Thursday, February 6, 2014

'Happy Wedding!'

The Japanese Wedding Industry

Photo courtesy of Jonelle Patrick (
My fellow English teacher Yuriko just couldn’t be any more excited about her yellow wedding dress.

She giggled as she dreamed aloud of the church, decorated with flowers. The sound of heavenly music streaming in from somewhere overhead. The pews filled with happy, smiling friends and family (actually they’d only be a quarter full but we’ll get to that).

She stared through me into space, breathing visions of a robed, bible-toting celebrant declaring proudly and warmly (and completely unofficially) that she is now married to the man at her side (a man wearing a tuxedo he got from the men’s dressing room under the church).

Yes, standing before an altar that looks very real, beneath stained glass and surrounded by replicas of holy things, she and her beloved would hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes as their rent-a-priest recited religious platitudes no one in the building – not she nor her new husband, nor the carefully-selected congregation, not even the priest himself – could understand.

Welcome to the meticulous and non-sensical Japanese wedding industry.

‘Sounds nice,’ I said to my starry-eyed co-worker, who had invited me and the rest of the teaching staff to her wedding celebration, supposedly in two weeks. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’

No response. Still starry eyed.

‘So…what did you do this weekend?’ I asked. She was probably busy with all the preparation I assumed went into planning a wedding.

Yuriko’s face brightened. She looked gleefully into my eyes. ‘Oh, I got married!’ Then she grabbed something off a shelf and hurried down the hall.

The Semantics of Love

In Japan, marriage proper is a matter of going to City Hall, filling out a stack of paperwork and handing over a wad of cash. (No surprise here. In Japan, everything involves paperwork and wads of cash.)

We go through the same legal-based rigmarole in the US of course, but we refer to it without pomp: We’re filing our marriage papers. or We’re getting our blood work done.

Though it’s not always without circumstance. We’re signing our pre-nups.

In romantic Japan, they call their errand to City Hall ‘Our wedding day.’ *

Well come on, in this country a couple’s entire courtship and dating career can take place exclusively on the train during their morning commute, what else should we expect?

* My then-fiancee and I were not even in the same part of the country when she texted me (texted me!) to say she just got back from City Hall and we were now married. Which meant that, technically, I didn’t even get laid on my wedding night.

A Method to the Marital Madness

Though the pure magic of being wed in Japan is reduced to paperwork and cash, the people here do act out in celebration. For generations this has meant the beautiful, elaborate, tradition-imbued Shinto ceremony, an artful spectacle and a crucial step for any couple wishing to receive their blessings for a healthy marriage, a happy family and, for the groom, lifetime employment at the manufacturing company.

But in 1978 one particularly attentive government employee noticed that the Shinto gods forgot to submit the necessary paperwork (and cash) to establish any sort of existential penalty for skipping the traditional ceremony. This resulted in a typhoon of indecision that blew through the country faster than Dance Dance Revolution.

Some chose to stick to the old way, for fear of back-dated reprisals if the gods happened to suddenly file. But a large portion of the newlywed population was paralyzed with the sudden unrestraint, desperate for someone to tell them what to do until a man named Saito opened a wedding hall featuring fake church weddings. Since then many Japanese couples have chosen to celebrate their life’s greatest moment and the limitless potential of their future by mindlessly copying what people on the other side of the globe are doing.

God’s New Flock

In Japan, western-style church weddings are all the rage. In any town big enough to merit a government-sponsored foreign brat to come teach their school children how to repeat things in English you will find anywhere from one to six zillion wedding halls. They are marketing miracles, with irresistible names like Sun Palace and St. Verge and Saito Wedding Factory. With an on-premise faux-church, stocked with costumes for the entire cast and hymnals translated into Japanese so the congregation can praise the Holy Spirit in their own language (while, perhaps, wondering what a Holy Spirit is), these one-stop wedding shops offer everything the discriminating Japanese couple requires.

The ceremony can be summed up rather concisely. As with so many things in Japan, the reception takes a bit more explanation. (Disclaimer: I’ve only ever seen one wedding hall ceremony/reception, but this is Japan, Land of Relentless Uniformity. There are probably pages and pages of unwritten regulations if not actual laws pertaining to fake weddings so you can rest assured, if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all – and can then write an authoritative blog post about the entire industry.)

The ceremony begins with – what else? - a recorded instrumental of ‘Here Comes the Bride’. Not because the guests know what to do but rather because they do not know what the hell is going on they all turn around. The bride walks up the aisle, happily, awkwardly (mimicking the US custom perfectly) while her father escorts her, as he’s been instructed, mumbling under his false smile all the way to the altar about how stupid all this is.

Half the congregation takes pictures while the other half gazes blankly around – all of them still wondering what the hell is going on as they sort-of listen to forty-five minutes of songs and readings that may as well be in Pig Latin. When the ceremony is finished - or when he’s had enough - the fake priest confers a final meaningless blessing and everyone goes outside, too busy to wonder what living in Jesus’s name might entail because it is time to shoulder in for a glimpse of the bride and groom as they take their place at the top of a staircase that looks straight out of Disneyland. No one throws rice (go figure); there is simply a lot of bowing and clapping and looking around for a clue as to where the party is going to be.

