M is for Marriage

So anyway, on the complete flipside of last time, I have to say that being married is…well, pretty darn cool. Aside from the official confirmation of two people’s love and devotion for one another, one of the wonderful extras that I wasn’t expecting was just how it brings everyone you know and care about together. As a pan-national pairing, my wife and I decided early to have ceremonies and receptions in both the UK and Japan, for the sake of our loved ones on both sides of the globe. And I am staggered at just how it just seemed to…reforge old ties with friends and family I long thought dormant. Marriage for me was not just a tying of the knot but a whole life level-up, complete with new modes unlocked and abilities that let you access those ten places you previously couldn’t access.

Now, regardless of whether you are married or not, we all know that a wedding is one of the biggest undertakings in a person’s life, in terms of planning, expenditure and importance. Because of its significance we spare no expense (money or time) in making sure that everything is absolutely perfect. Fair enough? Now, match that with Japan’s reputation for ritual and complex etiquette and you have the perfect marriage of microscopic attention-to-detail.

Put it this way: our wedding in the UK was the bigger of the two, was twice as long, included the actual ceremony, and involved my wife’s family as well. And yet, we are both in agreement that planning the UK side of our wedding adventure was far, far easier than the Japan side, which was essentially just a reception party with only my wife’s side of the family present and some of my close friends. And it was a western-style party too, which means I was shielded from a huge chunk of the do’s and don’ts. Just as well, because the ones left over still astounded me.

For one thing, guests at a Japanese wedding are pretty much expected to donate money to the happy couple. These ‘donations’ are placed in decorative envelopes called ‘Goshiki-bukuro’. The money placed in them is typically substantial, and it must be new money, facing a certain way. No, really: old money is what you give as condolences during a funeral.

But it’s not as simple as that for the bride and groom. Every guest must also receive a prescribed thank you gift, proportional to the amount the guest gifted them. This also includes people who were invited, couldn’t come, but gave goshiki-bukuro anyway. Sure, it makes sense – repay generosity with generosity – but when you’re in the thick of wedding planning, buying presents for others is usually the last thing you worry about. What is now an interesting solution to this is for guests to receive gifts from a catalogue that they choose themselves and receive in the mail, thereby freeing up the bride and groom from making multiple tricky choices as well as making sure the guest doesn’t end up with crappy crockery.

Some of you may have raised an eyebrow when I said we had a western-style reception party here in Japan. Indeed, that style is not only popular in Japan, but now also the majority way of holding a wedding – and yes, that can include the ceremony as well. In Japan, a typical journey around a city may bring you upon a church that looks like it was made out of cardboard just last week. The whole shebang will have the look and feel of a soulless movie set, and that’s kind of the point: it was movies and televised weddings such as that of Charles and Diana that popularized the idea of a church wedding in Japan. And yet it is not seen as being kitsch or hypocritical in the way we may view it: when boiled down to its purest, in Buddhist terms the sealing of a wedding is actually very short and simple, and anything added onto that is purely down to the couple’s own choice, rather than being dictated religiously.

And this is where another interesting new tradition has arisen: some couples also like a do a fusion of both Shinto and western-style weddings, with the ceremony being Shinto and the reception being western-style, and this calls for a change in dress. The idea of of 色直し (‘iro naoshi’, changing colours) is now institutionalized, to the point where some of the more elaborate weddings out there may see the couple (the bride in particular) change costume at least three times).

That being said, there is an awful lot of weight to a Japanese marriage that is traditional. Until the 19th century, marriage in Japan was almost exclusively arranged (traces of this can still be found in the process of omiai, formal matchmaking), and there is real pressure on women in particular to marry before they are thirty. Again, these attitudes are eroding but they remain more prominent than those from western countries might be familiar with.

And yet, through all of the frills, nuances and differences, what is heartening is the similarities. As I said at the beginning, one of the great things about a wedding is the idea of friends and family coming together, and this was also true of the Japanese wedding too. Both days were emotional, fun and exhilarating, and both days were about one simple thing: two people who want to celebrate being together.

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