I’m at that age where most of my friends have already or are getting ready to settle down, and/or pop out some kids. So for the last 4 years I’ve found myself averaging at least one or two weddings as year. In fact, just last weekend two of Mr. J’s junior high school classmates got married, and so we took a trip out to Yokohama to celebrate the occasion.
The first time I got invited to Japanese wedding, I was pretty nervous because I only had a vague notion of the manner dos and don’ts when attending one, and I didn’t want to do anything to further stand out as the only foreign guest there. Now that I’ve gotten some more under my belt, I figure I have a little bit more authority to write about what you should expect when you accept an invitation to one.
Types of Weddings in Japan
- Traditional Shinto Ceremony + Reception
This used to denote a wedding held at a proper Shinto shrine, but recently often means using a shrine space inside a fancy hotel ground. There is a procession with the wedding party, purification of wife and groom to be, the drinking of rice wine, or sake, to signify the unification of the couple and their families, vow recitations, and offerings made to the gods. Your job at this kind of ceremony is basically to bow on cue. It’s usually not in good manners to take pictures during the ceremony. The following reception is often a Western-style affair.
- Western-Style Ceremony + Reception
This is usually held at a hotel or grounds specifically built to host weddings. The bride and groom may choose to marry in a fake chapel with a fake priest, with Christian-like vows in made in either Japanese or English. I’ve also seen brides and grooms just do a simple vow exchange at the reception space in front of all guests before speeches/toasts were made and meals served. Most of the ones I’ve attended allowed photos during the ceremony, but I would just stick to the “When in Rome…” rule of things and only whip out the camera if you see other Japanese guests doing so.
- Destination Wedding + Reception
This is pretty much the western-style ceremony and reception done overseas. I’d say 90% of Japanese destination weddings take place in Australia or Hawaii.
For couples who choose to hold a family-closed ceremony, or for couples who only register their marriage at city hall without a ceremony, but would like to dress up and celebrate with friends. Often you will need to pay a reception meal fee. Sometimes this reception fee is in lieu of the traditional monetary gift to the bride and groom, or it may be in addition to it.
- Portrait Only
This is where the couple does not hold a ceremony, but just dresses up to take memorial photographs of their commitment. Sometimes it it followed without any kind of celebration, in which case you may just receive an announcement of their marriage instead of an invitation, or followed by a reception-only celebration invitation at a later date.
The invitation will usually be sent out a couple of months before the wedding. Unlike U.S. weddings, if you do not RSVP by the date there possibly won’t be any extra spots available for you. If you show up without RSVPing, your name will not be on the list and you will likely be refused entry.
In Japanese culture it’s customary to only address the invitation to one spouse if the couple is only acquainted with one spouse and not the other. It’s not OK to bring your spouse or anyone to the wedding whose name does not appear on the invitation. (This goes for children as well.)
If you choose to decline an invitation, it’s polite to include a simple message stating your regret about not being able to attend with your reply.
Back in the U.S. the dress code was usually whatever goes as long as it doesn’t look too casual or white, although that’s still never stopped some people from attending weddings in jeans or casual pantsuits.
In Japan, weddings are a much more formal affair, and you also shouldn’t wear white at them. Very formal weddings indicate men should wear black suits and white ties, while at semi-formal (still formal by most Western standards) occasions men can wear neckties or suits of any color, as long as it isn’t too outlandish.
Women should wear a knee-length/just above knee-length dress and a bolero/shrug/shawl to cover their shoulders, with heels. At summer weddings you might see women remove their bolero, etc. during the reception or after party reception if it’s too hot. At some semi-formal or casual affairs women might be able to get away with short or cocktail style dresses. At evening weddings they some ladies may opt for longer evening dresses. Black is fine, but colors like teal, beige, wine, and dusty rose add a good pop of color to the room. Basically anything that looks elegant, but isn’t too bright will be fine. Usually women carry a small evening bag or clutch. You should be able to find a decent dress for around 10,000 yen ($100 USD) and under in Japan if you shop smart. Formal attire boleros run around 5,000 yen ($50 USD) and up. If you’re really in a pinch and fit into normal Japanese sizes, I recommend hitting up your nearest Shimamura. Many times they have a small selection of wedding-acceptable dresses ranging between 2,000-4,000 yen ($20-$40 USD).
The majority of women will curl oe style their hair into an up-do or half up-do. If you’re not very savvy about hairstyles like me, I encourage you to make an appointment at a salon the morning of. Any regular salon in Japan does up-dos or half up-dos for around 3,000-4,500 yen ($30-45 USD), possibly more if your hair is extremely long/you want something very complicated. If you have a hair accessory you’d like them to work into the up-do, it’s usually not a problem.
