Getting married in any society is not an easy business and in Japan, even though the idea of ‘love matches’ has come into vogue, marriage carries many social overtones. It is the joining of two families of equal or nearly equal social status as much as the joining of two individuals. As such, the interests of the family are generally assumed to be superior to those of either the husband or the wife. In traditional times, marriage involved the continuation of the household which had an economic definition (land and house for a farmer, business for a merchant, samurai rank and function for a warrior) as well as a genetic one. Even now, whether the marriage is a love match or an arranged marriage, a go-between usually performs a role; it is he or she who matches families and personalities and it is the go-between to whom everyone is obliged to turn if the marriage runs into rough water.
The actual wedding is both easy and difficult. Difficult, because the families and couple have many decisions to make: where to have the ceremony, how many people to invite, cost, what food to serve, and what to wear to name a few. Easy, because no one stages a wedding themselves. Instead, they go to one of the hundreds of wedding halls that are advertised on the commuter trains, in the newspapers, and on roadside advertisements.
Wedding halls handle the whole thing. In the 1990s, Christian wedding ceremonies in ‘Christian chapels’ performed by ministers or priests became popular, so wedding halls added official Christian weddings to the civil and Shinto procedures also offered. Often, a couple will sign the official papers at the city or ward office, then have both a Christian ceremony (in white gown and morning suit) and a Shinto ceremony (with the couple in traditional clothes including, for the wife, an ornate hair covering which hides the ‘horns’ of jealousy women are presumed to have and to want to hide).
During the banquet/reception, speeches are made wishing the couple the very best and remembering past events in their lives. Choreographed by a professional master of ceremony, due mention is made of the parents, the go-between, the various dignitaries present, and friends. Intermittently, the bride will disappear and re-enter, to fanfares and a spotlight perhaps, in different clothes: a kimono, another kimono, a wedding gown (always white), a cocktail dress, a suit and finally, in whatever clothing she will depart the ceremony for the honeymoon. The husband’s role is far simpler, but may involve changing from Japanese clothes, to a morning suit, to a lounge suite for travel.
While a wedding hall will provide all of this, the price varies with the service. If the rented clothes have been worn many times before, the price is considerably lower than if they are new and unworn. The quality of the food makes a big difference, as does the date (a ceremony on a lucky day is considerably more expensive than one on a less lucky one: business is very poor at a wedding hall on a bad fortune day).
With all this to consider, questions like love match vs. arranged wedding recede, but not completely. Love matches, whether with a period of cohabitation or not, are a recent idea imported from the West. The idea, as well as the Western concept of marriage, was much debated in the early 20th century because it implied a different concept of the individual who might be defined outside of the family context. The idea was much discussed, but little implemented until after 1945 when the household ceased to have the legal power and significance it had before. Combined with intense Western influence in the postwar period, it took root among young people. Statistics still show more ‘arranged’ marriages than ‘love’ marriages, but they cover up the fact that many couples meet and court and then find a go-between to arrange the marriage. Another large number meet their eventual partner through arranged meetings (omiai), but they are then left to court and ‘fall in love’, failing which the relationship ends.
Marriage is probably more common and predictable in Japan than elsewhere. Most women will be married by the age of 24 or 25 and men by 28 or 29. Traditionally, few do not marry. These patterns are breaking down slowly with more variations in the age of first marriage and, with the rise of women’s liberation and higher income, more women are deciding not to marry at all.