Monday, April 03, 2006

ちょっとちがう/A Little Different: A Western-style wedding in Japan

Much like any other wedding I have attended, there was the requisite getting up very early to prepare for the event. The major difference this morning, however, was the continuous loop of “Moon River” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” running on the stereo. The karaoke versions. Not my standard morning music, but later today, Jeshie and I would be singing at a Japanese wedding reception. And we hadn’t practiced. And did I mention that Jeshie is completely tone deaf? A wonderful person, but a terrible singer.

So, we got ourselves all prettied up.

Jeshie conveniently had a spare party dress on hand. A nice vintage number that fit me perfectly. The downside was that it had not been a very well treated vintage dress, and the taffeta overlay was well on its way towards disintegrating. We had patched up the visible damage, but it was only a temporary solution. Jeshie’s dress was even better. It no longer fit her, so we rigged her out with a scarf to hide the fact that her dress was undone. And sewed her in. There’s always someone who ends up being sewn into their dress at a wedding…

We were up at 6:30 to practice and prettify. Our train to the city left at 9:40. Plenty of time to do hair and makeup, get sewn into dresses, and practice our music… Dressed in our finery we caught the train with a bunch of Jeshie’s students on their way to the city. Jeshie pointed out that we were just as gawked at when we wore regular street clothes as we were today in party dresses and big hair.

We arrived at the castle on the hill shortly before eleven. That’s right, the ceremony was held at a wedding castle. On a hill. It was one of several in the area.

We were ushered into the wedding guest holding area. Unsurprisingly, we were the only non-Japanese people in attendance. And our hair, despite our best efforts and Jeshie’s “Level 10” hairspray was by no means the biggest. At the appointed time, we were brought to the chapel by a herd of ushers in white gloves. Actually, the wedding chapel was “St. Martin’s Cathedral”. It was jarring, being at a gothic, European-style “cathedral” where half the guests were in kimono. It was the church-iest church I have ever been inside, and at the same time the fakest. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the “cathedral”. It featured a huge, ornate stained glass widow which depicted various well known stories from the bible. The pews were made of heavy wood, but with no kneelers. In their place were under-pew heaters set to leg melting. My legs have never been so warm inside a church. I thought I would pass out. There was a pipe organ at the front, and a triptych (??) depicting the writers of the gospel.

The participants entered.
The groom was first, dressed the Japanese interpretation of a western formal suit. It's the same one worn by a Junior High School principal at a graduation ceremony. Grey-pinstripe pants and tails. He was led into the “cathedral” by a pair of ushers in long white robes carrying long golden tapers. At their entrance, they bowed to greet the guests, bowing so low that the flames they carried touched the ground.

And then the bride. Here comes the bride, in a white meringue dress. Her father gave her away to the groom with a bow.

The rest of the ceremony went very much as you would expect a wedding ceremony to go. Complete with the singing of hymns in Japanese (“I have a friend in Jesus”), and a reading from the bible (the standard wedding reading, “Love is patient, love is kind…”), vows (there was much snickering from the groom’s side of the aisle when he answered “Hai!” in an overly loud voice), and an exchange of rings.

I’ve had two friends now get married in Japan (not including the couple at the front of the church today). The technical “getting married” part is extremely bureaucratic. You go to the town office, get the correct paper-work stamped by the appropriate people and voila! You’re married! The ceremony, although important, is more of an afterthought. I guess that’s why there isn’t a problem with appropriating a western religious-style wedding.

The whole experience was as though someone had very carefully studied a western-style wedding and attempted to recreate it. The right elements were there: the church, the pews, the bride in a white meringue dress, the groom in tie and tails. But the ceremony felt empty. It was the distilled essence of the ceremony, without the feeling.

Even the end of the ceremony was exactly to “western wedding” standards. There was a special staircase for the bride and groom to walk down so that they could be showered with rose petals. And there was even a bouquet toss for all of the single women.

It turns out this was an actual church-approved wedding service. The “cathedral” is a United Methodist. I can’t help but wonder who is getting rich off of this business. The layout of the building is such that once you have finished one ceremony, you can shuffle the wedding party to their reception and send a new couple in to the cathedral to get married.

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