Attending a Japanese wedding for the first time can be extremely confusing because of differences in culture, traditions and expectations. Planning a Japanese wedding? Even harder. But fear not, I’ve done the research and endured the countless wedding ads (despite being miserably single), so that you’re in good shape to plan or attend a Japanese wedding without a surprise waiting at each turn.
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Types of Japanese Wedding Ceremonies
Japanese wedding ceremonies do not always correlate with the couple’s religion. This is not surprising considering how spiritual the Japanese are, and often don’t follow a single religion.
Shinto Wedding Ceremonies
Shinto weddings are the most traditional Japanese wedding ceremonies, and are still very popular in Japan to this day. These weddings take place at a Shinto shrine, with a Shinto priest officiating the ceremony. Instead of a white dress and veil, the bride wears a traditional white or silk kimono (shiromuku) paired with either a white hood (wataboshi) or paper hat (tsunokakushi). The groom wears a black kimono with his family’s symbol in white embroidery. The ceremony is only attended by very close family members and the “matchmaker” of the couple.
Kimono rentals for weddings have become increasingly popular, as purchasing one is quite expensive for a one-time wear. Shinto wedding planning services almost always include the kimono rentals in their ceremony package, which also include things like organizing the event with the shrine, and hair and makeup. Keep in mind though, that prices for these weddings start at around 80,000 yen for just the ceremony, excluding payments to the shrine (around 300,000 yen), photography costs, and any other costs associated with dinner and after parties.
The ceremony itself lasts 20 to 30 minutes, with the main event of a Shinto wedding being the san-san-kudo ceremony, which is the sharing of sake. The sake is poured into three small cups that are stacked on top of each other, and then sipped by the groom, the bride, and then all parents. This ceremony represents the unification of the two families. Vows are then read by the groom, and then the priest and a representative from each family give offerings to the kami (gods), which is then followed by the exchange of rings.
Christian Wedding Ceremonies
“Born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist” is a common saying among the Japanese. Christian weddings in Japan are currently the most popular, and are also known as “the white wedding”. The allure and romance associated with these weddings are the reason for their popularity. Expect what you would from a common Church wedding, with bridesmaids and flower girls, hymns and songs, and a Western-looking priest as the officiant. There’s no certainty that the venue is an actual church, or that the “priest” is an actual priest. The couple is rarely Christian, so are more concerned with the looks of the ceremony!
The cost of renting out a chapel for a wedding ceremony starts at around 100,000 yen (900USD), and typically lasts around 30 minutes.
Non-Religious Wedding Ceremonies
Non-religious weddings have no rules. These weddings are planned exactly as the couple wants, and range from hotel to beach ceremonies. These weddings usually do not have a wedding officiant so the ceremony itself is not “legally binding”. Regardless, the couple would apply for their marriage license, so their union would be official.
These weddings allow for more flexibility in terms of cost and length. The couple can really decide how they want to celebrate their union, and these wedding ceremonies are usually very unique.
Photo weddings might be a surprising concept, but have become more popular in Japan in recent years. The couple opts out of holding a wedding ceremony, and instead simply has a photoshoot to commemorate their marriage. These photo weddings can ease the financial burden that a regular wedding would have, with photoshoots including kimono/wedding dress rentals, hair and makeup, and venue costs. These photoshoots typically take place at photo studios with multiple plain backgrounds for variety and start at around 100,000 yen (900USD). However, photoshoots are also offered at other wedding venues such as churches, shrines, or even hotels. These often cost more, starting at around 200,000 yen (1800USD). Keep in mind that these costs usually do not include any prints or the data of the photographs; a single print will start at around 5,000 yen (45USD), while receiving many photographs on a USB or disk will start at around 50,000 yen (450USD).
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Structure of A Japanese Wedding
After the ceremony, Japanese weddings will almost always have a reception party (結婚披露宴 / kekkonhirouen) followed by at least one after party (二次会 / nijikai).
Regardless of the type of wedding ceremony, the couple will hold a reception. The reception is generally held in a banquet hall and attended by many guests. Couples with smaller wedding ceremonies, such as the Shinto ceremony, will invite many more guests to their wedding party.
The couple will be sitting on a stage at the front of the hall, while all guests will be seated at tables. It’s common for the couple to visit each table to greet all guests, take photos, and sometimes light a candle at each table. A lot of photos will be taken throughout the reception party, and instructions on when to take photos and the taking of group photos will likely be read out at the beginning of the party. Also expect a lot of performances, whether from the newlyweds, other guests, or hired performers. Speeches will definitely take up the majority of the party, and are taken extremely seriously. Anticipate tears! You might even shed a tear or two yourself.
While you are likely to see the couple cutting into their wedding cake, you will also see some traditional Japanese practices. Called the kagami-biraki (鏡開き), a sake barrel is broken by the couple and served to all guests. This marks the transition to a new stage in life, as the couple is starting their new life as a married couple.
