Modern couples marrying in Japan celebrate similarly to what would be considered typical in the United States. Western influence has popularized weddings of this kind.
However, many brides and grooms incorporate Japanese wedding traditions into these ceremonies. Some even opt for complete Shinto weddings at important shrines.
Most Japanese wedding rituals stem from the Shinto ceremony. However, even these ceremonies are relatively new compared to the age of the religion.
Shinto: Ancient Religion & Modern Tradition
People living in Japan practice Shintoism and have since ancient times.
This religion represents a combination of ancestor and spirit worship with an emphasis on nature. Shinto operates without a clearly defined structure system.
Despite Shinto’s ancient origins, a wedding ceremony outside the home didn’t exist until modern times. Families most likely performed these rituals privately. Celebrating publically is a newer practice. Prince Yoshihito’s wedding established the elaborate Shinto ceremony tradition in 1900.
A typical Shinto wedding ceremony has several parts that set the tradition apart from western weddings. However, there are similarities as well, like a toast. Instead of wine or champagne, guests consume sake at different parts of the wedding and the reception.
A Shinto wedding has eight steps. A procession of the families enters the Shinto shrine, where a priest performs purification rituals. Next, the Shinto priest prays for the marriage, and the san san kudo binds the couple in matrimony. The couple exchanges rings at this point.
After exchanging rings, the couple recites vows of loyalty to their partner and the family they’re joining. The group makes offerings to bless their marriage; sometimes, girls perform a special dance. At this time, more sake is drunk in celebration.
Finally, a picture is taken to commemorate the event.
7 Unique Japanese Wedding Traditions and Rituals
Now that we know more about their origins, let’s look at some of the most interesting Japanese wedding traditions.
Many of these traditions stem from the Shinto ceremony but can be incorporated into other types of ceremonies.
Japan adopted many customs outside their culture, which are now part of typical weddings. However, many modern weddings don’t share as much in common with a Shinto wedding as they do a traditional western one. Other aspects of Japanese weddings are from different Asian cultures.
Some Japanese weddings are built around convenience, with venues offering everything the ceremony needs, including a fake cake to cut for pictures. Japanese wedding traditions are long-standing rituals that will endure for years, regardless of the type of wedding.
- Yuinou: Gift Exchange
- Wedding Attire & Wardrobe Changes
- Shinto Shrines
- San San Kudo
- No Kiss
- Senbazuru: Paper Cranes
1. Yuinou: Gift Exchange
Families of the couple exchange several meaningful gifts at a betrothal ceremony called yuinou. A formal restaurant or hotel usually hosts the gift exchange.
Here the groom and his family present gifts to the bride and her family. In Japan’s history, betrothal wasn’t considered serious until the yuinou.
Typical contributions vary by region, but common examples include:
- Noshi: A traditional origami form containing dried abalone, representing fortune.
- Money: At some point, money gifts may have functioned as a dowry, but people exchange them today as a part of the ritual.
- Seaweed: Seaweed represents the wish for the couple to bear many children and grandchildren.
- White Yarn: The white yarn represents a lasting marriage until the couple grows old with white hair.
- Fan: The slowly opening fan shows a growing fortune over time.
- Dolls: Dolls in the style of an elderly married couple are sometimes given for luck and to model what the bride and groom will someday be.
2. Attire & Wardrobe Changes
Brides and grooms in Japan often wear gowns and suits in the western style, but some choose more traditional options.
In a Japanese ceremony, Kimonos are worn by both parties, though bridal kimonos are more elaborate.
Two styles of bridal kimono provide choices for Japanese brides. There are also two different headdress variations to choose from.
Some brides change outfits during the wedding. When this is the case, the bride wears a shiromuku to the ceremony and changes into an uchikake.
The second dress, whether it’s an uchikake or not, is usually red to represent good luck.
A white kimono made of silk, embroidered with designs from nature, a shiromuku represents innocence.
The natural world plays a significant role in the Shinto religion. Gold, silver, or white thread decorates the kimono with images like cranes and trees.
