What’s Different About Weddings in Japan? Unique Customs, Breathtaking Venues, and More!
Experiencing Japan’s unique culture is one of the best things about a holiday here! You might even catch a glimpse of a Japanese Shinto wedding party while touring the many shrines here. But what is a Shinto style wedding like, and how are weddings in Japan different to the West? Read on for your guide to weddings in Japan, including unique customs, gorgeous locations that you can easily visit even if you're not getting hitched, and what you should know if you get an invite!
Types of Japanese Weddings
Just like anywhere in the world, the type of ceremony couples choose varies depends on their religion, family background, and personal tastes. In Japan, there are three common styles. Today, the most popular choice is church or chapel-style weddings, which are similar to the typical ceremony performed in the West. Currently, church weddings make up around 65% of weddings in Japan. Around 20% of couples choose a Shinto wedding, called in Japanese a shinzen kekkon, or a “marriage before the deities.” Around 15% choose a jinzen kekkon, which is a civil wedding where the guests act as witnesses.
When you see images of Shinto weddings, they may appear to be an ancient tradition. In fact, Shinto weddings are a surprisingly modern invention! This style of wedding emerged from the Japanese elite in the early 20th century, and spread more widely throughout the nation in post-war Japan. Until the 1990s, this was the most popular type of wedding in Japan.
What happens at a Shinto marriage ceremony? A shinzen kekkon takes around half an hour, and is usually attended by a small family group, with a reception banquet usually held after for friends and others.
The first stage of the ceremony is a procession lead by the priests and shrine maidens. This is the part of the ceremony you may catch sight of when you’re visiting a shrine in Japan. Inside the shrine, the priest will perform a purification ritual and make offerings of food, salt, water, sake, and rice to the deities. The priest will then perform a ritual to notify the deities of the marriage taking place, and offer a prayer for their eternal happiness.
The next stage of the ritual is called the “san-san-ku-do” ceremony, which is known as the core of the wedding ceremony. This ceremony uses three cups of varying sizes. Sake is poured into each of the three cups, which are sipped from in turn by both the bride and groom. Some couples also choose to exchange rings at this point, although this is not originally a part of a Shinto wedding ceremony.
Next, the bridge and groom stand before the altar, and the groom makes a marriage vow. Then, they make an offering of a branch from the sasaki tree, a sacred tree believed to be inhabited by the deities, which is decorated with cotton and paper streamers.
Finally, the family joins the ceremony with a sake ritual. The whole family, or chosen representatives, drink a cup of sake in three sips. This ritual is performed to join the two families together.
Western-style weddings spread in popularity in Japan in the 1990s. Some point to televised weddings, notably Princess Diana’s wedding and the wedding of Japanese superstar Momoe Yamaguchi to Tomokazu Miura, as helping to popularize this style of wedding.
While Japanese people largely identify as non-religious, and Christians make up a very small amount of the population, this style is by far the most commonly chosen today. Compared to Shinto weddings, a Christian-style wedding can be a little more flexible in format, dress, and location, which is an appealing point for many modern couples who want to express their personal style.
Christian-style weddings can be held in churches, chapels, or other private wedding venues such as hotels. Ceremonies are often held in a mix of Japanese and European languages such as English. Protestant churches typically allow anyone to hold a wedding in their churches regardless of their religious beliefs, while some churches require adherence to the faith.
Although the ceremony is similar to the types of weddings common in the West, there are some differences, particularly when it comes to the reception. A wedding reception in Japan may feel a little more structured than in some other countries, and dancing isn't typically as big a part of the event. There are usually a number of speeches given at Japanese receptions, and there are also some unique Japanese additions you may not see in the West, like a candle-lighting ceremony and a letter read by the bride to her parents. It's also common for the newlyweds to leave midway through the reception and return in new, usually more colorful outfits. Another nice difference is that all wedding guests leave with a gift from the newlyweds!
Like everywhere else in the world, the way people get married in Japan is evolving. One of the more popular ceremonies to emerge is the jinzen kekkon, otherwise known as a civil wedding, or a ”wedding before people”. Instead of making a marriage vow to the deities, the couple instead makes their declaration before their loved ones who act as witnesses. For non-religious couples, this can create a more meaningful ceremony that reflects their values. Many modern couples also appreciate the ability to mix and match the customs they include, allowing for a ceremony that's more customized than one in a religious space may allow for.
The high average cost of holding a wedding in Japan, which at 3.5 million yen is similar to the average $33,000 US couples spend, has prompted many people to forego ceremonies or receptions altogether. Like in the West, some couples prefer to simply register their marriage with their city hall and use the money saved elsewhere. Others choose a photo-kon, or “photo wedding”, which is simply a commemorative photo shoot in wedding outfits to mark the occasion.
While same-sex marriage is not yet recognized by the law, some couples choose to hold a wedding ceremony to celebrate their commitment. A famous example is Koyuki Higashi and her partner, who made news in 2012 for being first same-sex couple to wed at Tokyo Disneyland Resort. With matching white gowns and Micky and Minnie Mouse in attendance, the happy couple expressed their hope that their wedding would help encourage acceptance of gay rights. Recent polls show that a slight majority of Japanese people support same-sex marriage, so it’s possible that one day all couples will be able to benefit from the legal protection marriage affords in Japan.
What should you do if you're invited to a Japanese wedding? There are a few things to be aware of when you're celebrating a friend or family member's special day in Japan.
