclose are crisp and unstained.
Please note, the above rates are generally for weddings in urban areas – the expected gifts are proportionate with the wages and cost of living of the wedding location. If you’re attending a rural wedding, you might not be expected to give as much – if in doubt, ask a Japanese friend what would be a good amount to gift.
Japanese Wedding Attire for Guests
In Western weddings, guests wearing white outfits is the ultimate taboo – so too in Japan. Pick really any other color, and you’re good to go.
For women, if you have a formal kimono, go ahead and wear it. Otherwise, stick to a formal but relatively conservative outfit – make sure you cover your shoulders and your dress comes down past your knees. Shoe choice is important for women at a Japanese wedding. High heels should not be too high, as this can be seen as immodest. Interestingly, toes should also be covered – so don’t go for a peep-toe sandal. Unlike many Western countries, it’s absolutely fine to wear black to a Japanese wedding – which definitely makes it much easier to match your accessories!
For men, it’s much easier – a suit in black or any other conservative color will do perfectly. Traditionally, white ties are worn to weddings – but most ties are acceptable once it’s not too loud a pattern. Steer away from a black-tie, if possible – these are usually worn to funerals.
Japanese Wedding Venues
Traditional Shinto weddings take place in a shrine, with only close family present. These are highly ritualistic affairs – with set costumes and ceremonies that must be followed. After the ceremony, a larger reception generally takes place in a separate location where the newlyweds can celebrate with friends and wider family circles.
Although only about 1% of Japanese people identify themselves as Christians, the traditional Protestant style wedding is increasing in popularity across Japan. The traditional Western wedding ritual of walking down the church aisle surrounded by family and friends has been depicted in mainstream Hollywood movies for generations, prompting many modern Japanese couples to opt for a Christian wedding. In some cases, they even choose to say vows in English – just to get that iconic “I do” moment!
Buddhist temples are also relatively popular wedding venues in Japan, obviously depending on the faith of the couple. Traditional Buddhist ceremonies can be attended by friends of the couple, and incorporate rituals such as prayer and ring exchange that are similar to Western weddings.
Civil ceremonies are growing steadily in popularity across Japan for modern couples. These can take place in any venue. Japan’s marriage laws are quite unique in that the legal component of the ceremony is always entirely separate – a couple is officially married when they sign the registration documents in their local city hall. This means that couples who opt for a civil ceremony essentially have a carte blanche to mark their marriage wherever they want and however they want. Japanese people as a race tend to enjoy observing tradition – and as such, ceremony locations don’t tend to be too far out of the box. If you’re invited to a civil ceremony, it will probably take place in a hotel or country club typesetting. With that being said, Disneyland Tokyo is increasing in popularity as a ceremony venue!
Japanese Wedding Traditions
While every Japanese wedding celebration you attend will be slightly different depending on the preferences of the couple, here are some common wedding traditions and customs that you might come across in Japan.
- Yui-no Ceremony
Traditionally, Japanese couples officially mark their engagement with a party known as a Yui-no. This Japanese wedding tradition dates back to the times when most Japanese marriages were arranged by parents – the Yui-no gives families an opportunity to officially meet, and for the engagement to be publically confirmed.
Nowadays, the vast majority of Japanese marriages are “love marriages”, and the families will have been acquainted with each other for some time before an engagement takes place. Nevertheless, many traditional families like to mark a couples’ engagement with a Yui-no ceremony.
The Yui-no generally takes place during a rising tide, to symbolise the hopes of an upward trajectory for the two families and the future spouses. It generally involves the groom’s family presenting the bride’s family with a series of traditional and symbolic gifts, and then the bride’s family showing their acceptance of the gifts by serving a sit-down meal to the groom’s family.
The Yui-no traditionally happens in the family home of the bride, but some modern couples do choose to celebrate in a restaurant or hotel venue. Some examples of traditional gifts include a shiraga, or white hemp (symbolising growing old together) and surume, or dried scuttlefish (symbolising a long marriage). The bride’s family may also give some gifts to the groom – for example, a hakama (a symbolic skirt, which represents faithfulness in the relationship) that he may choose to wear to their wedding ceremony.
