A Japanese Wedding, Western Style

A year ago today (March 18 in Japan), I was in Tokyo, attending a friend’s wedding.  This was only the second wedding I attended outside of my family, and the second outside the country.  Though much delayed, here are my observations on that ceremony.

Japanese people get married one of two ways: Japanese style or Western style.  A Japanese style wedding includes a traditional Shinto ceremony, where the groom wears a kimono and the bride is dressed all in white.  In a Western style wedding, the bride wears a white dress and the groom wears a white tuxedo.  Oh, and they are married by a white dude.

My friend (who I will call “K”) decided to get married Western style.  The wedding took place at Meguro Gajoen, which is a hotel in the same way that Monticello is a house.  Here are some pictures of the lobby (click to enlarge):

Before the wedding, many of the women changed into kimonos, while K and the groom (who I will call “M”) changed in a separate room upstairs.  On one floor were rooms set aside for family and friends of the bride and groom.  Normally, I would have stayed in one of the friend rooms, but since I had come with K’s family, I stayed in their room, and drank this:

K went around to visit the rooms at one point with M, and then later visited her family’s room by herself, where a chair was placed in the middle of the room and we took photos of her.

When it was time for the ceremony to begin (a little before noon), hotel attendants came and had us form two lines.  Normally, I would have lined up with other friends of the bride, but the attendants said it was okay for me to come in with the family.  We headed out to a small chapel that was in the middle of the building, but outside.  Like American weddings, the bride’s side sat on the left side of the chapel, while the groom’s side sat on the right.  I’m not sure if this is common or not, but besides a choir made up of two men and two women, there was a violin player and a trumpeter there, the former playing as people streamed in, the latter as people left.  Once the bride’s side was seated, the groom’s side came in, and then the friends of the bride.

The priest (see photo above) came in with M.  He stood at the front of the church, while M stood at the front of the aisle.  Five-candled candelabras flanked the priest.  Then the doors opened at the back, and K entered with her father, she on the left (bride’s side), he on the right.  They bowed, then she walked over to her mother, who was standing behind the pews, and kneeled in front of her.  Her mother lowered the veil over K’s face, K rose, and then she and her father walked down the aisle, in time to the first and third beat of every measure of “Here Comes the Bride.”  About halfway down the aisle, M met them, the father and M bowed, the father put the bride’s arm on the groom’s, and K and M continued the rest of the way to the front of the chapel, while K’s parents made their way to the front row.

After the processional, the crowd sang a hymn together in Japanese, whose words (with helpful furigana) were printed in the program (Hymn 312).  Then there was a Bible reading (don’t ask me which one), a prayer, a message, the wedding vows (groom first, then bride), the exchanging of rings (ring on bride, then on groom), another prayer (this one in English), the declaration of marriage, the signing of the marriage certificate, the benediction, the recessional, and the audience recessional.  This took all of 15 minutes.  The kiss occurred after the signing of the marriage certificate and before the benediction, accompanied by a climactic crescendo in the choir.  Despite that buildup, Japanese kisses at weddings are so short that, if you blink, you’ll miss it.  Maybe that’s why they have musical accompaniment, so that you’ll know when the kiss will occur.

The recessional happened in reverse order from the processional, so the bride and groom left the chapel first, followed by their friends.  Once outside, we all posed for a photo on the lawn with K and M.  We were then given flower petals and lined up in two rows on either side of the path that led from the chapel back inside the hotel.  Once the family had exited and had also been given flowers, K and M walked down the aisle, and we threw the petals at them as they walked past us.

Here is what the aftermath looked like:

K’s and M’s friends were then brought down a level into a waiting room, where we stayed until it was time for us to head to the reception, which was on the same floor.  Here, we were served water and tea.  Though I had brought (and eaten) some snacks ahead of time, I was quite hungry, and all I had had to drink since arriving was the sakura tea.

We also had to wait until two friends of the groom and two friends of the bride were ready to accept wedding gifts at a table just outside the waiting room.  Unlike American weddings, there is only one kind of wedding gift in Japan: money put into a special envelope.  Also unlike American weddings, the amount is important, not due to its value (though that factors into it), but due to the number of bills, which should not be evenly divisible by two (here’s why).  In most cases, the amount is 30,000 yen (roughly $300).

