Both times that we have visited Japan in the spring, we have seen Japanese weddings taking place. The first time was when we were visiting Hiroshima (広島) and saw a ceremony taking place inside the shrine within the castle grounds. I didn’t take any photographs, because it felt rude to act like a tourist while a serious ceremony was taking place. The bride was dressed head to toe in white and had on the traditional head-dress that is more hood-like than hat-like, called a wataboshi (綿帽子). It was a scorchingly hot day and her shiromuku robes (白無垢 – literally white kimono) looked very heavy. She must have been grateful for the cool and the shade inside the shrine. Listening to the intonations of the priests as the couple sat very still before the shrine altar made the ceremony seem much more grave and dignified than the ceremonies we have in the West.
The second Japanese wedding we saw was this year as we were visiting Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park. We were milling around with all the other tourists, when one of the guards came alongside me. He said something in Japanese to me, from which I picked out the words kekkon (結婚 – wedding), ima (今 – now), koko (ここ – here) and gofungoro (五分ごろ – about 5 minutes). I gathered that there was to be a wedding here now in about 5 minutes. Clever me! The guard then indicated the route the wedding party would take, and told me that if I stood in a particular spot, I would be okay (大丈夫/だいじょうぶ). We had a short conversation, which involved him telling me things half in broken English, half in Japanese with me nodding and saying “Soudesuka” at regular intervals. I caught “イギリスには、ちがいですね” (in England it’s different isn’t it?) and then something about a car and a cushion, at which point I was completely lost.
Moments later, the wedding party came through. The bride was stunning in her shiromuku which was covered by an elaborately embroidered over gown, the uchikake (打掛). Her head-dress was the hat-like tsunokakushi (角隠し) which has peaks said to hide the bride’s horns of jealousy, and which is a symbol of the bride’s intention to be a gentle and obedient wife.
The couple was sheltered from the sun by a large parasol, carried by one of the shrine staff, and the bride’s mother tenderly held her daughter by her hand as they processed through the shrine grounds. The two young women walking in front of them are miko (巫女) or shrine-maidens. The groom looked handsome in his montsuki (紋付 – formal kimono), haori (羽織 – kimono jacket) and hakama (袴 – divided skirt/kimono trousers), and very pleased with himself!
Witnessing these strangers’ first steps out into the world as a married couple was a privilege and something really beautiful to behold. It interested me how similar and yet how different it was to the weddings we have in Britain. My wedding was a civil ceremony and not at all traditional – I didn’t wear white, I didn’t have bridesmaids and my dad didn’t walk me down the aisle. Friends have had civil ceremonies with the traditional white dress, bridesmaids in matching outfits and the symbolic act of a father giving a daughter away. Others have had a church wedding, with all the religious paraphernalia that goes with that, and yet these religious and civil ceremonies to me seemed much less formal than the brief glimpse I had of a Shinto wedding.
I’ve read a little bit about Shinto weddings and learnt that they are attended by family and close friends only, and the ceremony that most people follow has only been formalised since Crown Prince Yoshihito married Princess Sado in 1900. Before that, you could apparently pretty much do what you wanted. Similarly to the communion administered at some Christian weddings, at a Shinto wedding the couple is purified in a ritual followed by the drinking of sake poured by the miko. Only the groom says the words of commitment, though, unlike in a Western wedding where the vows of commitment are shared. At many Shinto weddings, rings are exchanged, as in the West, followed by a sacred dance from the miko, more sake drinking and the offering of a sacred branch. Rarely does the bride have bridesmaids or the groom a best man. The ceremony itself isn’t legally binding. It isn’t even obligatory. To be legally married, a Japanese couple must first file for the marriage at their local government office (the equivalent of having your banns read in a church, or posting a notice at your local registry office in the UK), and must produce the official documentation in order for the ceremony to be held. Unlike the signing of the register at the end of a wedding ceremony in the UK, in Japan the couple only become officially married if they then go to the city hall registrar and file their documents to change their status in their family registries.
I also learnt that up until the 14th century, marriage in Japan was based around the groom marrying into his bride’s family, and not the other way around. The bride would remain in her family home, being visited by her husband, until either a baby was born or the groom’s parents died, and then the couple could live together in the groom’s home. I’d picked up on this a little bit while reading the Tale of Genji, but hadn’t realised that it went across the social spectrum.
From the 14th century, the situation was reversed and the bride married into her groom’s family and marriages were arranged by a go-between, or marriage broker, in order to strengthen alliances and bring peace between feudal lords. With the Meiji restoration and the Domestic Relations and Inheritance Law passed in 1898, women’s rights in marriage were withdrawn and the groom held all of her rights and property, similar to the situation in the UK up until female emancipation began in the 1900s. It took Japan until the end of the Second World War to begin to restore women’s rights to them within marriage. It interests me that marriage has been used by such different cultures (albeit that the Meiji era was influenced by the Emperor’s wish to modernise Japan in a more Western direction) to control women and deny them their rights as individuals.
Western style marriage ceremonies are becoming more popular in Japan, partly because Shinto ceremonies are so expensive to arrange. I think that’s a shame. It was so lovely to see even a small part of a Shinto wedding and learn a little about a different tradition to my own.