Kinpou is gift money given to newly engaged couples at the Yui-no. This money might be divided into different labelled envelopes (eg. Food, house bills). Symbolically, the amount of money gifted is usually an odd amount so that it cannot be divided equally between the couple – representing the ethos of sharing financial decisions in marriage. Separate to this is yanagi-daru – money gifted to the couple specifically to purchase sake. Sake is consumed in the place of saying vows in Japanese wedding ceremonies (more on that later), so this money is very symbolic for an engaged couple.
Traditionally, the groom’s family will gift the bride’s family a large sum of money as a sort of dowry at the Yui-no ceremony (usually the equivalent of thousands of dollars). This is no longer an expected component of the ceremony – it may be something the groom’s family choose to do, depending on their beliefs and financial situation, but is not necessary.
If you are friends with a Japanese couple getting married and do not receive an invite to their Yui-no, do not take offence – in its traditional form, the Japanese engagement celebration is for close family only.
One of the first tasks of the engaged couple is to set a date for their nuptials. While Western couples might be led by sentimentality, or the schedules of their loved ones when selecting a wedding date, the Japanese calendar holds a different significance.
The Rokuyo calendar marks a symbol under each individual day, indicating whether that particular day is lucky or unlucky. Some days are considered lucky at particular times, some are unlucky at all times, and some (Taian days) are lucky at all times. It stands to reason that most Japanese people would prefer to get married on a Taian day – and this also means that venues hike up their fees for Taian days.
Interestingly, June is the most popular month to get married in Japan – but the reason has nothing to do with Japanese tradition. The romanticism of “June brides” is an old Western ideal that made its way across to modern Japan.
At traditional ceremonies, the celebrant might perform a purification ritual on the couple before commencing the main ceremony. This usually takes the form of waving a sacred tree above the heads of the couple and is thought to ward away any evil spirits that might be lurking over their future union.
- San san ku do
The consumption of sake from symbolic cups (sakazuki) is a cornerstone of traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies. This is often used instead of verbal vows. This part of the ceremony can be confusing to watch if you are not familiar with the meaning behind it.
Three cups of sake are prepared. The bride and groom drink three sips from each of the cups first. They are then passed onto the parents of the couple, who also drink three sips from each cup. The first round of sips represents the three couples (the couple getting married and both sets of parents) and represents the joining of two families.
The second round of sips recommends the three great flaws of the human condition – ignorance, passion, and hatred. The third round of sips represents the three best qualities of the human condition — love, wisdom, and happiness. These override the three flaws.
The ritual is complete when the bride and groom have taken nine sips from the sazakuzi. Odd numbers are thought to be lucky in Japanese culture, and nine is considered a particularly lucky number. “San san kudo” literally translates to “three three nine times”.
- Kagami Biraki
Kagami biraki literally translates to “opening the mirror”, referring to the transition into a new phase of life. Kagaimi biraki ceremonies are not exclusive to weddings — they can take place at other transitional events too, such as New Year’s, or a major birthday.
Some Japanese couples choose to incorporate kagami biraki into their reception through the ceremonial opening of a sake barrel. The barrel is presented to the bride and groom with a round lid, which they must break open using mallets. Once they have broken the lid, the sake is shared out amongst the guests, and their transition from individuals to a married unit is considered complete.
While wedding favors for guests have long been popular at Western weddings, Japanese couples take it a step further. Wedding guests are treated to hikidemono, which is essentially a whole goodie bag of gifts to say thank you for coming. These are typically elaborate affairs, are they are seen as a symbol of the wealth and prosperity of the hosting families.
The hikidemono generally contains sweet treats and other small items such as souvenirs from the hometowns of the newlyweds. Some couples even put together a gift catalog, where guests can select their main thank you gift!
- Wedding Receptions
Japanese weddings usually involve a series of receptions.
Following the ceremony, there will generally be a formal reception with food and speeches. Things to expect here – if you’re a co-worker, you will probably be seated closer to the newlyweds than many of their close family members. This isn’t a mistake in the seating chart – it’s a gesture of humility on behalf of the family.
There may be a video montage put together of the story of the bride and groom’s respective childhoods, and how they came to be together. There will be a lot of speeches – including an emotional speech thanking the parents of the newlyweds, and presenting them with letters and gifts expressing gratitude. There might also be a few performances by friends or professional entertainers.