Once the gift has been accepted, the person giving the gift signs his or her name in the gift registry.  Because I was American and the signing tool is a brush (not a pen, though it looks like one), I signed my name in English, since using the Japanese alphabet would require using katakana, which doesn’t look quite as nice as kanji.  Plus, signing it in cursive impressed the two people taking gifts, one of whom is another friend of mine (who I will call “N”).  In return, I received the seating chart for the reception, which included a cute picture of the bride and one of the groom as children, as well as answers to questions like, “How many children would you like to have?”

Once it was time for the reception, I entered the reception room, where name tags were on the table for us and gift bags were at our seats.

The reception itself is very stylized, which is why even some Japanese people think American weddings are more exciting.  Two things that American weddings don’t have, however, are nine-course French cuisine meals (I got full around the fourth course) and beautiful women dressed in kimonos.  Also, instead of a DJ, there is a female MC.  In addition, the tables are grouped so that bosses and coworkers are seated closest to the married couple, followed by friends, then family.  Because of my limited Japanese abilities, K sat N next to me, as her English is quite good, despite her protestations to the contrary.

The first course was spread out before us when we got there, but the MC soon announced the arrival of the bride and groom.  The lights went out, the spotlight went up, and the bride and groom arrived through the double doors, bowing after the doors opened.  They traveled around the room, then sat down at a table near the front of the dining area, next to the MC.

088. So Happy!

The groom then gave a speech, thanking everyone for coming, followed by the bride giving a speech.  M’s boss spoke before the cutting of the cake, which K fed to M (and while there was none of that playfulness that usually attends this part of the ceremony in American weddings, she practically shoved the whole piece in his mouth).

Open Wide!

After the cutting of the cake, K’s boss spoke. Then, each table was invited up to the bride and groom’s table to take a photo with them.

One thing I learned at a Japanese wedding which occurred soon after the second and subsequent courses were handed out, is not to ask for beer unless you want it to be constantly refilled by the father of the groom and the mother and father of the bride.  I was able to wave off most of the requests with N’s help, but I acquiesced to K’s father.  Originally, I had asked for water, but either the server didn’t understand my Japanese, or he thought it a strange request (though I changed to water later).

After the second course, K was whisked away by two of her friends to help her change into her kimono.  After the third course, M was whisked away by one of his friends for the same purpose.  After the fifth course, we were treated to a slideshow of K and M growing up, which included pictures of everyone who was at the wedding.

M and K returned after the eighth course: he in a lily white kimono, she in a gorgeous orange, gold, and white one (all of these changes and reappearances utilizing the MC and the spotlight).  After bowing, they went around to each table, from the back of the room to the front, in order to pose for photos with everyone.


After the wedding cake was handed out, we were told that eight slices included sour plums in them.  The people who found the sour plums got to go up to the front of the room, where there were eight presents, and drew straws to see who would pick first.  Gifts included a digital camera and a Starbucks gift certificate.

The ceremony ended with M and K giving presents to their parents.  M’s father spoke, then M, after which both sets of parents and the bride and groom left the room.  Once the centerpieces and bags of flowers were given out to people, the MC announce that the reception was over.  It had started at 1 pm and had finished around 3:30.

Still, there were a couple more traditional aspects to complete before the event was over.  Outside the reception room, M and K greeted the guests, along with their parents, and gave out sweets: M to his guests, K to hers.  In the case of K’s sweets, they were made by her mother, so I can only assume that M’s mom made his.  Then, once numerous photos of the bride and groom were taken at different locations around the hotel, we all gathered on the large staircase in the lobby for one final group photo.  After that, the bride and groom headed off with their families to have dinner (both families ate together), while I headed to the station with N and another of K’s friends, who were still dressed in their kimonos.

Back at K and M’s apartment, I opened my gifts while waiting for them to return from dinner.  One of them was this cake.

It's Cake!

While I stayed a few more days in Tokyo and had several more memorable experiences, so ended my experience at a Japanese wedding.