With this article, I want to share my traditional wedding experience with a Japanese woman, Yoshiko. We both chose to celebrate the Shinto rite, although many Japanese now prefer the Western one. We were lucky enough to choose an ancient, very spiritual sanctuary, where the priests believe in what they do and all the staff of the sanctuary are very friendly. The Shinto rite, albeit short, presents a whole series of rituals and symbols that are very fascinating. Here they are explained.
A brief history of marriage
Although the custom of getting married in the land of the Rising Sun is very old, only at the end of the 1800s was a “standard” ceremony established for all of Japan. Before everyone celebrated the wedding as they saw fit and in many cases, there was not even a proper ceremony: it was enough to sleep with the bride for three nights and at the dawn of the third night to consume rice cakes (餅 mochi) and drink some sake. The marriages were all arranged, influenced by Confucian thinking. Romantic love was seen as a source of suffering, the union had the main political purpose of forming alliances or, in the case of the lower classes, of increasing the workforce. The woman married not only the man but his entire family, to which she moved. This made her the direct “servant” of the groom’s mother. Stories of these frictions between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law have been written galore. Marriages might not be permanent and, at least until the Meiji era (the late 1800s) it was customary to seek sexual pleasure outside the couple; prostitution was public and well accepted and richer and more powerful men had more wives and concubines. Attending the 芸 者 (geisha) was a normal custom.
With the advent of the Meiji era, we enter an era of strict Puritanism, in which however prostitution has survived. Although marriage and women acquire greater importance in society, the culture of the time remains very male chauvinist and patriarchal, in which the husband could even kill the woman, by law, if found in flagrant adultery. Only after the Second World War, with the constitution of 1947, did we arrive at gender equality, at least on paper and a conception of marriage based on mutual consent (and not on a decision of the head of the family, although arranged marriages still exist in Japan). The new family created, although her wife and children must necessarily take the husband’s surname) is separated from that of the spouse and recognized as an entity in its own right.
Shinzen kekkon 神前結婚
“We are grateful that we can marry before the gods on this auspicious day.”Seishi
Although initially, marriage had no correlation with religion, except for the dance of the 桂 女 (katsurame), which served to protect the bride from demons, the wedding ceremony is called 神 前 結婚 (shinzen kekko), “marriage before the kami“, Or the gods. This ceremony was celebrated for the first time, in this form, in 1900, exactly on May 10th. Emperor Taisho, in fact, married the future empress Teimei and the rite was celebrated in a shrine by Shinto priests according to the religious elements of Shinto 神道 (way of the gods). From that moment on, all ceremonies are based on the rite of Emperor Taisho. Although the institution of Shinto marriage is very recent, the rituals and symbolism used are part of the ancient religious heritage, adapted for the wedding ceremony.
After the Second World War, when the opening of Japan to the West became total, the practice of marrying with the Christian rite spread. Or rather, with a fake Christian rite. The average Japanese, moving away from their own tradition, finds it more fascinating to imitate Western weddings while not sharing their religious and cultural spirit. It is a matter of mere appearance. So the Japanese turn to marriage agencies that organize Western-style weddings, often in fake churches with a fake priest (male or female) celebrating this fake wedding. In Japan, in fact, civil marriage is separate from religion and to be legally married you need to go to the city hall, at any time of day or night, any day of the year, and fill out a form with the signatures of two witnesses (their presence is not required).
To get married in Japan according to the Shinto rite, one must go to a shrine where weddings are celebrated or to a marriage agency. We personally turned to the wakon style which has low prices and good service. We chose the shrine close to home, 沼 袋 氷川 神社 (Numabukuro Hikawa Jinja), a shrine founded in the 14th century, of great spiritual importance. Before the wedding, we went to introduce ourselves and were greeted with a lot of warmth and kindness. They showed us the room and explained how the ritual works, the guests and so on. The agency provided us with traditional clothes: a sumptuous kimono for Yoshiko and 紋 付 袴 (montsuki haori hakama) for me, which is the traditional dress used by men on official occasions, not just for weddings. In Japan, there is no custom of not seeing the bride’s dress before the wedding.