The newlyweds will walk around each dining table to light a candle and will cut the wedding cake together. There won’t be an opportunity to dance – but don’t fret, that will come later.
After about two hours, you move onto the next reception. This one is for the younger crowd only and is full of music, games, and free-flowing booze. There won’t be a sit-down meal, but there will likely be platters of snacks in the very unlikely event you’re still hungry from the first reception. You can (and will) dance here!
About two hours later, you move onto the unofficial third reception. This isn’t usually organized by the couple – the guests generally decide on a nearby bar to flock to and continue the drinking. If the newlyweds join you, the custom is to make sure they’re never without a drink in their hands (not too different from a Western after party).
Japanese Wedding Food
Japanese wedding food is delicious and plentiful, but also very symbolic. There are a number of traditional foods that feature on almost every wedding menu because of their auspicious nature. Here are some examples.
Seikhan is a dish served on many happy occasions in Japan because of its color – red. Red is a lucky and celebratory color, appropriate for a wedding. Ingredient-wise, the recipe is quite humble – it is essentially rice with red beans. It might not be the type of decadent dish you’d expect at a party, but it’s very important within the Japanese wedding culture.
Kazunoko is a very delicate dish, consisting of fish eggs enclosed in a type of skin. This is seen as a symbol of fertility and is eaten at weddings as a wish for the bride and groom to have healthy children.
This rolled omelette dish offers a mixture of savoury and sweet flavours. It is a food traditionally consumed at New Year’s celebrations and weddings because it represents knowledge and wisdom.
Kombu is a form of edible seaweed that symbolizes happiness in Japanese. It stands to reason that kombu is incorporated into dishes at Japanese weddings to wish the couple a lifetime of happiness.
These are sweet rice balls, often served after the main food at a Japanese wedding while guests are enjoying their green tea. They symbolize the sharing of happiness with family and friends – essentially, the whole purpose of the reception.
- Wedding Cake
While the cutting of the wedding cake is an integral component of a Japanese wedding reception, the cake itself is not of high importance. Many couples use an elaborate multi-tiered dummy cake for the purposes of photographs – a much more basic sheet cake is often kept in the kitchen and served to guests after the cutting ceremony.
Japanese Wedding Attire for Bride & Groom
The celebrating couple will often go through quite a few outfit changes at a Japanese wedding. Here are some of the outfits that you might expect to see.
- Bride’s Kimono
If the couple is having a traditional shrine wedding, the bride will wear white wedding kimono (known as a shiromuku) for the ceremony. This is a traditional white wedding kimono. It incorporates a large Japanese wedding hat of sorts, which is a symbol of the bride’s submission (the hat should be large enough to cover her horns).
White represents the bride’s purity, but also her intention to take on her husband’s family colors following their union.
- Groom’s Kimono
At a shrine ceremony, the groom will wear a black silk kimono (known as a hakama). His family crest will be stitched into the fabric five times.
The groom will pair this with special wedding shoes, which are white and square-toed.
The bride may wear the traditional uchicake over her bridal kimono. This is like an elaborately decorated coat. It is brightly colored and has a number of auspicious symbols embroidered into the fabric. These are extremely expensive and formal garments, which would only be worn by a person getting married or a stage performer.
- Western Wedding Wear
Many brides and grooms in Japan have an outfit change inspired by Western wedding trends. The bride might wear a Western-style white wedding gown for parts of the ceremony, while the groom might change into a tuxedo.
- Evening wear
For the after-party, the newlyweds may choose to change into more casual (but still very glamorous) evening wear.
The Future of Japanese Weddings
While most Japanese weddings are still large and traditional affairs, increasing amounts of modern Japanese couples are choosing different routes to mark their nuptials.
For example, “frugal weddings” (known as jimikon) are growing in popularity. This consists of a couple registering their union, and then following up with an informal celebration in a house or restaurant.
Foreign weddings are also becoming more common. More and more Japanese couples are choosing to complete their legal paperwork quietly in their local city hall, and then jet off to an exotic destination to live out their dream of a wedding that looks like a Hollywood movie. Hawaii and Paris are popular spots for Japanese people to get married.
It remains to be seen whether the traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies of the Japan of yore will become lost to time with future generations – but the big Japanese wedding celebration does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.