Western weddings in Japan
In Japan, white gowns, thrown rice, and vows in front of a 'minister' are all the rage.
The lights are dimmed. A gentle mist rises from the stage. Suddenly floodlights snap on and, floating amid the ersatz clouds, is the very image of contemporary Japanese romance.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
A beautiful young Japanese model, adorned in a cherry-red, multitiered dress, silk rosettes spilling down her shoulders, hangs on the arm of a groom dashingly attired in a three-quarter-length gray morning suit.
The crowd largely young Japanese couples in their casual Saturday dress gasps a bit. A couple of the women scribble notes. A few of the men appear momentarily dazed.
All are paying serious attention.
This is a bridal fair held at Tokyo Mariage [sic], a popular bridal mart on the edge of Tokyo. Some Japanese couples planning their weddings spend many weekends attending such fairs, viewing staged ceremonies and garnering ideas as to how they would like their own ceremonies to look.
When it comes to style, one thing is clear for many young Japanese today: Whatever makes a wedding seem more Western is to be highly desired.
"We never even thought of a traditional Japanese wedding," says Masahiko Nishida, a young Tokyoite planning a September wedding.
Certainly some young Japanese couples still choose a traditional ceremony. Many brides also like to combine the two by wearing both a kimono and a Western wedding gown at different points during the bridal celebrations a choice that seems less unusual in Japan, where an elaborate wedding typically requires the bride and groom to change clothes three or four times.
However, on one recent Saturday at Tokyo Mariage, a dozen or more young brides-to-be eagerly combed through a rack of billowing Western gowns ranging in shades from pale white to pistachio green to glittery silver. A few yards away, a display of graceful kimonos embroidered with cranes, the traditional Japanese symbol of matrimonial good fortune was deserted.
"I don't even know what a traditional Japanese ceremony really looks like," confesses one young woman checking out the Western gowns with friends. "None of my friends has had one."
Youthful Japanese can enumerate many reasons why they are attracted to Western-style weddings: Compared with traditional weddings, which may take place in Shinto shrines (or in a hotel in which a shrine has been set up), they are more romantic. They are what one sees in the movies. They are lighter in spirit. They are more modern and less tiring.
And yet, for some who observe Japanese society, there is something a bit alarming about this kind of cultural borrowing. "It's a fad and perhaps not harmful," says Genzo Yamamoto, an assistant professor of history at Boston University. "Yet there is something sad, a certain shallowness to it."
The Japanese have long been fascinated with American customs, and a certain amount of cultural mimicry is normal, points out Charles Yates, director of the Institute for Education on Japan at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. But when it comes to the Western wedding craze, he says, "I don't think anyone really knows what's going on."
Weddings have always played a somewhat different role in Japan than they do in the US. Because Japanese couples are married by a civil ceremony, not a religious one, many quietly perform the civil act of marriage and then plan their ceremony, which may follow up to a year after the legal tying of the knot.
As a result, the second ceremony is not a legal exchange of vows a fact that has not stopped many young Japanese from deciding they want to repeat vows, Western-style, before a "minister," often a nonclerical Westerner chosen to play the part simply on the basis of fluency in English.