In my almost two years here in Japan, I have been to three Japanese weddings. Which I’m pretty sure makes me an expert on how these things are run. First off, Japanese wedding receptions are not for mingling. They are for eating, drinking, watching performances and being fawned over by the black-bottoms, brown-shoe clad catering staff, all from the safety of your assigned seat. If you want to mingle, you have to wait for the after party(ies). Secondly, note that I said “Japanese wedding receptions.” Nobody actually goes to the wedding except for close family and friends, and the occasional foreigner being exposed to Japanese culture. But everybody (and in some cases, literally everybody) goes to the reception. Japanese weddings are rather traditional and somber affairs, but the receptions are kind of outrageous. Here’s an overview of what you can expect at a Japanese wedding reception:
Before You Go: Before attending the reception, you will need to procure a couple of items. The first is an ornate envelope with the appropriate greeting written on the front. You need to be careful here since celebratory envelopes look essentially the same as funeral envelopes and the kanji is often obscure and difficult to decipher. Typically, I just ask the clerk if it’s the right envelope (although, for Mitsuhiro’s wedding, I did find one that said “Happy Wedding” on the front). Once you have the envelope, you need to stuff it with the appropriate amount of money. “Appropriate amount” depends on the locale of the reception. For example, in Nakatane where I live, there is a 3,000 yen (~$30) cap, but in Kagoshima, it’s a 20,000 yen (~$200) minimum. These bills should be as crisp and new as possible for obvious symbolic reasons. You turn in your envelope to whoever is working reception when you sign the guest book on your way in.
What to Wear: Shockingly, the appropriate color to wear to a Japanese wedding reception is black. And if you feel like rocking the boat a bit (which if you’re Japanese, you never feel like doing), black and white or black and champagne. Older men tend to wear white ties, while younger men go for some color. Skirt lengths that would get you propositioned in America are perfectly fine for women under 30, but under no circumstances should you even suggest that you have cleavage (or anything that would cause cleavage), nor should you bare your shoulders (please note that I was inappropriately dressed for two out of three weddings). Boots are a no-no and high heels are a must.
The Reception: First the bride and groom will process in and be introduced. In two of the receptions I went to, the bride and groom came in wearing traditional kimono. At the third reception, they wore Western style dress.
Next are the speeches – the first is usually by some high ranking guest (the mayor, the school principal, etc). Then there might be speeches made by family, followed by speeches from friends (similar to the maid of honor and best man speeches. I actually made one of these speeches at my friends’ wedding. You can read it here). Then there is the toast, or “kanpai.” As there is no eating, and more importantly, no drinking before the kanpai, this one is sometimes moved to the front of the line.
After everyone has started the merry-making, the bride and groom use the distraction to sneak out and do an outfit change. In the receptions I’ve been to, outfit changes range from two to four. One of these is usually into a white dress for the bride and a white or gray tux for the groom. Subsequent outfit changes involve (as far as I can tell) dresses of the same style as the white dress, just in different colors.
When the bride and groom return and everyone has gotten a chance to ooh and ah over the number of accessories in the bride’s hair, the performances start. Performances are done by family and friends and I’ve seen everything from ballet dancing to karaoke to musical instrument playing. At the first reception I went to – a teacher’s – the faculty and staff of the JHS donned workout clothes and did a Billy Blanks Tae Bo routine (I thought I’d left Billy in high school, but for some reason he’s resurfaced here in Japan almost ten years later). Mercifully, I was spared from having to participate in this because I missed the week of practice before the reception taking, and failing, my Japanese driver’s test. However, just to prove that there are no free rides, I did end up performing at the next teacher’s reception – this time singing “Oh Happy Day” in a school lunch apron. Despite my protests that being able to speak English did not mean I could sing in English, I was put in the front row.
Somewhere scattered throughout the performances there can be another outfit change and cake is distributed. The bride and groom cut the cake in a way similar to the way we do it in America, but instead of a big cake that everyone gets a piece of, there are a bunch of small cakes that all the girls dash up and take as many of as possible. We reserve the right to eat whatever we grab, but usually we share.
After the performances (although sometimes in between) and cake, there is a series of symbolic rituals. One is similar to what we know as giving away the bride, where the father of the bride carries an umbrella over his daughter and then passes the umbrella to his new son-in-law. Words are exchanged; I’ve never been close enough to hear them, but I imagine they go something along the lines of, “If you break her heart, I’ll kill you.” This one is often done at the beginning of the reception.
Other rituals include a candle lighting ceremony, where the bride and groom light candles at each table and then light up a heart made of candles; a balloon popping ceremony, where the newly weds go around popping brightly colored balloons with a long thin object symbolizing god-knows-what; and a teddy bear giving ceremony, where the bride and groom give their parents teddy bears that weigh the same as they did when they were born. This last one always brings on the water works.
To close, letters from the bride and groom’s parents are read and general well-wishes are given. Lastly, there’s the banzai and the procession out. The bride and groom stop somewhere with their parents and then all the guests line up and congratulate them one by one before going to the after party.
The last thing to know about Japanese wedding receptions is that you’re going to go out with a lot more than what you came in with. Guests are given “goody bags,” which in my experience have contained things like a set of plates, an album, cakes, alcohol and special commemorative memorabilia.