Not long after I’d moved to Japan, I received an invitation in the fall from a co-worker to attend her wedding, to be held that winter. It was exciting enough that she chose to invite me to something as significant as a wedding without really knowing me that well, so I told her I’d be there. Though couples do still opt for a traditional Japanese wedding in addition to a western one, it seems that weddings lately are trending more towards Western-type. My co-worker was having a Western one, although she and her fiance had professional pictures taken wearing traditional Japanese attire.
Then I realized, I needed to figure out the proper etiquette for attending a Japanese wedding. I’d heard somewhere before that bringing money for a gift is the appropriate thing to do, rather than actual, physical gifts. (I wish this was custom in the U.S….) I told her I didn’t have a lot of money at the time (but I would give what I could, since I wasn’t sure what the normal “amount” was. I doubt I put in a good amount, since most people give anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 yen and up (about $100 – 500 US). I also wasn’t sure what to wear, and told her about the clothing I currently owned (no dresses, only some skirts that were more “business wear”). She said whatever I wore would be fine.
A few days before the wedding I went hunting for money envelopes. The only ones I’d seen were at the local supermarket and drug store, and a scarce selection at that. I took pictures of the front of the envelopes, to send to a friend so he could read the kanji and tell me what they said. (I didn’t want anything that said something like, “sorry for your loss” or “congrats on your new baby!”). He helped me with some of them but said the calligraphy on others was too difficult to decipher. I was in a hurry and wouldn’t have time to shop for them again, so I just decided to be safe by choosing a pack of plain envelopes.
The day of the wedding I rode a shuttle bus with others from my workplace to the “church,” which really was more like a surreal castle tower with a walkway that cascaded down in a square spiral (see left), leaving the middle completely open to the ceiling, where the “priest” (who stated he was the “Lord” of the castle) was standing, waiting to perform the ceremony.
One of the first things I noticed was that all the women were dressed to the nines. It reminded me of my high school prom (that I stayed at for an entire 20 minutes). Frills and lace and fancy updo’s, while I was wearing a plain brown skirt and blue V-neck sweater, exposing my translucent pale skin and probably scandalizing every old woman there (not that there’s much to see). So, tip #1, if invited to a Japanese wedding, and it’s a Western-type one, assume that you need to wear something incredibly fancy. Men, ties are a must – the groom himself had coattails. Even if you ask the dress code, be prepared to hear: “Oh, anything is fine.” Believe me, it’s not. Oh, they’ll still talk to you and love having you there because you are a foreigner, (I felt like somewhat of a celebrity, despite the fact it wasn’t my wedding) even if you don’t dress up enough, but really, you should.
When the guests were arriving, they proceeded in a line to a waiting room until the actual start time of the ceremony. On the way in was a large table with the gift envelopes spread out in an orderly fashion. Looking at the table, my eyes took in bright colors of blue, red, gold and silver, with large adornments and ribbon tied in extravagant detail. I looked at my homely envelope, then turned to a girl behind me, showed her my envelope and whispered, “is this OK?” She smiled while assuring me it was fine. At the front of the line I handed my envelope over to the gift attendants, who took it, bowing profusely and thanking me, holding it as if it were gold. I walked away, into the waiting room, but stole a quick glance over my shoulder to catch the attendant stuffing it under the pile, where it would remain unseen.
So, tip #2, do not use a plain envelope. Buy a fancy one like the ones in the picture here – fancier the better. The kanji simply means “congratulations.” If you can’t find one at a nearby store, go to a stationary store or a place like Tokyu Hands or Loft.
The ceremony proceeded in a fairytale-like fashion, complete with mist billowing out over the floor, the rings floating down from the ceiling on a heart-shaped pillow, and various other theatrics.
We then proceeded to the reception, where a seven course meal was served, the bride and groom’s parents walked around filling everyone’s glasses for a toast, many, many speeches, and what else, Bingo. Somehow I ended up winning first prize in Bingo, receiving a portable DVD player. They gave all of the guests a lot of gifts, so be prepared to carry a multitude of bags home.
At some point during the reception, I was asked to give a speech, simply because I’m a foreigner. I didn’t know they would ask me beforehand, but I sauntered up, thanking everyone profusely in Japanese and explained where I’m from, then switched to English since at the time my Japanese wasn’t sufficient to say much else. I probably babbled something about well-wishes and good marriage and thank you for having me, etc. – trying to sound Japanese. So, tip #3, be prepared to give a speech. It may not happen, but there’s a good chance it might. Though everyone applauded and cheered when I had finished, I couldn’t help but think most of them were probably clapping out of politeness, wondering what the crap had I even been talking about, “why did she say stuff about America?”, and “who is this person again?”
Now that you’ve learned the proper etiquette from my ridiculous mistakes, I hope it helps you for whenever you are invited to a wedding in Japan. Of course, the wedding was quite fun and I enjoyed it, but since I learned these etiquette lessons the hard way, now you don’t have to.
For more about Japanese weddings and essential tips for life in Japan, visit my site, Surviving in Japan.