What you shouldn’t expect are funny speeches, dancing with other guests, and mingling with other guests. And despite the sake and alcohol that will be served, receptions are quite formal, so this is not the time to drink a lot and get drunk! (Make sure to wait for the after party!)
The After Party
The nijikai or after party is where the couple and friends unwind. Families rarely attend the nijikai, as it’s filled with drinking, dancing, and is the crazy party to end the celebration, and might be at the same hall the reception took place, rented out restaurants or bars, or large karaoke rooms. Friends who attend the after party will have to pay a fee, ranging from around 5,000 to 10,000 yen. This party is often the highlight of the day for guests, and sometimes even for the couple who are finally able to relax! There might even be an after-after-party as the night goes on!
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What to Gift at a Japanese Wedding
Goshugi (The Cash Gift)
Don’t expect a gift registry if you’re attending a Japanese wedding! Don’t show up to a wedding with a store bought gift! Instead, the couple will be expecting a cash gift, known as “goshugi”. The goshugi is a gift towards the couple who are starting their new life together.
How much should you gift?
While on average, wedding guests gift around 30,000 yen (275USD), the amount you should give depends greatly on your relationship with the couple or their families, as well as your age. The closer the relationship and the older you are, the more you will be expected to give. As even numbers can be “split” it is customary to avoid these numbers, other than multiples of 10. Also, make sure to avoid the numbers 4 (death) and 9 (suffering) as you decide. Prior to the wedding, it’s definitely recommended to visit your bank or an ATM and take out some clean bills to gift!
How should you give the gift?
Unfortunately, it might be difficult to wrap money as you would a present. But, no worries! All you have to do is visit your local convenience store, 100 yen store, or stationary store, and buy a “shugi-bukuro”. The shugi-bukuro is a special envelope used when cash is given for celebration. Search for the most colorful envelope, with the writing: 御主義 (goshugi), 御祝 (oiwai/ ” celebration”), or 寿 (gotobuki / ”congratulations''). Keep in mind that the more you are giving, the more expensive your envelope should probably be! A 100,000 yen gift shouldn’t be in an envelope bought from the 100 yen store. If you get confused, any store person should be able to help you pick the correct envelope.
The shugi bukuro will come with an outer envelope, inner envelope, and a strip of paper. In the center of the inner envelope, you should write down the amount of money that is being gifted, while your address and name should be written on the bottom left hand side of the back of this envelope. The strip of paper will have one of the characters written in the above paragraph at the top. Underneath it, you should write your name! When putting the outer envelope over the inner one, make sure that the opening of the flap is facing upwards. Doing this the other way is for funerals, so confirm that this is correct so that you don’t insult the couple!
Giving the gift is very simple, and should be given at the reception desk of the ceremony or party to either the receptionist or simply placed on the table. Keep in mind all of the tips given above, and you will be just fine!
As the Guest
Not only is it customary for the couple to receive gifts from guests attending the wedding, but it is very common that as a guest, you will receive gifts from the couple. The couple will want to thank you for attending the wedding, and will gift things like tableware or gift catalogues (hidekimono) or a box of confections (hikigashi). If not at the reception party itself, the couple will likely send you a gift afterwards to thank you for celebrating the special day with them.
As the Married Couple
The cash gifts you will receive from your guests will definitely help cover some of the costs of the wedding. However, be mindful that guests at Japanese weddings will be expecting some form of gift. If you decide to send gifts after your wedding, it is common for the gift to be around half the amount that was received from the goshugi.
What to Wear to a Japanese Wedding
As a Man
Men attending a Japanese wedding should wear a suit. Regardless of the type of ceremony, the couple will not expect you to show up in a traditional Japanese outfit. The suit can be colored or black, but try to avoid wearing a white suit! The most important rule you should follow is to avoid wearing a black suit with a black tie as this is what you would wear to a Japanese funeral. The most common attire for men attending a Japanese wedding would be a black suit with a white tie.
As a Woman
Women attending a Japanese wedding should wear a one-piece dress and stockings. It’s expected that your dress is knee-length and that your shoulders are covered by either sleeves or a shawl. Surprisingly black is an acceptable color for a Japanese wedding, but opting for color is probably the best move. Avoid fur, leather, open-toed shoes, and large bags. And as at any wedding, don’t wear white, and don’t wear anything too extravagant. The most important thing is to allow the bride to shine!
How to Have a Japanese Wedding
When to Propose
If your partner introduces you to their Japanese parents, marriage is definitely on the table. You know your partner better than anyone, but in Japan, couples usually date for around 3 years before getting married.
Proposals themselves are private in Japan and are often quite casual. You will rarely hear a story about an elaborate planned proposal or a public proposal. Regardless of how you decide to propose, it’s important to ask your partner’s parents for their permission first!
