Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Every time I play the (unofficial) tour guide to friends and acquaintances visiting Japan, I make it a point to include in the tour a walk in Asakusa Jinja, Meiji Jingu and Kamakura’s Tsurugaoka Hachimangu; besides the specific shrines’ historical importance, I know they’ll almost certainly come across something besides the actual buildings and gardens: a traditional style Japanese wedding with brides dressed in magnificent kimono and men donning montsuki and hakama, the official attire of the samurai. They’ll invariably be impressed and take lots of pictures and this will invariably be the beginning of a broader discussion about weddings and marriage in Japan which will end in almost certain disappointment. No, not all Japanese get married this way, yes, most Japanese prefer getting married in the western style (with white wedding gowns, in ceremony halls that look like churches but aren’t and with Westerners posing as ministers) and no, ceremonies –any ceremonies- aren’t mandatory: if the marriage has been registered at the local city hall, the ceremony is left at the discretion of the couple and their families.
As happens all over the world, wedding ceremonies in Japan are an extremely costly affair; if we take into account the complex system of obligations and presents that have to be exchanged to meet them (all guests to a wedding receive gifts the value of which varies depending on the level of intimacy with the newlyweds and their families) the budget can easily go up several tens of thousands of dollars. Therefore, it’s not strange that many young Japanese prefer to either completely avoid the ceremony or have it long after their legal marriage; hence, it’s not unusual to have the couple’s children co-star at their parents’ wedding. Yes, common stereotypes about virginity also apply in Japan but like most contemporary societies, the years have weakened them considerably; perhaps in Japan’s case even more so because these stereotypes weren’t supported by the religion to begin with and because the problems of low birth rate and the reluctance of young people to get married are too pressing for society to be very strict on their enforcement.
What confuses Westerners even more is what follows the ceremony, i.e. married life. Even today, the majority of Japanese couples function following the old system that has the home’s threshold to be the demarcation line between the roles of the two sexes but to try and comprehend the allocation of these roles based on Western criteria is doomed to failure. In a way that makes sense only in Japan, the roles are equal; even more so, seen from a certain angle the role of the wife is much more important than that of the husband (the usual practice has it that husbands hand their salary to their wives and they will give them the pocket money they will need for the whole month; family administration, financial and otherwise, is exclusively the wife’s task.) It’s one more variation of the familiar theme: Japanese society has developed a view and a practice based on that view that work –with their problems, no doubt- within its own framework; if those outside this framework can comprehend them or not is something of small concern to the Japanese themselves.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.