Culture Corner: Traditional Japanese Wedding

For centuries, Japan has been performing unique wedding traditions to celebrate the union between two people and the joining of their families. These traditions come together in a ceremony called a Shinto wedding.

David Watts Barton, a writer for japanology.org, shares his knowledge on Japanese wedding customs that have been refined over centuries.

“The actual wedding is usually only held for a small group of family and close friends,” Barton said. “This is particularly true of Shinto weddings, which are held in Shinto shrines, with an attending priest who purifies the couple and offers their union to the kami (gods) of the temple.”

Shinto, or “the way of the gods”, is an ancient religion that is still practiced by the bulk of Japan’s society today.

“For Shinto weddings, the bride and groom are dressed in elegant traditional styles, the bride in white kimonos known as shiromuku, and the groom in a black kimono with kimono pants and jacket,” Barton said. “In addition to the kimono, the bride often wears some spectacular headdresses, tsuno-kakushi and wataboshi, that go back to the 14th century.”

Like a geisha, the bride may also wear white makeup to symbolize her purity.

According to japanvisitor.com, the intimate ceremony begins with the Shinto priest offering prayers to the gods.

“The couple is purified, and the groom gives his oath to the bride,” the website states. “The couple partakes of ‘san-san-kudo.’ This is literally, 3 x 3 = 9. The bride and groom share three nuptial cups of sake.”

The bride and groom each take three sips from small, medium, and large sized cups. The couple’s parents also sip from the cups.

“The ceremony ends with symbolic offerings to the gods,” the website states. “Many couples now exchange wedding rings, which is one of the traditions borrowed from the West.”

In fact, most Japanese couples today are opting for borrowed Western traditions. According to Japanese lecturer Professor Eriko Tanaka at Kent State University, Shinto wedding customs are becoming less fashionable in Japan’s modern society.

“Lately few couples have a Shinto wedding,” Tanaka said. “Most couples get married in Western style weddings, usually at ‘chapel’ even though they are not Christians.”

The Japanese wedding ceremony is becoming increasingly more inspired by Western practices, from the ceremony location to the bride’s gown. These Western style weddings are dubbed “white weddings”.

“In recent years, an estimated 80 percent of Japanese weddings have been done in the “white wedding” style,” Barton said.

“I think they are popular because more women prefer to wear a big wedding dress, compared to white kimono for Shinto wedding,” Tanaka said.

The reception after the exclusive ceremony can be quite large with the rest of the couple’s family and friends being invited. However, the privilege to attend the reception does not come without a price for the guests.

“Guests generally pay a fee to join the festivities, and should also give goshuugi (‘gift money,’ as much as 30,000 yen, or $300) for the newlyweds,” Barton said. “The giving of actual wedding gifts is not common, as money is easier for everyone, but there is one exception to this rule: the bride and groom are the ones who give small, elegant gifts, hikidemono, to their guests.”

Japan’s traditional wedding practices are still greatly respected despite the rising popularity of Western customs. In the end though, whether the ceremony is Shinto or “white”, the resulting marriage is what matters most to the couple and their families.

“The amount of care and money that the Japanese put into weddings remains consistent, reflecting the culture’s ongoing emphasis on marriage as a social good,” Barton said. “Shinto or ‘white’ wedding, the style of marriage in Japan may change, but its importance to the Japanese does not.”

Author: Arianna Shapiro