Although I got married in Japan, I didn’t have a wedding. Neither my wife nor I is religious but in a way that would have made having a ceremony easier in that neither of us would have much cared if it was conducted in the default religion of the other. But, to be honest, the logistic difficulties involved with half of the guests flying either from the UK to Japan or from Japan to the UK made it all seem an awful palaver that would be better avoided. It appeared especially troublesome when I realized that the custom of the bride’s family paying for the wedding doesn’t apply in Japan. So, the city hall it was.
A wedding ceremony in Japan confers no legal status of marriage upon a couple and so everybody has to go to the city hall anyway. It was a remarkably simple process to become husband and wife. After posting a note in the British embassy of our intention (in order that any secret lurking wives elsewhere may be notified and step forward to interrupt proceedings) we went to the city hall, showed a few bits of paper, stamped them with our official seals, hanko, as they are known in Japan, and were married. Every adult in Japan has a hanko. Not having one would be like not having a signature. Official documents require them and after we had inked a couple of bits of paper, we went off to work. I was still employed at a language school and my boss didn’t seem to think getting married was a good enough reason for having a day off. I left for work with a girlfriend and arrived with a wife.
It wasn’t very romantic but it was of course a special day and, ceremony or not, something I wanted to do properly. So, when my wife and I had decided we would tie the knot I asked her what the protocol was. Should I go round and ask her dad for permission?
She said I probably should. They would prepare a meal and I should come round and ask for their daughter. My wife told me what to say, but it ended in ‘… wo kudasai’, which seemed a hit casual, because when I want a beer in a bar I sometimes say to the barman, ‘Biru wo kudasai’. Perhaps she thought about what I would be able to handle with my Japanese ability and decided that I was really good at ordering beer and should stick with the expressions I know.
I dressed quite smartly, and on a Saturday evening, my wife came to mine, picked me up and drove me up to her parents’ house. I wasn’t too nervous because I knew they had prepared dinner and must therefore have been briefed about what was to happen. They would simply have known from the fact that they had been told to invite me.
I was shown into their living room, and sat on a cushion on the tatami, in front of a long, low wooden table upon which several plates of sushi and sashimi were waiting. My wife sat next to me, her mother and father across from us. Her mother poured sake into each of our cups, her father said, ‘Kampai’, and we all raised our cups, said ‘Kampai’ and had a drink. I gulped mine down, and then decided to get the formalities over with before the eating began. I looked across the table, put on my earnest expression and said what still sounded to me like, ‘Can I have a wife, please?’
My wife’s father didn’t smile. He looked across the table, and he growled for a long time before I realized that he was actually speaking. He paused after he’d said something and looked at me with great seriousness and I suddenly realized I had drifted off and had stopped even trying to pretend I was following him. Everybody was now looking at me, and so I looked back at my future father-in-law in a manner that I hoped looked deeply respectful, and said, ‘Hai’ . I figured he was probably saying, ‘Please take care of my daughter’, or ‘I trust you can provide for my daughter,’ or ‘I hope you will take care of us in our old age,’ something like that and ‘Yes’ seemed a better bet at getting a favorable response than ‘No’.
Whatever he had said, ‘Yes’ was the correct response because his face cracked into a wide smile, and he leaned across the table and offered me the first of many, firm, friendly, and rather too long for comfort handshakes. Then we gorged on fantastic food, got right royally pissed together and began a smashing relationship between two people who could barely talk to each other. And at the end of the evening, I knew he liked me. He thumped me on the back and said, ‘Good!’ and I could just picture him saying ‘He’s a good chap,’ and then adding with some relief, ‘And he likes a drink!’
My wife’s parents didn’t seem particularly upset that we had decided to forego a ceremony – they hadn’t had one themselves – but her mother did recommend we get some photos taken. That was the one thing she did regret about her own wedding – that she hadn’t got any photos taken. It seemed like good advice, and it would be nice to allow my wife to wear a dress and for us to have a keepsake of our nuptials. But my oh my you pay for it!
When my wife told me how much the photos were going to cost, I thought I had lost the ability of translating Japanese numbers into English ones. I stood in front of her, shocked into being able to do nothing more than open and close my mouth repeatedly like a hungry carp, admittedly an image that could well have made my future bride wonder what on earth she was thinking in agreeing to marry me in the first place.
‘But…’ I finally stammered out, ‘but for that price we could virtually fly to Britain get our photos taken there and fly back.’ I wasn’t exaggerating.
‘I know, it’s expensive…’ my wife began.
‘Expensive! It’s…’ I was about to put my foot down and tell my wife she was absolutely nuts if she thought I would even consider it.
‘…but my mum and dad want to pay for it as a wedding present.’
‘…not too bad a price, I suppose…when I think about it. I mean,’ I said, ‘how often do you get married?’
It was a horrific price, of course, and I did actually have misgivings about accepting such an expensive gift from my wife’s parents. They are by no means wealthy and for them to make this offer was supremely generous. But my wife said they would be very hurt if we didn’t accept and asked me to ‘let them do this for us’. So I did, and I didn’t even insist we fly home either.
The price, I should say, wasn’t just for the photos. It included the rental of a wedding dress and of a traditional Japanese kimono for my wife, the rental of a man’s hakama for me, and the cost of the photography session. I decided not to rent a grey tuxedo – the Japanese groom’s outfit of choice when his bride wears the western style dress – and to wear a nice new suit I had purchased for the occasion. Whether this reduced the price of the session or not, I don’t know, but I suspect not. I think that the wedding company included everything in the fee and if I chose not to avail myself of their service in full that was my fault, but the price would not be changed. From what I have heard they tend to be a bit inflexible like that. One woman I know had a huge argument with her wedding planning company because they absolutely insisted she rent one of their dresses even though she told them she had found one independently that she was desperate to wear. Only when she said she would just dump the wedding company completely did they relent.