Costs of Having a Japanese Wedding
Ceremonial costs start at around 100,000 yen (900USD) on the lower end, and usually come in planned packages including attire, and makeup. However, reception costs will typically be a lot more expensive but depends largely on the number of guests attending. The more guests, the larger venue you will need to borrow and the more food and drinks you will have to prepare -- not to mention the gifts you are expected to prepare for the guests! On the contrary, the more guests you invite, the more “goshugi” (cash gifts) you will receive, and this may help ease some of the financial burden of the wedding. For reference, a 10 person ceremony and party package including food, drinks and venue rentals will start at around 250,000 yen (2250USD), so you can imagine how these costs will increase as the guest number does.
Parents usually do help with the cost of the wedding, although of course, not guaranteed. It is said that parents help with around half of the cost of the full wedding.
How to Plan a Cost-Friendly Japanese Wedding
1. Keep it small
A smaller ceremony and reception will be a lot more cost-friendly than a large celebration.
Whether dresses, suits, or kimonos, buying new outfits are extremely expensive. Rent your wedding outfits rather than buying new ones to reduce spending.
3. Do it yourself
Planning. Hair. Makeup. Photography.
The more you do yourself, or can find friends who can help you out, the more cost-friendly your wedding will be.
4. Research and compare
The venue you choose will have a great impact on the cost of your wedding. Popular locations like famous hotels will be extremely expensive, while opting for an outdoor, casual wedding could be free!
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What Should I Know Before Having a Japanese Wedding
As you plan your wedding, keep in mind that it will take at least 7 months to fully plan and prepare for your Japanese wedding. Your venue should be reserved 6 months in advance to prevent having to compromise your wants, and invitations should be sent out at least 3 months before the wedding. Couples in Japan typically hire a wedding planner or choose a “package deal” on websites that help organize the ceremony and reception party. Package deals typically include venues for the ceremony and reception, food and drinks, clothing rentals, and hair and makeup.
Citizenship and Laws
If you’re a foreigner getting married in Japan, you will need a sworn affidavit stating that you are legally free to marry from your country, to be eligible to marry. You will need to make an appointment at your country's embassy, and it will usually cost around 3,000 yen.
Marrying a Japanese national does not make you a Japanese citizen. You will be eligible for a spousal visa. Although a spousal visa isn’t the same as a permanent residency visa, it can speed up your eligibility for the permanent residency visa by up to 7 years!
It’s also important to note that dual citizenship is not allowed in Japan, so if you do eventually consider becoming a Japanese citizen, you will have to give up your citizenship to any other country.
To be married in Japan, you must register for marriage. This can be filed at your local government office. Simply having a ceremony, even one that is religious, is not a sign of legally being married.
Japanese people often celebrate their wedding anniversary on a day different from their actual wedding. This is because, instead of a wedding anniversary, Japanese people celebrate their marriage anniversary (結婚記念日 / kekonkinenbi). The day of their marriage is considered the day they applied for and received their marriage license, and this day is usually not on the day of the wedding celebration!
Japanese couples are, under law, required to have the same surname. However, if it's between a Japanese national and an international person, this decision is completely up to the couple. It is common for the wife to take the husband's last name in Japan, but many Japanese women have been opting to keep their last name when marrying a foreigner.
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What Not to Do at a Japanese Wedding
Here are the 3 most important things you should avoid doing at a Japanese Wedding. Follow these and you are all set!
1. Don’t Ignore the Invitation
If you’re invited to a wedding, regardless of whether you are attending or not, you MUST reply. Make sure to notify the couple of your attendance with a letter within a week of receiving the invitation! Do not text the couple that you will attend after getting an invitation in the mail. If you cannot attend the wedding, it is customary that you send back your response with the goshugi (cash gift).
2. Don’t Be Late
Punctuality is extremely important. If you think you will be late, call the wedding venue and let them know as soon as possible. Showing up late out without notice is extremely disrespectful! On a similar note, if you can’t make it to the wedding after RSVPing, let the couple know as soon as possible. If it’s the day of the wedding, make sure to let the venue know.
3. Don’t Wing your Wedding Speech
In Japan, wedding speeches are extremely important and serious. If you’re asked to give a speech, make sure you take the time to prepare and practice your speech. It’s also important to prepare and research, because there are many words that should be avoided when giving a speech at a Japanese wedding. Words like “break up” (別れる/ wakareru), “repetition” (繰り返し / kurikaeshi), or even “once again” (もう一度 / mouichido) should not be said as they suggest divorce and second marriages. Make sure to do your research as you write your speech!
4. Don’t Ignore the Dress Code
Whether using the tips stated above, or following the dress code the couple has given you, make sure your outfit is respectful towards the couple.
5. Don’t Forget the Gift
Clean, crisp bills in a shugi-bukuro are a must for guests attending a Japanese wedding. Use the information and tips given above to properly give the couple their gift!
At the end of the day, despite the differences in tradition and expectations Japanese weddings may have to what you may be used to, they’re still a day full of love, happiness and celebration. Make sure to enjoy yourself, whether you’re attending a Japanese wedding, or planning one. If you’re getting ready for your Japanese wedding, おめでとう (omedetou / congratulations)!
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