Our ceremony took place at 2 pm. My wife had to show up at the shrine three hours earlier, me two. The first hour went all in makeup and hair. When I arrived, the dressing of the kimono began. Yoshiko had chosen a traditional white kimono, called 白 無垢 (shiromuku, pure white innocence), adorned with embroidered cranes (鶴 tzuru). They represent longevity, health and bring good luck. Since cranes choose a mate or mate for life, they are the perfect symbol for marriage. There are others, such as the turtle (亀 kame), a symbol of stability and longevity, the pine (松 sho) which represents rebirth, the bamboo (竹 take) which means strength, the plum (梅 bai) which symbolizes vitality and the new life.
The dressing of the traditional kimono is long and laborious and only expert hands can make it flawlessly. Although our seamstress was extremely skilled and fast, it took forty minutes to dress Yoshiko. The robe over the kimono, called 打 掛 (uchikake), is extremely thick and heavy. In total, Yoshiko carried a whopping eight kg of clothes! In addition to that, some brides opt for a traditional headdress, which is usually the 角 隠 し (tsunokakushi) a rectangular headdress that leaves room for a central chignon, or the 綿 帽子 (wataboshi), a broad crescent-shaped hat. Both have the symbolic purpose of covering the “horns of jealousy and selfishness”, and encouraging the woman to be kind and obedient to her husband. Yoshiko obviously and fortunately didn’t want to wear it.
The bride’s kimono is equipped with three symbolic elements: a dagger (懐 剣 kaiken) which had, in the past, the purpose of defending the bride from malicious people. Not so much because the woman was able to fight and stand up to armed men, but because with it she could take her own life before losing her honour. A makeup bag (筥 迫 hakoseko), used by women of samurai families in the Edo period; it also has the meaning of not being “coloured” (ie touched) by any man but her husband. Finally, the fan (末 広 suehiro), which brings good luck; its shape that opens, from the narrowest to the widest, and which resembles the number 8 in Japanese and Mount Fuji, is a good omen and prosperity.
The groom’s suit, on the other hand, does not have all these symbols. This is the traditional formal dress that is worn for any important occasion. The pants (袴 hakama) are the same ones used by Shinto priests and miko (巫女), priestesses of the shrine and aikido practitioners, but of a different colour, white and black with stripes. Over the kimono, black, which usually bears the family crest (that’s why it is called 紋 付 montsuki), wears a 羽 織 (haori), a shorter jacket than the kimono. The groom also has a fan, which he holds as if it were a katana.
Once ready, you are taken to the room where guests are received. Traditional Japanese weddings are very intimate and the number of participants is very low; it is often just family members or at most close friends. After the ceremony, if refreshments are done, friends from wider circles are also added. The guests present themselves one by one in front of the bride and groom. When finished, the ceremony begins.
Procession and entrance
The first part is the procession. The spouses, preceded by the priests (called 神 職 kannushi) and the miko (巫女) and followed by the guests, leave from the torii (鳥 居) gateway to the sacred places, stop in the place of purification of the hands (手 水 舎 temizuya), washing them according to the typical Shinto ritual (left hand, right hand and then mouth). Continue to the entrance to the sanctuary: note that the inside of the sanctuary is only for those who celebrate a ritual, otherwise, you cannot enter. The bride and groom sit in the centre, the groom on the right and the bride on the left, facing the god (in our case Susanoo god of the sea and storms, the younger brother of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun). Usually, the relatives of the groom are seated on the right, while those of the bride are on the left. In our case, on my side, there were also relatives of my wife, since I had no invited relatives, only a few friends.
The kannushi are positioned to the right of the god, while the miko to the left. The ceremony begins with the sound of the drums, which from slow becomes faster and faster. The drums drive away evil spirits and evoke the kami, the gods. Then the main priest holds the onusa (大 幣), a stick covered with strips of paper, and shakes it in front of the participants. It is a purification ritual (修 祓 shubatsu), or exorcism, to drive away evil spirits, bad luck and even a sense of guilt. When the hall has finally been cleaned, the kannushi proceeds with an invocation to the kami (gods) of the sanctuary, informing them of what is about to happen and asking for their blessing. In Shintoism, marriage is associated with the myth of Izanami and Izanagi, the divine couple who created the universe and the other gods and are invoked by the priest during the sacred hymn.