The photos of us in kimono and hakama were to be taken first, and we popped into separate changing areas in the ‘Bridal Studio’. Never having worn, or indeed seen a hakama before, I was a tad nervous about being able to get it on properly. I needn’t have worried though, as three elderly women, who a crueller man might describe as crones, had been dispatched to help me.
And so it was that I stripped down to my underwear in the presence of three old ladies. I had gone on a crash diet in the weeks before the wedding and had grown my hair in a bit, so that as long as nobody took a photo of the back of my head I might get away with not looking fat and bald. I had been quite pleased with myself because I had managed to shed a few kilogrammes, but the first thing my assistants did was pad me out by tying three towels around the body. Apparently, fat is good in a hakama and it suits a man of sturdier build.
Then the women wrapped things around me and raised my arms and told me to lift my leg and twisted and turned me and I had no idea what was happening until they stood back and there I was, formally attired and looking quite the dashing young man in a long skirt. For that is what a hakama is, basically – a long, striped, skirty thing, tied at the waist and which falls to the ankles. I rather liked it. On my upper half, I wore a black haori, a formal kimono jacket, which comes to the hips. The thin vertical stripes on the hakama were black and white, and dangling in front of my stomach was a white, fluffy ball, which appeared to have no purpose but was quite nice to touch. I’m not sure how it was attached, but just as a sporran falls in front of a kilt, this fluffy ball was attached to a chord which was wrapped around my body somewhere allowing the gonk-like ball to hang in place in front of my stomach.
I squeezed my feet into white tabi. These are traditional cloth socks, ankle high and with just one separation for the toes, between the big toe and other four. They were a snug fit, but a fit nonetheless, which is more than can be said for my geta. Geta are the traditional footwear of choice in Japan, a kind of cross between a flip-flop and a clog, they are made of wood, but with a flip-flop separation on top, again to divide the toes. My heels hung off the back completely. I looked fine from the front, but they weren’t the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.
Nonetheless, I quite liked my new appearance and as I waddled out to see my bride my assistants told me I looked very handsome. My wife’s family seemed delighted in how I had turned out and said my height and girth made the hakama really suit me!
‘They’re towels!’ I said. ‘I’m not actually this fat!’
But they weren’t listening, because just then my wife appeared with her grinning dressing assistants in tow. She came out dressed in a beautiful silk white kimono embroidered with cranes (the birds, not the industrial machines), topped off with a heavy black wig and a big white head-covering called a tsunokakushi. The tsunokakushi is supposed to hide a new bride’s horns of jealousy and symbolizes her becoming a gentler, more patient and compassionate person. My wife’s face broke into a huge smile when she saw me in my hakama as did mine when I saw her in her kimono. Everybody told her how beautiful she looked, and she did, she really did. Although, it has to be said, in a bit of a Ku Klux Klanny way.
We went through to the photographers studio, passing a wall of photographs of prior clients. They were a grim lot. Stony-faced families stared out of the frames and I remembered that it is not customary to smile in formal wedding photos in Japan. All the same, I’ve seen cheerier folk at a funeral. Surely looking reasonably happy, or at least not miserable as sin wouldn’t be too much of an effort. Or maybe they just couldn’t get the price tags out of their minds. In any event, we ignored that particular custom and smiled for the photographer, who seemed to finish remarkably quickly. He took a couple of shots and then said we could go and get changed into our next outfits, the suit and the western wedding dress. He must have been confident of his skills, because he didn’t seem to have taken many shots.
We separated again and I got into my own wedding suit, and then spent a good long time waiting for my wife to change into her wedding dress. It was worth the wait. When she appeared, I knew getting the photos taken was the right thing to do. She looked even better than she had in the kimono, and I knew I would be able to look back and treasure this day for the rest of my life. She took my arm and we walked back into the studio.
Despite the fact that I had eschewed the grey-tuxedo generally donned by bridegrooms in Japan, the photographer tried to convince me to accept the two common accessories to this outfit, a handkerchief for the top pocket and a pair of white gloves. I politely declined, the reasons for which he seemed unable to comprehend. He looked very confused as I said that I really didn’t want them and that I didn’t think they went with my suit. He said that they did, but I held my ground, because, you see, I already had a nice buttonhole for my suit and the handkerchief he wanted me to tuck into my breast pocket was nothing more than a lacey paper doily. It would be like putting on your best suit for an important meeting and then turning up in your white sneakers. And the gloves! The done thing is not to wear them but rather just to hold them for no particular reason. I think someone long ago must have told a Japanese chap that this is what all good gentlemen do, but, honestly, what’s the point? The only people that wear white gloves in Japan are station attendants, taxi drivers and Mickey Mouse, so why should bridegrooms carry them?
Again, the photos were over very quickly and after getting changed we went off for a nice family lunch. I’d enjoyed the morning, and was now quite looking forward to seeing the photographs. When they arrived, they were great. My wife and I both looked good, and to our eyes the photos seemed to be of a high quality. There was just one problem. All that money and time had been spent so that we could receive just four photographs. Yes, four. And they were already mounted in a padded book-like frame from which they could not be removed and which made hanging them on any wall was impossible. We could order more prints at about £50 a photo, but instead we made do with the informal photographs my father-in-law had taken and sent the originals to my parents in the UK.