Japanese Wedding Traditions

Shinto and Buddhist Customs

Japanese wedding traditions are based largely on Shinto religious customs or, to a lesser extent, Buddhist rituals.

The engagement is formally set by a ritual called the yunio, the giving of gifts wrapped in elaborate rice paper. These gifts are symbolic in nature and include dried cuttlefish to represent male virility; kelp because it can mean "child-bearing woman"; a linen thread to symbolize gray hair (and therefore a marriage that sees old age) and finally a fan. A spread out fan represents future riches and a growing family.

Instead of a wedding gown the bride wears a kimono; a long, wide-sleeved robe secured with a sash. In accordance with Japanese wedding tradition the bride wears several kimonos throughout the day. Her first outfit, for the wedding ceremony, is a white kimono; white representing both a beginning and an end. The beginning is the bride's new married life and role as a wife (and eventual mother) and the end the "death" of her childhood. Her hair is combed up and covered with a white cloth and her face is painted white.

A traditional Japanese wedding ceremony is held in a Shinto shrine, where only family attend; it is an intimate, private event. The Shinto priest first conducts a purification ceremony then calls upon the gods to bless the couple and their marriage. The groom then reads a marriage oath. The ceremony ends with the sansan-kudo, a ritual that involves the couple drinking from three flat stacked nuptial cups of sake; the groom takes three sips from the first cup then the bride and so forth until they have each sipped from all three cups. This is essentially the exchange of vows. The sake is then shared with family members.

During the wedding reception the bride will change into her second outfit, a silver, gold and red kimono detailed with images of cranes (symbol of fidelity), tortoises (symbol of long-life) and plum blossoms (symbol of perseverance). Later she will change into her final outfit; a very ornate, brightly colored (usually purple, the Japanese color for love) kimono. This style of kimono is reserved for virgins, therefore this is the last time the bride is able to wear it.

Japanese symbols for joy, prosperity, fertility and longevity are also heavily featured during the wedding dinner. Lobster is popular for its bright red color; the Japanese color of luck. Clams are served with both halves, representing the couple's unity. Fish are arranged on the plate to form a circle, the symbol of eternity. Courses are never served in multiples of four; four is considered an unlucky number as the Japanese word four ("shi") sounds like their word for death.

Learn more about traditional Japanese wedding attire.

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