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.

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.

At the Tokyo Mariage bridal fair, visitors are invited to walk across a red-carpeted footbridge, past an artificial Mount Fuji, and on into a reproduction of a Western-style chapel. There, couples view a ceremony that they may choose for their own in which a "minister" (in this case, a Romanian actor) reads from the Bible and then – in English – instructs the couple to kiss and pronounces them man and wife.

What about those chapel steps?

But some young Japanese want an actual free-standing chapel, a desire that has given rise to faux chapels (not affiliated with any church but designed solely for weddings and bearing names like "Amour et Confiance" and "Cappellina").

By having their ceremony in a real building, says Yumi Katsura, a Tokyo-based gown designer and wedding planner, Japanese brides can descend the church steps in a shower of rice (or bird seed), as they have seen Western brides do in films.

The descent down the steps also is an excellent chance to show the bridal gown to full advantage, explains Mrs. Katsura, who insists that "the beauty of the gown is the true lure" of the Western wedding.

Katsura has been one of Japan's pioneers in the Western-style wedding business. While working as an instructor in a post-World War II dressmaking school, she discovered that most of the young seamstresses-in-training longed to design a Western wedding gown. She also surveyed young university wo-men and discovered at least a third wished they could have a Western-style wedding.

Katsura went on to open one of the first bridal shops in Japan and engage in wedding planning. Interest in Western weddings has grown steadily over the 38 years she's been in the business, but it positively exploded after heavy media coverage of the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981.

Traditional Japanese weddings will never entirely disappear, says Katsura, but she predicts they will further drop from about a third of the total today to permanently make up about a quarter of all Japanese wedding ceremonies.

At Tokyo Mariage, the staff says about 4 out of 10 of their customers still express interest in a traditional Japanese wedding. But one employee there notes that it is sometimes the parents who argue for a traditional wedding, with the bride-to-be protesting that she won't look as pretty in ceremonial Japanese garb – particularly if she is required to wear the formal wig that traditionally tops a bride.

Not their parents' wedding

Some young Japanese say they are less concerned about whether their weddings are Western or traditional, and more interested in simply being sure that they reflect their own interests, and not those of their parents or of society.

Tomoko Tagishi, a legal secretary living in Tokyo, married her husband Sadahide, a taxi driver, last December. The couple chose to have a Western-style ceremony in an Italian restaurant with 35 family members present.

"I wanted something small, something of my own," she says. "I wanted the opposite of what my parents had."

Her mother and father had shared unhappy memories of their elaborate, very formal Japanese ceremony attended by two or three hundred family friends and business associates. "It was more like a business, more for their families, they told me," Ms. Tagishi says. "They were happy for me that mine could be different."

Tagishi says she actually would have preferred a wedding more Japanese in feel, perhaps something at a Shinto shrine, but she says those need to be booked far in advance, and she felt the planning of a Japanese wedding would be too complicated.

With the money they saved on the ceremony, Tagishi and her husband honeymooned in Hawaii where they met another young couple who had just had their own formal Japanese-style wedding.

"They were exhausted," says Tagishi. "They said they envied us."

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