People choose these colors because they don’t distract from the whiteness of the kimono.
While white in western cultures represents purity, white is a color of mourning in many Asian countries.
It is possible outsiders influenced the color, but they specifically chose white as a mourning color for brides. This color represents their metaphorical death from one family and rebirth into another.
Another style of kimono reserved for formal occasions, uchikake are another traditional option for Japanese brides.
Uchikake come in many colors, including white, but the decorative colors of the embroidery are much more vivid than the pure white style of the shiromuku. Uchikake display similar nature motifs associated with the Shito tradition.
Red, black, and white uchikake are popular color choices with positive connotations.
Both types of bridal kimonos were often rented or borrowed due to the expense of producing these garments. However, unlike other bridal attire, people wear uchikake for more than one occasion.
Tsunokakushi & Wataboshi
In Japanese culture, headdresses replace the typical bridal veil. A tsunokakushi style headdress has a wide strip of cloth covering the forehead and hair.
While typically white silk, these headdresses can also match the color of the kimono. These are used more often with the uchikake kimono.
Wataboshi provide a dramatic option since these headdresses are large and oval-shaped. Sometimes the wataboshi is even larger than the wearer’s head! Brides choose this style more often for shiromuku-style kimonos.
3. Shinto Shrines
While these weddings are becoming less common, the Japanese wedding tradition of marrying at Shinto shrines originated in the Meiji period.
Before this time, many of the same rituals took place in the groom’s home.
During the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the state elevated Shinto, the country’s indigenous religion.
Part of showcasing Shinto included orchestrating a public wedding ceremony. This type of wedding became popular after Prince Yoshihito and Princess Kujo Sadako married in the tradition.
4. San San Kudo
After several purification rituals, the san san kudo officially weds the couple. This ceremony involves the drinking of sake from three cups.
First, the groom drinks, then the bride, and finally, the family present for the ceremony shares the remaining sake. After the ritual, the couple is married.
People debate the exact symbolism of the ritual of three cups.
Some think it represents the three sets of couples who drink from the cup: the bride, groom, and both sets of their parents.
Others believe the cups represent heaven, earth, and people. And a few think it refers to the three tenants of love, wisdom, and happiness, which build over time in a marriage.
5. No Kiss
Since the san san kudo ceremony officially unites the bride and groom, a kiss isn’t typical at a Japanese wedding to seal the deal.
Couples choosing a ceremony influenced by western culture may skip the kiss even if they aren’t following a Shinto ceremony. A customary bow replaces the kiss in most cases.
Japanese culture considered kissing a private act. Many Japanese people who visited the United States considered public kissing a shocking spectacle.
For a long time, Japanese officials attempted to suppress images of kisses, and though the act is more common today, it is still seen less often in public than in other areas.
6. Senbazuru: Paper Cranes
Senbazuru, the practice of folding 1,000 origami cranes, supposedly grants a wish to the individual or group making them.
People string the cranes together and leave them out on display.
At weddings, these chains of origami are made by friends and family of the couple representing their wishes for good luck.
In Japan, the crane symbolizes longevity, so people present Senbazuru to those recovering from illness.
Senbazuru chains are not uniform and can be made from paper of any color, making them a popular way to decorate for festivities.
Finally, the timing of a Japanese wedding is different than most western ones. In general, couples plan weddings during the warmer parts of the year.
In the United States, the summer months are the most popular in the United States, with warmer parts of spring and fall as good options.
Rather than planning around the weather, Japanese weddings are planned around auspicious dates.
Japanese couples consult the rokuyō, a calendar of lucky dates. People consider Taian days the luckiest, and couples frequently choose these dates for weddings. The rokuyō wasn’t initially Japanese but is a custom followed brought over from China.
Unlike many western styles, people schedule Japanese weddings earlier in the day. Couples plan for weddings in the late morning.
Receptions often serve tea and breakfast foods rather than the dinner and drinking typical of western weddings.