Nov 7, 2014

The Western Wedding, Japan Style!

The Western Wedding, Japan Style! photo

For many Japanese couples, planning a wedding boils down to two choices; keep it traditional (Shinto) or go Western (an interpretation of the traditional Christian wedding).  For a few decades now, the latter has been the most popular choice.

I’ve been to a few of these Western weddings and have been asked throughout how they compare to those held in my native United Kingdom.  It’s hard to give a short answer to such a question and thus far I’ve resorted to cliches and the glaringly obvious; It’s the same but different., We’re not in a church., There are no bridesmaids., Have you ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral?

So, here’s the answer in more detail.

The Venue

Japanese wedding venues offer a pretty garish contrast to the morbid stonework of the U.K.’s medieval churches and crumbling country homes.  The most popular choices for nuptial formalities and festivities are the all-inclusive packages of swanky hotel or purpose built wedding center.  Both provide the tag team of diminutive chapel, and party room, the latter, trussed up in all the pomp and finery you can find at weddings the world over.  In regards to the former though, if you’re used to the dark, damp corners of an ancient church then the blinding whites of Japan’s wedding ‘chapels’ will leave you wishing you’d bought a pair of shades.

Wedding centers/hotels run a slick operation.  These people don’t mess about.  Nor can they afford to.  With multiple nuptials booked for the same day, wedding groups are filed in, sat down, serenaded, and filed out, with military precision.  It’s not uncommon for groups to pass each other on their way in/out.  Whilst this may sound lacking in romance, if you fall under the category of I wish I hadn’t been invited., guest, the sense of things moving along swiftly will be very welcome.

The funny thing about all this is that during a Japanese wedding, nobody actually gets married!  That’s already been done at City Hall.  The priest/pastor in the chapel is usually just an expat English teacher pocketing a bit of extra money!    

The Western Wedding, Japan Style! photo

The Clothes

One of the big appeals of the Western wedding is the opportunity for the bride to wear the white dress.  In Japan, it comes in the familiar shapes and sizes.  The groom, too, usually dons the traditional tuxedo/suit (although some of the metallic grays, dove whites, and sparking beiges, may take some getting used too).  All pretty familiar so far.  However, quite often in Japan, the post chapel party will pause for a ‘costume’ change, with both bride and groom re-entering the room having swapped the traditional whites and grays for reds, yellows, purples, and all colors in between.  What is considered gorgeous in Japan is perhaps garish for others.  Either way, it draws a collective gasp from the guests.

More lavish weddings may have multiple dress changes, with brides sometimes changing into traditional wedding kimono (白無垢/shiromuku).

For both sets of guests, a wedding is a time to dust off the suit, pick-up a nice dress, and squeeze into some painfully stylish shoes.  The only possible mistake a Westerner could make in Japan is by wearing a black tie (for funerals only).  A safer bet would be a white shirt and tie, but it’s by no means a rule.  In the U.K., women like to wear hats at a wedding, something which would look a little odd in Japan.

The Gifts

Both styles have gone for brutal efficiency here.  There once was a time back home when the hardest part about attending a wedding, was deciding what gift to buy. These days, prenuptial couples visit a department store to compile a list of all the things they would like.  The list is posted online or sent out with invitations.  Guests indicate which item they are going to buy and go to the store to get it.  Or not. Increasingly, this is all done online.  

Over in here in Japan it’s even simpler (although, for many, more expensive). Money!  For more information about how much to give and how to present it, see our earlier article, Envelopes and Notes:  Handing Over Hard Cash at a Japanese Ceremony.

The Speeches

There are three speeches at a U.K. wedding.  The father of the bride, the groom, and the best man (usually the groom’s best friend or brother).  The first is often a tearjerker and the second, a mere formality.  It’s the best man speech that everyone gets excited about.  So much so that being best man can induce more stress than that experienced by the couple who are about to make a lifetime commitment.  The speech must be pant-wettingly funny, whilst being careful not to reveal any potentially ruinous truths about the groom. It’s a precarious and stressful task.  Consumption of alcohol seems to get most people through it!

In Japan, the key speech is usually given by the respective bosses of the bride and groom at the start of the party.  Throughout the proceedings there will also be speeches given by friends and colleagues, sometimes with accompanying music or slide shows.  Finally, the bride reads out a letter of thanks to her parents.  Have your tissues ready!

The Order of Play

The U.K. - Church (one hour), a bit of milling around before the reception, food and speeches (two hours), drinking and partying (until the last person is standing!).

Japan - Chapel (up to one hour), milling time (minimal), food and speeches (two and half hours).

In the U.K., food and drink merges into band/disco, drinking and dancing all in the same venue, continuing into the early hours of the morning.  In Japan, this is not possible.  As such, a Japanese wedding may have a second party (二次会/nijikai) and possibly a third party (三次会/sanjikai).  The second party is often held in a nearby restaurant, the third party then moving on to a bar or izakaya.  These parties are almost exclusively the realm of the younger guests.

If you’re thinking of getting hitched in Japan, you may be relieved at the gaping absence of the the first dance.  The painfully uncomfortable moment when bride and groom take to the dance floor and break into a slow dance, with all the guests watching.  

The Western Wedding, Japan Style! photo

The Cost

Research into the average cost of a wedding brings up some discrepancies.

In the U.K., it seems to be between £20,000 and £25,000 (including rings).  U.K. magazine, Brides breaks it down and comes up with £24,716 (4,515,295 yen).  

According to a survey conducted in Japan by the magazine Zexy in 2014, the average cost of a wedding on these shores is 3,340,000 yen.

The Honeymoon

Times of austerity over in the U.K. have resulted in staycations (having holidays within the U.K.).  This has spread into the honeymoon, as well.  That said, people are still dreaming.   According to a 2013 survey by Valued Opinions, the Maldives, the Caribbean, and Australia occupy the top 3 spots for British honeymooners.

For Japanese newlyweds, the destination of choice is Hawaii, with Italy, Guam, Bali, Australia, and America appearing in many rankings.

Ever been to a wedding in Japan?  How does it compare to those back home?



Traveler, surfer, and scribe. Based in Tokyo for six years.