Goshūgi (Money Gift)
Unlike the U.S. and other Western countries, money is the only gift you should bring to a Japanese wedding. Depending on your relationship to the bride or groom:
- 10,000 yen ($100 USD)
If you are not extremely close/an acquaintance attending solo
- 30,000 yen ($300 USD)
If you are a friend, colleague, or co-worker or attending as a couple
- 50,000 yen ($500 USD)
If you are a very close friend, boss, or relative or attending as a couple
- 100,000 yen ($1,000 USD)
If you are a very close relative
Traditionally giving even numbered offerings is frowned upon, but recently 20,000 yen ($200 USD) offerings are gaining popularity because it represents a pair. Groups of people with the same relationship to the couple often confer and decide on a set denomination to give.
Don’t make the faux pas of not giving a money gift; it is in extremely poor taste to wine and dine on the bride and groom’s yen without giving your own gift offering in return. The only exception seems to be for some local customs or destination weddings, where your willingness to cover the expense of the reception or plane ticket/accommodation there can cancel out the need for giving a money gift. A good number of people still give a money gift to the bride and groom even when not accepting the invitation to attend.
The money should be presented in new, crisp bills (from the bank) in a special envelope called a goshūgi bukuro or noshi bukuro. Any chain stationary store or home center will carry them, and many chain convenience stores carry one or two types for those on the run. Make sure you check that the envelope you plan on buying is appropriate for the amount of money you wish to give. (It should be noted somewhere on the packaging.) If you cannot read Japanese, ask someone to help you purchase one. You don’t want to buy a funeral money envelope by mistake like one of my friends did. 😉
At your seat there will usually be a gift bag for you to take home, called a hikidemono. It contains a gift from the bride and groom (often edible) or a catalogue to mail in for a gift of your choosing after the reception. Seating is done by relation to the bride and groom. That means co-workers will be seated with co-workers, classmates with classmates, etc. The bride and groom will be seated by themselves at the head of the room. You are usually welcome to come up and chat with them for a bit or take pictures with them during the reception.
A typical reception includes a reading of the history of the bride and the groom, including their upbringing and how they met. The couple might have a cute video playing for guests to watch. You’ll usually have to sit through many longish speeches from friends or family, often one or two before the first course is served, and then later at different points throughout the meal.
Generally a reception includes a full course meal with all you can drink beer/wine/oolong tea. Champagne is also poured for toasting on cue. Besides drinking or talking amongst the other guests seated with you, there is very little in the way in the way of entertainment. If you’re invited to the after-reception party, called the nijikai, it’s a little bit livelier. You’ll usually be asked to pay a separate fee to join the after reception party, if invited.
The main highlight of the reception is seeing the array of outfits the bride and groom make a grand entrance in, and photo opportunities with the couple in them. The bride and groom will change 3-4 times during the day, making various entrances and exits. At some point they usually present a gift to their families, make speeches or read heartfelt letters to one another, cut the cake, and go around visiting every table and guest. If the couple is particularly outgoing or has outgoing friends, they might have a few comedic skits planned for their guests as well. At the end of the reception and after reception party, the bride and groom, with their families, will thank everyone for their attendance and give a small parting gift.
Other Cultural Differences
One thing to note is that wedding ceremonies are not legally binding in Japan, nor do you need to present any kind of marriage license to hold one. That said, most couples will register their marriage at city hall a few months to one year in advance. This contrasts with the Western idea that it’s poor manners to marry before holding your ceremony/reception.
Almost all Japanese couples hire a wedding planner to take care of their wedding. Besides picking package/menu options and selecting rental wedding attire, the couple is not usually too involved with making their wedding come together. This is one reason having a wedding ceremony and reception in Japan can be very expensive.
Have you ever noticed the red or black words written underneath dates on the Japanese calendar? This is a special system for predicting lucky and unlucky days, called the Rokuyō calendar. Many people use this system to decide a good wedding date. Sometimes you can receive a discount for holding your wedding on an unlucky day according to this calendar.
I think experiencing a Japanese wedding for the first time is exciting and interesting, so I recommend doing so if you have the opportunity. However with the lack of theme, color scheme, or DIY planning aspect that’s more popular in the West, after the first one or two they can start to feel like cookie-cutter affairs if you’re not incredibly close to the bride or groom, not to mention become a big hit to your wallet. If you’ve ever attended a Japanese wedding, what were your thoughts?