In an earlier post I wrote about getting wedding photos taken in Japan. In it I mentioned the fact that my big day did not include a ceremony. I had no priest or minister. Rather my wife and I had a bespectacled city hall worker with an oily nose and a bit of a dandruff problem overseeing our nuptials. Not very romantic, but at least it allowed me to look at my wife and smirk knowingly. Never mind that we’re not having a ceremony, dear, just look at what you could have ended up with.
I did wonder if I, or more probably my wife, would come to regret not going the whole hog, but I have to say that after attending several weddings here, I think we made the right choice. I suspect a full ceremony would have been a lot of money for not that much fun.
In Japan, it is common for only very close friends and family to attend the wedding ceremony itself. I understand that sometimes the couple’ s bosses might also attend. I find that odd – inviting the man who is going to kill your sex life. Anyway, most of the guests tend to attend only the reception. In most cases this is held in a hotel, or ceremony hall, and unlike receptions in the UK which might last until well into the night or the early hours of the next morning, the hall is booked for a certain time and that’s it – two or three hours for lunch and speeches and then everybody leaves. Oftentimes guests go on to a less formal party elsewhere, but the official reception ends quite abruptly.
The first one I went to was of a Japanese couple and was the kind of wedding that is very common these days – a kind of hybrid Japanese-Western wedding. The reception was in a big hotel, and comprised quite a nice meal and a few speeches. The ceremony itself might have been in a shrine, or it might have been in a faux-chapel kind of building, which is sometimes attached to the hotel. The latter option seems to be quite popular these days and rarely bears any connection to the couple’s religious beliefs. Rather they see some kind of chic in a western style wedding. It’s an awful misconception however, because what they end up doing is getting married in a fake church which looks like a fake church, and more often than not by a fake minister, or priest or what have you. I say fake because some of the churches I have seen here look like pristine, white plastic toys you might find in a model village and the minister might have no credentials other than that he is a foreigner. He may very well be an English teacher moonlighting on his day off and / or a man of no religiosity and of dubious moral standards. I know this because I’ve been asked to do it a couple of times. Whether the couple is aware of the priest’s likely lack of credentials, I don’t know, but I doubt it would matter. The couple isn’t usually Christian and it is all about appearance and form over substance anyway.
To me that first wedding would have looked far more stylish if they had stuck to the traditional Japanese style. But, of course, that is just how I perceive things and I’m quite sure I differ from the average young Japanese person in this regard. I can’t help feeling that this adaptation of western wedding rituals is akin to British or American couples trying to ‘go Japanese’ and fashioning a shrine out of modern building materials, throwing a couple of bonsai and large rocks into the ground at an attempt at a garden, perhaps getting a few large goldfish to look like carp in a pond and having the whole thing presided over by a Chinaman. Most of us might not notice what is wrong but I’m sure any Japanese attending the event would find it all a bit crass.
Even the cake was fake! Well, most of it. The bottom tier was real and it was that tier that the couple cut into and posed for photos. The upper tiers were plastic. The important thing was that it should look like a nice, extravagant cake, not actually that it be one.
I dressed in the standard male wedding guest outfit of black suit, white shirt and white tie. When I arrived at the hotel, I handed over my decorative envelope containing ¥30,000 by way of a gift. Guests are given a return gift from the married couple at the end of the reception. This might be an actual gift, or, as was the case at my colleague’s wedding, a catalogue from which you could choose a gift. I suppose the return gift might be worth up to about ¥15,000 or so.
When all the guests had arrived we were ushered into the dining room, passing the bride and groom and their families, who had lined up so that we could offer our congratulations. We took our seats and finally the bride and groom came in and took their places. They sat apart from everybody else, at a small top-table, while the rest of us were seated at tables of around ten people. At that stage, the bride and groom were in their western outfits – she in a wedding dress, he in the tuxedo with a paper doily masquerading as a handkerchief and a pair of white gloves in one hand so, I would hazard a guess, that he looked like a dandy. Or that he had driven to the wedding in his own taxi.
During the meal the couple got changed. Well, not right there in front of everybody. They left the room. First the bride put on a kimono and the groom a hakama but after a little while the bride got bored and went and got changed again. She left the table to go and put on a red ball gown. Because these costume changes took place during the course of the dinner, the happy couple wasn’t able to just sit down and enjoy their first meal as husband and wife. They were too busy popping out to get changed and for quite a while the poor groom was left sitting there alone and friendless, eating in silence. Still, perhaps useful preparation for married life!
I enjoyed the meal. Again, it was a hybrid sort of thing; both Asian and western. We had a bit of sashimi at the beginning, a soup course, a Chinese course and then the main, which was beef and apparently French. There was also dessert but I was a bit too pissed by then to remember what it was. That’s the one thing I really did enjoy about the wedding – there was always someone there to top up your glass. It was hard to know how much you were drinking because after almost every sip somebody would be topping up your glass. You thought you were still on your first, but it was actually just one bottomless beer. The bride’s father did his bit of circulating and filling up every guest’s glass which was a nice touch, and the guests, too, each took a turn going up the the top table and filling the happy couple’s glasses.
‘They must be munted with all that beer,’ I thought, because I knew the bride at least to be a right one-can-Dan. But when I approached with my offering, I noticed a bucket under the table.
‘What’s that for, then?’ I asked rather bluntly, and my colleague showed me. She lifted her beer glass to touch her lips as a token mime of drinking, then emptied the contents into the bucket under the table.
The speeches took place both during and after the meal. I couldn’t understand much, but it seemed that some were deadly serious, and some contained a little bit of humour. In addition to the speeches some of the bride’s friends performed a song and a stilted dance routine which raised a good laugh from the bride and groom but not much from the guests. Maybe it was an in-joke.
The bride’s own speech was apparently a tear-jerker. Again, I don’t know what she said, but it was clearly addressed to her parents and she began to cry. To my cynical eye it just looked a wee bit forced, like perhaps she had asked someone to sit under the table and stab her ankle with a pin. Her mother and father dabbed at their eyes, too. Even the groom wiped a stray eyelash away from his cheek and in my merry state I had to remember that I’d probably be spoiling the atmosphere somewhat if I began hooting with mocking laughter and shouting ‘You’re a big girl’s blouse!’ at the top of my voice.
But even if I had done, I wouldn’t have had to sit there in shame for too long because just as I was beginning to get into it and have a good time, it was over. We stepped out into the bright sunshine with most of the men drunk as lords! It wasn’t a bad day out really, I just wouldn’t want to be the star.
Years later I attended another wedding. Despite the fact that this was between an American man and a Japanese woman, it was not a culturally confused ceremony. Instead, it was very much traditionally Japanese. The ceremony was held in the grounds of a beautiful old shrine, and conducted by a Shinto priest. Aside from one very poor speech by a tubby fat foreigner there were, as far as I could tell, no nods to the ‘western way’ and I thought it was all the more beautiful for it. And I kept the speech short anyway. I thought it was a lovely occasion, but who knows? Perhaps the other guests were staggering home saying, ‘That was all a bit old-fashioned and tacky, wasn’t it?’