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Traditional Japanese Weddings

Diane M. Sattler, Ph.D.
19 May 2015

One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Japan is a traditional Japanese wedding procession. When you visit Japan, you may be lucky enough to encounter one at a shrine or under the cherry blossoms in the spring. Understanding a Japanese traditional wedding involves knowing a little about the way couples meet, what the ceremony is like and how the Shinto religion and rituals figure in.

Arranged marriages

You may remember hearing about arranged marriages in Japan, which was the traditional way couples used to meet and marry, especially farmers. Today, only about 10% of marriages are arranged. It's rumored that sometimes arrangements are made because the mothers of unmarried sons and daughters who are approaching 30 years old are eager to "launch" their offspring. Perhaps they're thinking that if the kids haven't found a suitable mate by that time, maybe they need help. However, the overwhelming majority of modern couples find their own potential mates and marry by choice.

Traditional Japanese Shinto weddings

Whether the couple has an arranged or a love match, and whether or not they are religious, most marriages take place in a Shinto shrine following the rituals of Japan's ancient, indigenous religion. In modern times, the hotel where the reception is held may also be the location of the wedding ceremony. Whether it's held at a shrine or a hotel, the wedding commonly is performed by a Shinto priest and includes specific ceremonies. Only close relatives and friends of the couple attend the wedding and all are dressed in formal kimono.

Photo credit [David Offf](https://www.flickr.com/photos/67162482@N07/6122380971)

Usual steps in the short wedding ceremony

  • Explanation of the ceremony: In a outside area of the main shrine, the ceremony is explained to the participants.
  • Formal procession: The wedding party proceeds to the main shrine for the ceremony. Note: The bride's purity may be shown to the gods by painting her completely white. Bridal headwear symbolizes that she'll become an obedient wife.
  • Purification ceremony: Everyone stands and bows to be purified.
  • Announcement: At the altar, the marriage is announced in a prayer, and people again stand and bow.
  • Dancing: A young Shinto girl dances.
  • San San Kudo: The bride and groom exchange sake cups, in this three by three ceremony. They press the cup to their lips two times. Only on the third time do they sip from the cup. San San Kudo symbolizes the bond of the new union between husband and wife as well as the integration of the newlyweds with others in the family.
  • Presentation: A bough of Sakaki, a flowering evergreen, is placed on the altar and the couple is introduced formally. They bow twice and clap twice. Sakaki is a wand of purification commonly used as an offering to the gods. It also marks the end of the ceremony.
  • Additional Western elements: Young couples frequently choose to include some Western elements into their wedding, such as exchanging rings, cutting a cake and going on a honeymoon.
  • The reception party

    During the party that follows the ceremony, the newlyweds have opportunities to greet their guests and eat a meal as a group, while attending to speakers and performers. The bride and groom may change clothes several times during the party. At the end, they thank the guests for coming.

    Gifts

    The newlyweds present gifts to those who attend the reception after the ceremony to thank them for coming. Some hosts provide silverware or pricey desserts. Lately, couples have offered a catalog of gifts to choose from, such as meat, fish, personal accessories, and even common household supplies such as plastic wrap.

    Wedding guests give money in special fancy envelopes rather than wrapped presents. The equivalent of $300 in Japanese yen is an average gift. The couple's employers generally give larger gifts, though. The total amount of money of the gift should not be evenly divisible by two, so 20,000 yen would not be an appropriate gift, because that could suggest that if the money can be divided in two easily, then the unified couple may also be divided into two. As a side note, Nagoya, Japan is reputed to have the most grandiose and costly weddings. Most likely, gifts would be expected to be proportionately larger in Nagoya.

    A brief background of the Shinto religion

    Understanding a little about Shintoism will fill in some of the gaps in understanding traditional Japanese weddings. Shinto is the Japanese traditional religion that is native to Japan. Shinto rituals, which have been around for a very long time, were first documented in the 8th Century. At that time it was recognized as a set of beliefs rather than a religion.

    Principles and interesting aspects of Shintoism

  • Shinto is now recognized as a religion, which is focused on a collection of rituals.
  • Shinto centers around the many shrines in Japan where believers go to ask for help from Kami.
  • Unlike most Western religions, sacred gods or spirits exist in millions of things in nature such as animals, rivers and trees, which are known as Kami. People and Kami are integrated within the beliefs of Shintoism. Even some people are said to have the spirit of Kami.
  • Shinto priests often bless new buildings and cars in Japan.
  • Many aspects of Japanese culture, such as ikebana flower arranging, traditional architecture, can be traced back to Shintoism.
  • Annually, there are multiple festivals marking such turning points as spring, autumn, the New Year and Seijin no Hi, a Shinto tradition on January 9th. That's when young people who have turned twenty in the past year celebrate their coming of age with elaborate, expensive dress. The annual spring festivals center around blooming cherry trees.
  • Cherry Blossom Festivals

    My favorite festivals are the spring cherry blossom festivals. While cherry blossom festivals are held in Washington, DC and San Francisco and other U.S. cities, the festivals are different in Japan. They occur in multiple cities all over the country, so no matter where you are in Japan during April, you'll likely encounter one.

    Cherry festivals in Kyoto are later than in other cities, and arguably among the most beautiful. Platoons of gorgeous, fragrant trees stand watch along canals, temples and gardens. There are several well-known Kyoto cherry blossom festivals at parks, canals and gardens.

    Entrance to most sites, such as the popular one at Maruyama Park near Yasaka Shrine that takes place in early April, are free. Families have picnics on cloths under the blooming cherry trees amid food stands. After dark the trees are lit.

    Another festival that has free admission on the Okazaki Canal during the same time period, also offers popular boat rides down the canal. That site is outside the Heian Shrine.

    A ride on the Karsuma subway with a stop at Kitayama station and a modest entry fee will get you into the beautiful Kyoto Botanical Garden. There are flowering bushes, flowers and a small group of Yoshino cherry trees with late-blooming five-petal blossoms. Trees are lit up every evening during the height of the season.

    Photo credit [Japanexperterna](http://www.japanexperterna.se)

    Visiting Shinto Shrines

    Since many cherry blossom forests are located near shrines, it's helpful to know the proper way to visit a Shinto shrine with a Torii gate serving as the grand entryway. One example is the famous Fushimi Inari shrine at Kyoto honoring rice and foxes, which has many Torii gates leading to walking paths.

    Photo credit [SteFou!](https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen-oung/6080763075)
  • When first entering shrines, you'll encounter a purification fountain. Stop there to ladle water on your hands, but don't drink the water.
  • When you come to the altar, put a coin in the box as an offering, bow twice deeply, clap your hands twice, then pray or meditate for a while.
  • If a gong is there, ring the gong once before praying.
  • When finished, arise and respectfully back away from the group.
  • You can walk around and enjoy the serene gardens. You may feel as I have, that you are experiencing a beautiful part of Japan's living history.

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