Follow the crowd is the basic and logical sentiment because a hundred people have just shown up and are heading straight from the parking lot to the reception hall.

Rude bunch, those Japanese you say? Can’t even pretend to enjoy the unintelligible ceremony? Just going straight to the reception you pack of vultures? Bite your western tongue, they are following the rules perfectly. Most guests are not even invited to the fake ceremony. This is an apparent vestige of the age-old Shinto wedding ceremony, which was usually held in the cramped confines of a shrine out in the woods somewhere and so limited to immediate family. (Japanese, obvious sticklers for tradition, have transferred this custom to the cavernous church-like venues they rent and then fill to quarter capacity.)

Note: If your Japanese friend invites you to the reception but not the ceremony you should still consider it an honor. More indicative of your standing is when you are only invited to the post-reception ‘second party’. Either way, you are expected to pay an entrance fee, which comes as no surprise as it was printed plainly and clearly in your invitation.

So the crowd moves like a tide pool from the bottom of Cinderella’s staircase to the doors of the reception hall. Each guest will then in turn approach the reception table and hand over a decorative envelope containing three hundred dollars. Here in Japan there is no need to haul in bulky, hand-selected gifts; there’s no embarrassing price disparity among the items listed on the registry at Macy’s; there’s no doubling up on the food processor and no need to return the electric cheese slicer. In the spirit of equality and not having to think the Japanese are good with being told how much to give to the bride and groom. Plus of course everyone gives the same amount – which is easier for all the uncles who have been working at the manufacturing company for years than it is for us first-year English teachers but who is going to rock that boat? And in Japanese?

The people at the reception table – friends of the bride and/or groom who have been asked to work during this phase of the wedding and are all too happy to oblige – will smile and graciously check off your name for you when you pay so there is no confusion on anyone’s part later on. When it comes to being efficient and fair, no one can match these people.

Good Thing the Chairs are Comfortable

Once everyone is inside the reception hall it’s finally party time, and everyone dutifully takes their seats and keeps quiet. A close friend of the couple, chosen on the basis of looks and speaking ability, will act as emcee. This person will take the podium to welcome the guests, introduce the happy couple, tell everyone when to clap (and when to stop), invite each long-winded speech-giver to the front, advise the guests to please refrain from touching their beer, wine, water and smokes until the last speaker has finished, and cheerfully encourage everyone to keep listening and enjoying themselves while the paramedics try to revive someone’s dehydrated grandmother.

The two-hour party unfolds like a ballet, the movements of the wait staff choreographed with atomic clock precision. (‘Please don’t eat your cutlet until the sauce master has added the sauce.’) Note that in this ballet the only dancers are the wait staff. For the guests, there is no dancing. To compensate there is plenty of drinking.

After dinner is served and, fourteen and one half minutes later, cleared, everyone gets their cameras out for the cutting of the cake. The bride and groom are led (as if they couldn’t find it) to the three-foot tall layered wedding cake over to the side and, with a knife they are told to hold by a slippery satin napkin draped over the handle, cut the nickel-sized top tier of the otherwise fake cake. The guests, for their three hundred dollars, get sheet cake. And the short-lived suspense of wondering if the bride and groom are going to cut themselves.

Now comes an important and time-consuming custom the Japanese call table-service. Here the bride and groom go around lighting big candles on all the guests’ tables while everyone claps in time to the extended version of Canon in D coming through the speakers. By doing this, the couple can pay a personal visit to every table without having to know the names of any of their new spouse’s guests, who are only too happy not to have to make conversation and chance missing dessert, which is being served and taken away in the time it takes the waitress to walk twice around the table.

And We Haven’t Even Hit the Climax Yet

The festivities culminate with a group of the groom’s co-workers or friends (often the same thing in Japan) putting on an incomprehensibly zany skit, ostensibly to make light-hearted fun of the groom. Any joke is lost on the crowd, however, who are too engrossed in the group’s monkey costumes or too drunk (or both) to get it. When the crowd dies down (or snaps out of it) the bride’s friends come out dressed like flowers or maybe vegetables and the hilarity resumes.

And with this the emcee gets up to congratulate the bride and groom one final time, to thank everyone for staying seated for the entire two hours, and to announce to those still entranced by the whole spectacle that it is, sadly, time to go home. Before the last guest hits the door the staff has cleared and reset the tables, changed the names on the ‘Happy Wedding Day!’ banner above the stage and put a new frosted nickel on top of the fake cake.

For their three hundred dollars each guest walks away with a fancy goodie bag. The typical haul is impressive and puzzling at the same time; at the reception I went to (come on, do you think I could make this stuff up?) everyone got a small bottle of wine, a set of five nice drinking glasses (even-numbered gifts are bad luck in Japan) and three cans of crab meat – which I scarfed down on the way home, having made the mistake of trying to talk to the girl next to me during table service and missing dessert.

For all the incongruity, or maybe because of it, attending a Japanese wedding ceremony amounts to one fantastic experience. You can get drunk and fit right in. You can sit and smile and eat and say nothing for two hours and fit right in. You can sit back and relax knowing that no one is going to try to make you join a congo line.

You may, however, be attacked by monkeys or vegetables.

Which, try as they might, is an experience you just can’t put a price tag on.