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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Survival of the cutest at sweltering summer weddings


For most Japanese, the broiling heat of August evokes images of shaved ice, cold watermelon, chilled beer and ghosts -- all of which are supposed to add a shiver to the season.

I, however, cannot help but focus elsewhere. To me, sweltering heat means only one thing: marriage!

It was 22 short summers ago, beneath a Kyushu sun hot enough to cook birds in flight, that my wife and I were joined in matrimony. Every year around this time, I find it easy to reminisce -- not just on my own trip down the aisle but also on the general trips and snags in all Japanese weddings.

By "wedding," I mean mostly "reception." Here, the reception is the main event, with the marriage ceremony relegated to a far lesser role, akin perhaps to a cartoon short before a feature film.

Sure, to many Japanese the ceremony is special too. Yet for the worldly majority, the trading of vows is but a brief, romantic photo-op before the more significant happening of the wedding party.

In a legal sense, the family register switch at City Hall is all that matters. The ceremony is mostly for show, granting brides who choose a Western wedding their dream of donning a fancy gown -- and dropping their new husbands into the inverse nightmare of having to dress like Little Lord Fauntleroy.

This reduced role of the ceremony is perhaps now true in the West as well, where the sanctity of the nuptial pledge has shriveled within the context of a falling regard for religion and a rising interest in living together prior to wedlock.

Indeed, where I'm from, it seems the most anticipated two little words of the day are not the "I do!" of the ceremony but rather the "Open bar!" of the reception.

Spirits overflow at Japanese wedding parties as well, but not until the go-between and other dignitaries have delivered a fair number of congratulatory remarks -- remarks that often last longer than the ceremony and in some arranged marriages perhaps even longer than the courtship. By the time this first set of talks concludes, everyone still awake is almost desperate for a drink. The wedding toast slakes this desperation, but even more speeches follow, creating a new need and eventually some very tipsy guests.

Nor is it uncommon for the groom to end up as the tipsiest person in the room, as there is soon a long line of well-wishers eager to help him celebrate with a salutary exchange of cups. Often this seems the groom's main wedding-day chore: to imbibe as much booze as possible.

Meanwhile, the bride's chief duty is to change her clothes. Every few minutes she will disappear, only to pop back later wearing something entirely different. Typically, the progression goes from bridal grown to kimono to another kimono to a final outfit perhaps borrowed from the wardrobe of Scarlett O'Hara.

Sometimes grooms will change clothes, too, and most love to escape their Fauntleroy suit. Yet, the more they drink, the less they mind it.

When in the room together, the bride and groom either have to pretend to listen to the continuing drone of speeches or perform some cutesy routine for the guests.

One of these routines calls for the lights to dim and for the bride and groom to glide about the room holding a long-stemmed candle. They stop to light candles at each table, which often is quite entertaining: The couple is soon blinded by all the camera flashes, and the groom is too drunk to be handling fire anyway.

Another cute moment is to have the bride and groom share a soda from separate straws. My wife and I did this, holding our puckers until each and every shutterbug had spent at least half a roll of film.

Of course, the cutest moment of all is the cutting of the cake.

Japanese wedding cakes are larger than many medium-size trees and often more permanent. This is because they are molded of high-grade plastic, with only the wedge to be cut made of actual cake. Not so at my own wedding, where an American woman baked us a real three-tiered cake. My bride and I might have cut this straight, too -- except one of us goofed. To this day, my wife hesitates to let me near knives.

One added wrinkle of Japanese receptions is that the bride and groom give gifts to all the guests.

I remember thinking, "Is this topsy-turvy or what? We should be getting gifts, not giving them!"

But there is no fighting culture, and my bride and her mother rummaged through stores to find just the present that would best express our union, eventually settling on fake-lacquer tissue boxes.

Since then I have always looked forward to receiving some gift at each wedding I attend. My loot includes dishes, silverware travel kits and my favorite: a musical umbrella. All that plus one thing more -- the memories. In the end, that's what wedding days are all about. Even in the forgettable heat of summer.



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