“Love stories begin not when we fear someone may be unwilling to see us again, but when they decide they would have no objection to seeing us all the time; not when they have every opportunity to run away, but when they have exchanged solemn vows promising to hold us, and be captive by us, for life.” (Alain de Botton, “The Course of Love”)
Where most fairy tales end with “and they lived happily ever after”, life only begins. Not surprisingly, this special moment is not celebrated in the same way all around the world.
In Japan, where work is an absolute priority in life, wedding is no exception. Typically, it is the boss who would be the guest of honor, seated at the best table and making the speech before the toast to the newlyweds. Family stays more or less in the background.
While this surprised me at first, I remembered someone once told me that traditionally boss was also considered responsible for the personal life of his subordinates, sometimes even as a kind of matchmaker within the company.
Like everything in Japan, a wedding is a formal and serious process, thus do not expect kissing, dancing or anything similar. If there is the “fun” part, this would probably be the second party (aka after party) once the official ceremony and reception are over.
In one of the world’s most densely populated cities, your own place and pace is a luxury that people cannot and/or do not want to afford. Coupled with the general trend to be like others, not showing off and not “sticking out” in the crowd, it leads to a well-defined wedding celebration process that is quick and managed to the minute.
Do not think that as a guest you have more freedom. Wedding etiquette is an art in itself. First and foremost you have to get the present right. In Japan, as in many other countries, the most common wedding present is money. Here the idea is not to give the new family a starting point for their life together, but rather to cover the cost of the event and the present that each guest receives upon leaving.
To make it right, you first need to get the right envelope. Believe me, it is not easy, as the variety is enormous, but you have to choose not just based on your taste, but also according to the amount you are going to give. Equally, you have not much freedom to decide the amount, as there are clear acceptable levels for colleagues, direct boss, family and so on, and the amount cannot be even or nicely divide in two, as it is considered bad luck. If that was not enough, the notes have to be brand new, directly from the bank, and God forbid, not folded in the middle. In Japan, new notes symbolize the new and happy life for the couple, while used or folded ones are generally given in case of funeral.
While the event and the couple will surely look beautiful, as a westerner, I cannot not-to-notice that they hardly have a minute to relax and enjoy their day. Ceremony, photos, reception, more photos, thanking all the guests, and so on until the time comes to say goodbye and leave.
Pay attention to the cake! In Japan it is not uncommon to use a fake cake, where only the part that is being officially cut for the photo is real, while the rest of the cake is often an imitation (exceptions are possible).
Leaving with my gift bag, I re-think the whole event again and compare with other weddings I had a chance to attend while in Europe. Impression is completely different, but the purpose is nevertheless to celebrate love and happily ever after.
Getting on the train with a few colleagues (in Tokyo, everyone takes a train to go to the wedding), I realize that weekend is over, life goes on and tomorrow we will all meet in the office again …