HOW TO: Not make a fool of yourself at a Japanese wedding

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, and I told her I'd be there. Though couples still opt for a traditional Japanese wedding in addition to a western one, it seems that weddings lately are trending more towards Western weddings. My co-worker was having a Western one, although she and her fiance took pictures 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 yet (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 probably give at least 1万 (about $100 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 (see image to left).









The day of the wedding I rode a shuttle bus with others from my workplace to the "church," that really was more like a surreal castle tower with a walkway that cascaded down in a square spiral (see right), leaving the middle completely open, 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 for a "oh anything is fine" response. 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).

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. Looking at the table, my eyes took in bright colors of blues, reds, 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 ok. 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 (like the one I used, above). Buy a fancy one like the ones 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 amongst 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 walk around filling everyone's glasses for a toast, 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 I say stuff about America?, 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 the hard way, now you don't have to.

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16 comments:

Rosa said...

Interesting to read about your wedding experience! Just one note: In Tokyo, the going wedding present (five years ago at least, which was the last time I attended a JP wedding) was 30,000 yen (or about $300, I guess), in new bills only (necessitating a special trip to the bank). Also, very upscale business dress is also acceptable for wedding wear, at any time of day.

What a fun blog you have. I'm off to read more!

Ashley said...

@Rosa-

Thanks for the comment! Yes, I suspected it was much higher - thank you for the specific information! I've heard before the bills must be new bills, (that was really the only thing I knew about wedding gifts beforehand). :D

Thanks for sharing your insights. :)

Rosa said...

Oh! And I just remembered something someone told me about the envelopes, if you can stand more of my butting in!

The knots have a meaning, too--their direction in particular. The ones with the upwards ends (like a U) are for happy occasions (weddings, graduations, baby gifts) because the upward facing knot ends "trap" good luck. The envelopes with downward facing ends are for unhappy occasions like funerals and such because the ends will allow the bad luck to fall out.

I read many of your entries last night and can't wait to see more in the future! :)

Ashley said...

@Rosa,

Thanks for mentioning that! Your info is really helpful. Now that you mention it, I think I heard something about the knots before... but completely slipped my mind.

I'm glad you enjoyed reading my entries! :) Feel free to comment whenever. I know that we all have different experiences and it's helpful to know that readers (like yourself) are willing to share that information.

franeymoon said...

Hi!
I've stumbled upon your blog a few times by now and find very interesting articles here. Your forum, too, is a great idea although it's still waiting to be used :)
If you don't mind I'll put your link on my blog.
Cheers,
Franzi

Ashley said...

@Franzi

Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, I'm updating the forum a bit and hopefully it will be of use to folks soon!

Thanks for the link to my blog and I'll add yours to mine as well. :)

Ashley

Mr GT Chris said...

About the money thing. I was told that 20,000 yen is considered an unlucky amount and is an absolute no no. So, 30,000 is pretty much the minimum you should give. You can pay 10,000 and seem like a total tight ass but it is still better than paying 20,000.

James in Nara said...

Also about the money thing. I am getting married to a Japanese woman in September and she informed me that all her friends and cousins will be giving 20,000 each, coworkers will be giving 10,000 each and family will be giving 50,000 or more each. Maybe it's a Kansai vs. Kanto thing, but 20,000 being unlucky never came up. Neither did 30,000 as a minimum.

Ashley said...

@Mr GT Chris,

Thanks for the comment! I haven't heard about 20,000 yen before... interesting. I would agree more than 10000 is probably better, but I just put 10,000 as a minimum since the expected minimum may vary depending on what part of the country you're in (though I'm sure in Tokyo, or other metropolises, more is probably common).

Looks like I'll have to do some investigating! Thanks!

Ashley said...

@James in Nara,

Appreciate the helpful info! (And congrats on your upcoming wedding!) I think the information I've heard before goes along the lines of what you mentioned. Though of course, things may vary slightly depending on region, and possible other factors - which seems to be true considering the comments here!

Think I'll poll Japanese folks and see what they consider "normal" - though I'm suspecting the answers will be "it depends..."

Mr GT Chris said...

It came up when my GF was organising money to give to her friend (even though she wouldn't be able to attend, the wedding was in Hawaii). She was planning for ¥30,000 and I suggested that since she was living off savings while studying that something like ¥20,000 might be better. She was adamant that this amount was impossible for the reason I mentioned. I then suggested ¥10,000 and that her friend would understand her situation. So eventually she went with that, with being stingy apparently winning out over giving an unlucky amount. It could be a Kansai thing, maybe I should ask her about it again!

Anyway, I think the amount of money given at Japanese weddings is kind of absurd. Also, there is the tradition of paying the transportation costs of the guests. Regardless, I'm hoping to cash in at my own wedding next year :-).

Ashley said...

@Mr GT Chris,

Yes, after a quick poll today of Japanese folks, some mentioned that a number divisible by 2 starting off the amount means that the marriage could end in divorce. So, 20,000 or 40,000 yen. That's probably what you heard about... I'm guessing. Although other people didn't mention at all and seemed to think 2-3万円 was fine. There's quite a bit of info about it so I think I'll write it up in another post.

Thanks for bringing it up though - I've had a nice cultural lesson today, lol! And congrats on your upcoming (next year) wedding! :)

Jude said...

Just for reference, about the plain envelope you bought, the kanji 弔事 at the bottom written that means funeral...

And 壽 means long life, so basically used on birthdays

I love your blog

Ashley said...

Thanks for your comment, Jude! And for explaining the kanji. I actually used a plain envelope with no kanji on it, but the one in the picture is one I took more recently as I don't have the plain ones anymore. Good thing! :D (well, sort of... :D )

I'm so happy to hear you like the blog! Thanks for reading!

Ashley

caca1712 said...

Thank you for such an informational blog. This will definitely come in handy when I plan to go to Japan on the JET Program (which I will be applying for in the coming fall).

Ashley said...

@caca1712,

You're welcome! Thanks for the kind comment and for reading! I hope you'll continue to find the content useful - and feel free to let me know if you have any specific questions or just something you may be curious about! I'm all ears :D

Good luck on the application process with JET! It is a long (and sometimes frustrating) wait, but it is a great program. If you have any questions about it, I went through that whole process a couple years ago, so feel free to ask about that as well. On twitter I'm @aciara14 :) or email me: ashley@survivingnjapan.com.

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