How to Not Make a Fool of Yourself at a Japanese Wedding

January 12th, 2011By Category: Culture

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.

Author of this article

Ashley Thompson

I'm a 20-something writer, blogger, techie living in Japan. My time is spent writing, freelancing, learning Japanese and experiencing the culture first-hand. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, Washington), I took a giant leap across the ocean after finishing up my undergrad work. Taught with the JET program for a year and a half, and now teach part-time, do a myriad of online freelance work, and blogging at Surviving in Japan (see Website link above). I'm always on the lookout for new and helpful resources here, especially as a foreigner.

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  • Manuel says:

    I usually let my wife handle the details, since she’s Japanese. No worries on my part.

  • Kersey says:

    Sorry, Ashley, but there was absolutely a party afterwards that you were not invited to. And that is okay. That is mostly for the people who didn’t attend the wedding. Plus the men always have a drinking party called “nijikai” after any type of social function or ceremony. But it is probably better that you didn’t go. 

  • That Guy says:

    Yes this is correct and also make sure you go to a bank and ask for new bills or bills for a wedding. I was told that it is rude to give them the old wrinkled ones that stink from a bank machine. My Japanese coworker came with me and refused one bill because there was a faint bend and wanted all of them to be perfectly straight…. superstition I guess.

  • Percivalxavier says:

    30,000Y going to the wedding single, 50,000Y to go as a couple.
    Other than that the amount can change based on your relationship with the couple (family, colleague, boss). The important thing is to make it an odd number so the couple can’t split it and reimburse for the party and gifts (usually 20,000Y+ per head).

  • That Guy says:

    From what I understand most weddings do have an after party, and they can even be a few months later depending. The main difference here is that it is only the very close friends and some family of the bride and groom that go to the party, not everyone invited…..

    PS – Why didn’t you take 15 minutes of your time and look up the proper customs a head of time? Thats what I did when I went to my first one and I was happy that I didn’t … well look like you did….

  • I love reading about how weddings are done in other countries. I was once invited to a traditional Chinese wedding and I found myself researching and asking a lot of people about a lot of things. But the experience is definitely fun.

  • Aha says:

    I guess the mentioned afterward party isn’t RIGHT afterward like in the West, but one year from then, then 2 years party, 3 years… Those are real parties, not the formal wedding itself where most couples just cope with the traditional things (even if it’s supposed to be a Western-style wedding, like everything else, it really isn’t^^;;)…

  • Cooper says:

    Also, watch out for the knot on the envelope… Some of the knots (like the one in the middle, on the bottom row of the large picture) indicate you want something to happen to someone many times over…not very good for weddings. Even some Japanese people screw this one up though.

  • Ashley says:

    Suppose it depends on the wedding? This particular one didn’t have any parties afterward, and I suppose the Bingo was the main entertainment… Though I have heard some weddings do have parties following.

  • You forgot tip #4: Be prepared for the Wedding to end abruptly without any discernible hint of fun, dancing, or entertainment and hope that you’ve been invited to the second, third or fourth parties so that things might get a bit more interesting. ;-p