This is the heart of the ceremony, the most important part. At the end of the hymn, three cups of three different sizes are brought to the newlyweds. In the smallest, the miko pours some sake and offers it to the groom. The latter will drink it in three gulps and the same cup is filled and offered to the bride. The bride also drinks from the second vessel before it is offered to the groom and the latter drinks first from the largest cup, the last, which is then offered to the bride. Then three cups were filled and emptied three times in three gulps. This is why it is called san-san-ku-do (三 三九 度) three-three-nine-times. It symbolizes the pact of mutual love made by the spouses. The origin of the number 3 is not clear. There are those who say that it means “birth after birth” with the intent of fertility, those who think it means sharing joys and sorrows, others say that they are man, woman and child or heaven, earth and the man.
At this point, usually the groom but we preferred to do it together, we proceed with the formal oath in front of the kami. This brief intent of mutual love is recited as a vow taken by both, quite similar to Christian marriage (but with decidedly more sober tones). Traditionally, at the end of the vows, thanks are given to the matchmaker, that is the one who arranged the marriage (in the modern sense, who introduced the spouses). If there is not usually a family member, he takes this role, but in our case, we have not thanked anyone (also because it would have been strange to mention Whitney Wolfe …).
“Oath. We are grateful that we can marry before the gods on this auspicious day. From now on we promise to be in harmony, to believe in each other and to be together in good times and hard times for the rest of our lives.”Complete translation of the Seishi (oath)
Exchange of rings
The couple is officially married and the rings are exchanged (an element taken from Western ceremonies and completely optional for the Japanese, who can skip this step). We have chosen wooden rings, made by a specialized Japanese company on purpose, which I link here. They are worked with the veneering technique of three or more layers which makes them extremely resistant. They are treated to resist water, although it is not recommended to wet them for a long time (they still offer a free repainting service).
Another optional element, which we have not chosen, is the miko dance. The priestesses perform a traditional dance that serves to curry favour with the kami and bring luck and blessings to the new couple. From the videos, I’ve seen that it’s not a particularly good or interesting dance, but it would have been nice to see it live. But you know, everything has a cost and we preferred to invest the money in other things that are more important to us.
Tamagushi Hoten 玉串奉奠
Offering of sakaki (Japanese cleyera) to the kami. It is a branch of an evergreen plant, adorned with paper ribbons, dear to the Shinto tradition, which considers the plant sacred. The first to receive the branch is the groom, who must hold the base with his right hand and support the tip with his left. At the moment of the offering, we bow and rotate the tamagushi (it takes this name when the plant is used for a Shinto ceremony) to the right, so that it is vertical, at chest height, with both hands at the base. A silent prayer is performed after which the branch with the root is rotated towards the kami and is placed on an altar. It ends with a final Shinto-style prayer: two bows, clap hands twice, a moment of silence and ends with a bow.
Sharing of sake
Before the conclusion of the ceremony, sake is offered to the couple and all the guests, who drink with the classic three ritual sips. It serves to bring families together by consolidating their connection. Unfortunately, due to Covid, in our case, it was not possible to make this transition which I consider very beautiful and unifying.
The priest thanks the spouses and the guests and concludes the ceremony, quite quickly and soberly. The assembly dissolves and there is time for photos, any gifts, greetings and so on. In all, the ceremony lasts between 20 and 30 minutes, so it is quite short. The gifts to the newlyweds are almost exclusively money in a special richly adorned envelope. The amount should always be odd (because it cannot be divided in two, so it is a gesture to avoid the separation of the spouses). Each sanctuary has its own peculiarities so you can find variants other than those listed in the order of the phases or in the prayers or rituals. But basically, the model is similar for everyone.
I personally felt a strong spiritual presence during the ceremony. It was evident that the priests really believed in it and conveyed their sentiment. I was very satisfied from all points of view, both for how they treated us, for the gifts they gave us afterwards (a small altar to keep at home, blessed food, protection amulets) and for the energy that we breathed, in the sanctuary and during the ceremony.