What Gifts Should You Give?
In Japan, it's typical for guests to offer the married couple a gift of cash called goshugi. There are probably some newlyweds in the West who would prefer this was the standard where they lived, too!
Although a cash gift may seem simpler than picking out the perfect wedding present, there are some rules to follow. First is the amount of money to give. The standard gift is 30,000 yen for non-family guests. In fact, surveys have found that around 95% of people give this amount. For family members, gifts typically range between 50,000 - 100,000 yen. In comparison, the costs of gifts given in the US ranges typically between $50 - $200. So, attending weddings in Japan can definitely become costly!
There are some superstitions around gifts you should also keep in mind. Cash gifts of an even number, such as 20,000 yen, are often avoided because they can be easily divided by two, which is considered symbolically unlucky. Gifts of 40,000 yen are doubly unlucky because the word for four in Japanese, shi, sounds the same as the word for death. If you choose to give a gift as well as money, it's best to avoid anything breakable, like wine glasses, or anything that can cut, like a knife. These types of gifts symbolically suggest the breaking of ties between the couple.
Of course, you don’t just hand the couple some cash from your wallet! The bills should be new, which symbolizes the start of the couple’s new life together. These bills should be presented in a special type of envelope called a shugi-bukuro which have a decorative knot called a mizuhiki. You may see these decorated envelopes in stationery stores or even convenience stores in Japan. When you arrive at the ceremony, you should give this gift at the reception desk before entering the venue. Just like at a Western wedding, there's no need to hand the gift to the couple themselves.
What to Wear to a Japanese Wedding?
The typical dress for a Japanese wedding is fairly similar to the West, although on average weddings in Japan may be a touch more formal. Of course, common sense tells us that wearing all white is a bad idea at a wedding, and an all-black outfit is best avoided as well.
For men, a dark-colored suit is the best choice, but be sure to avoid wearing black on black. Brightening up a darker suit with a grey vest or light-colored shirt is a good idea. It's best to avoid bold patterns and colors, but some brighter accessories like a tie or pocket square are perfectly fine.
Some women choose to wear a kimono to a wedding, but unless you feel very confident in your knowledge of Japanese formalwear, it's best to stick with Western-style clothes. A mid-length cocktail dress paired with heels and some simple jewellery is a safe choice for most occasions. It's best to avoid anything overly short or bold, and it's commonly suggested to avoid styles that expose the shoulders. If you have a sleeveless dress you'd like to wear, many women choose to add a light shrug or shawl.
Above all, both men and women should avoid anything that could draw attention to yourself over the couple being celebrated.
Whether you prefer a shrine, church, or chapel, there's a wealth of gorgeous places to get married in Japan! Here are some of the most in-demand wedding venues around. Many of them also make excellent spots to visit when sightseeing, even if you're not planning on getting hitched!
Meiji Jingu Shrine
Meiji Jingu Shrine is located in Shibuya, and is one of the most popular wedding sites in Tokyo. It also happens to be Japan's most famous Shinto shrine, with roughly three million visitors coming for the year's first prayers (hatsumode). At busy times, the shrine can perform up to 15 weddings a day! This shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. In 2018, Princess Ayako wed her husband Kei Moriya here.
Many people also choose to hold their reception on the grounds at the Meiji Kinenkan, a venue managed by the shrine itself.
Chapel on the Water
Chapel on the Water was designed by renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando in 1985. Located in Hokkaido, this modernist chapel has been built in the quiet clearing of a beech forest. The chapel's seats face a fully open front wall overlooking a reflecting pool where a large steel cross appears to float on the water. The elegant, modern design and beautiful natural scenery that surrounds the chapel make this a continually popular wedding destination. This chapel was also the location for a music video by the popular singer, BoA.
Even if you're not getting married, the gorgeous architecture of the chapel makes it worth a visit. If you happen to be visiting Hokkaido, don't forget to stop by this church!
St. Mary's Cathedral
Another modernist church that is highly in demand for weddings is St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo. Built in 1964, this Catholic church was designed by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. The dramatically soaring roof and stainless steel walls here create a breathtaking, meditative atmosphere.
Unlike the Chapel on the Water, which is a privately-run chapel used mainly as a wedding venue, this is a functioning church that holds regular masses. Regardless of your religion, a visit is worth it for the stunning architecture alone.
Yasaka Shrine is a Kyoto landmark and a popular site for Shinto weddings in Kyoto. This shrine is known for its connection to the geisha who work in Kyoto's Gion district, and also for its annual festival, the Gion Matsuri, which is the largest in Kyoto.
Yasaka Shrine is known as an ideal shrine to visit when seeking love and marriage because it enshrines the deities Susanoo-no-Mikoto and Kushinadahime-no-Mikoto, a married couple. Many believers stop to write their wishes on the heart-shaped ema plaques here, or buy an enmusubi o-mamori (love amulet) from the shrine. Pay a visit if you're seeking luck in the romance department!
Weddings can be performed in the main hall, the ceremonial hall, or the outdoor stage, and like at Meiji Jingu, there is also a reception venue managed by the shrine here.
If you have the chance to attend a wedding in Japan, it's sure to be a unique experience! Keep these tips in mind so you're ready for anything on your next trip. And even if you don't get an invite, you won't regret taking the time to visit the gorgeous shrines and churches introduced here!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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