My big fat Shinto wedding
There’s nothing romantic about getting hitched in Japan. You simply fill in a form in the local government office. If you want romance, you’ve got to make it yourself. Of course, weirdness is also an option.
In Japan, the legal business of marriage is literally a matter of a rubber or wooden stamp: your inkan (signature seal) and your partner’s, side by side on the application form.
Effectively it’s a merger of legal entities. In my case, being a foreigner, my entry into my wife’s household register.
Divorce is just as easy. Indeed, it’s handled by the same counter in the government office. The marriage form and the divorce form are stacked side by side. Might as well take one of each.
And since all that is needed to effect a divorce is your inkan, you better hide yours once your spouse starts making grumbling noises. One stamp of the form and it’s all over — even without you knowing.
Husbands with marital difficulties stash theirs in their desk at work, or in a safe deposit box.
Once my wife and I had agreed to marry, there was no reason to delay it. We both dressed up for the trip to the government office, but I’m sure many people don’t. Nobody else was invited and the procedure was over in seconds, just like a flu shot. We then went to a local restaurant and had a glass of champagne with our fixed-price lunch.
We spent the next year and a half wondering whether or not to have an actual wedding ceremony, which of course is not a legal requirement.
Japanese couples have the choice of a Japanese-style wedding in a Shinto shrine or a western-style wedding in a wedding chapel either in Japan or in a resort such as Guam or Hawaii.
Most young Japanese women dream of a western-style wedding. The white dress! The beach! The cocktails! For me, the paraphernalia of a faux chapel, complete with Christian crosses and a man pretending to be a priest, seemed absurd. It was just dressing up for the sake of it. And besides, when in Japan, go Japanese.
I’m amazed my better half agreed, but she did: Japanese-style it was. Followed by the Hawaiian honeymoon, and no cheapskating, right?
We initially thought about having a small, romantic wedding in a local shrine, but we couldn’t find anywhere nice enough. And then we discovered that if we chose to hold it on a Buddha’s Death Day – a most inauspicious occasion for a celebration – we could afford to have our ceremony at Meiji Shrine, the biggest and most prestigious Shinto venue in Tokyo.
Moreover, it would be Halloween. The perfect day to deck ourselves in silly costumes. Which, incidentally, were meticulously strapped around us over layers of unflattering padding which made me look even more like a big, fat, hulking foreigner, but at least disguised the fact that by the time our wedding ceremony finally rolled around my wife was six months pregnant.
Her traditional bride’s hood, intended apparently to hide her horns, meant she looked like something out of Star Wars. I just looked like a western bloke in fancy dress.
Meiji Shrine is a tourist trap. Everybody who visits Tokyo ends up there. Not that there’s much to see, since Shinto shrines are not architecturally distinctive. But it’s set in the midst of a small forest, it’s photogenic, and it’s remarkably peaceful for the center of the metropolis. Except, of course, for the throngs of foreigners snapping away madly at anything that looks remotely cultural.
Woe betide you if you step into this tourist scrum dressed in your traditional Japanese wedding kimono.
Two things are worth note here: first, Meiji Shrine is a wedding production line. Ceremonies happen every twenty minutes. And secondly, you are made to process from the reception building to the shrine itself through the very heart of the tourist scrum (as shown above).
The only rule I was given for the procession was one I stuck to studiously: “Do not smile.” It felt like a funeral march.
The tourists loved it, which was the point. They felt special because they got to see a Japanese wedding. They didn’t realize that if they hung around longer, they’d get to see another.
As for the ceremony itself, well, the shrine virgins danced. We ritually drank sake. We waved twigs at each other. We drank more sake. I recited — flawlessly — the incomprehensible Japanese declaration I’d been practicing for months. The priest moaned something. We drank again, and shoved rings on our fingers. Then everybody drank.
The whole thing, like so much of Shinto, a religion that lacks any written materials whatsoever, was a modern fabrication. Somebody decided that Shinto needed a wedding service to compete with the western-style businesses, so they invented one. They took bits of the western service and wrapped, kimono-style, all that pretend-Japanese stuff around it.
One of my guests summed it up perfectly afterwards: “It was just like Disneyland.”
The strangest part of our wedding —on a day that, I was sure, couldn’t get much stranger — was bumping into the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, who was visiting Tokyo on the same day as part of a campaign to drum up support for a rugby competition.
Just like all the other tourists, Key and his wife were taken on a tour of Meiji Shrine. They happened to be there at the same time we were having our wedding.
Outside the reception building, our two parties eyed each other warily for a while. Clearly I was a foreigner under that bizarre costume. Eventually Key sent a minion scurrying over to find out what nationality I am. When I shouted at him that I’m British, he was instantly bounding across to shake hands and chat with us.
I liked him. He seemed friendly and curious even though there weren’t any paparazzi cameras around, and didn’t once try to touch my wife’s hair. However, I think my wife was secretly livid that her wedding costume got upstaged by Bronagh Key’s Christian Louboutin shoes. On her big day, too.
Later we piled over to the Peninsula Hotel for dinner and rounds of awkward toasts with my wife’s father. He took it well. But then, he’d had eighteen months to get used to the idea that his daughter was polluting their line.
And then to Hawaii for beaches, cocktails, and wistful glances at the elegant couples in their western wedding attire. We ate pancakes and looked for a mall where I could stock up on western toiletries, and I began to wonder just where I should hide my inkan when we got back home.