The big day

Modern couples seek to tweak the nuptial norms

by Yuko Naito

When 645 guests descended on Tokyo’s New Takanawa Hotel last month to celebrate the marriage of 46-year-old former pop idol Hideki Saijo to Miki Makihara, a 28-year-old “office lady” he’d been dating since the fall, the starstruck media gushed at length over the “super gorgeous” event.

To many Japanese, though, the 100-million yen bash with its A-list celebs like Beat Takeshi came across not so much as super gorgeous, but simply “super uncool.”

Extravagance for its own sake, even where it was almost traditional not so long ago, is no longer the stuff of most people’s wildest dreams — not even of many of those who could well afford it. Saijo apart, in recent months other celebrities have been notable for shunning fancy ceremonies and glitzy receptions in favor of greater simplicity. Among these more personalized, surprisingly low-key celebrations have been the marriages of singer Kyoko Koizumi to actor Masatoshi Nagase, idol Takuya Kimura to pop diva Shizuka Kudo, and actress Nanako Matsushima to actor Takashi Sorimachi.

Although not yet a full-fledged boom, this trend has already captured the attention of the media, who’ve dubbed these new takes on traditional nuptials “jimikon (frugal weddings).” But in slapping on that label, the media is slightly off the mark, because what’s happening — and not just among the glitterati — is more a move away from conformity to tradition that one toward merely saving money.

That weddings are diversifying, however, should come as no surprise. Like many other “traditions” in Japan, these ceremonies — on whatever scale — are of rather recent origin and still evolving.

Before the country was widely exposed to European culture from the dawn of the Meiji Era in 1868, it was only the samurai families, just 6 percent of the population, that feted marriages. For the common folk there was hardly even formalized marriage, let alone ceremonies or receptions. For them, if a man regularly visited a woman at her home, the two were considered by all to have tied the knot. Later, when the man’s aging mother could no longer run the home, his “wife” would move in for the first time — and on that occasion there was often a small party to introduce her to the neighbors.

However, this style of pairing was regarded as sexually immoral by the Christians arriving from afar. As a result, the Meiji government, desperate to be accepted among the great world powers, introduced marriage laws and Shinto-style weddings modeled on Christian ones in what historians regard as a conscious bid to avoid Japan being thought uncivilized.

Then in 1900, after the Crown Prince got married in one of these new Shinto-style ceremonies, public interest in the novel practice began to grow and more and more rich families started holding weddings and receptions at top hotels such as the Imperial in Tokyo. For commoners, though, money was tight, and most — especially in the countryside — continued holding their modest ceremonies and celebrations at home until well into the 1950s.

As seen on TV

In that decade, though, when the mighty effort of postwar rebuilding spread wealth where it had never been before, the matrimonial stage became set for the emergence of a full-blown “new tradition.” It was television that lit the fuse: The wedding of the Crown Prince (now the Emperor) to his hard-wooed bride, Michiko Shoda, shown live on the small screen in 1959; then the following year’s lavish nuptials of superstar actor Yujiro Ishihara and the actress Mie Kitahara showed the public what they were missing.

With a huge potential market primed for matrimonial extravagance, the country’s then new wedding planning and organizing industry was quick to promote lavish, hotel-based nuptials as a new national norm (from which it could make pots of money). During the 1950s and ’60s, public and private wedding facilities were built one after another, and weddings at home gradually became passe, especially in space-challenged cities.

Such was the sweeping change in national style that by 1986, a Sanwa Bank survey found, more than 70 percent of weddings were being held either at hotels or wedding halls.

Today, weddings are still typically held under the auspices of organizing agencies at hotels or purpose-built wedding venues where a Shinto-style ceremonial hall and/or a Christian chapel and banquet halls are all under the same roof. The number of guests is generally between 50 and 100, and the cost of a ceremony and reception normally tops 3 million yen, according to research by Sanwa Bank.

Even in today’s somewhat straited climate, prospects for continued good business for the wedding industry still look good. Last year, Tokyo-based think tank Life Design Institute surveyed 550 women aged 20-34 and found that fewer than 10 percent of the married ones had had no wedding ceremony or party, and only 6.9 percent of the unmarried ones said they would be happy simply to stamp their hanko on a few forms at the ward office.

However, the same survey found that 65.2 percent of married women and 84.9 percent of single women said they were “supportive” of low-budget, modest weddings and/or receptions — but not necessarily both.

While some might be quick to say this is just another reflection of the current recession, Chihiro Oshima, editor-in-chief of the bridal magazine Zeksi:, has another theory. She attributes the jimikon phenomenon to changing attitudes toward the institution of marriage, and greater control young people are taking over their lives in general.

Each to their own

“Before, marriage was considered the unification of two families, so the bride and groom were not allowed to hold a wedding the way they liked,” she says. “But today, young people consider getting married as more of a personal event they want to enjoy, and their baby-boomer parents don’t care much about what kind of weddings their children want to hold.”

Hiroyuki Onishi, spokesman for the wedding-planning company Compal Bridal World, agrees — but is careful to note that couples opting for nontraditional weddings may not be saving any money at all. “Of course many restaurants charge reasonable prices,” he says. “But if you choose an expensive one, you could pay well over 50,000 yen per guest for a reception — more than at a hotel like the Imperial.”

So, rather than being an issue of finance, they say, jimikon is really an issue of taste.

“Many couples are seeking originality, and they just want to have fun,” Oshima says. “And they also want their guests to enjoy themselves.”

Because of this, jimikon are naturally varied affairs.

Tokyo-based company employee Asami Otani, 34, chose a restaurant in the city’s swanky Aoyama district for her wedding reception. Her husband Seiji is a member of her amateur band, and they wanted a place where they were free to perform for their guests.

Chikara Watanabe, a freelance illustrator who loves beer, tied the knot at a brewery’s beer hall in Yokohama. Both atheists, he and his bride dedicated their happy union to their guests.

Kazuko Sakata (not her real name), a 32-year-old systems engineer in Tokyo, and her husband were too busy to make preparations for a full-blown wedding party, so they flew their families to Hawaii and took the plunge in a small local chapel there.

“It was very easy,” she says. “If we had had a wedding in Japan, I would have had so many things to do, and we’d also have had to invite our bosses to the reception.”

Last year, according to Maiko Masago of the Watabe Wedding planning agency, which pioneered overseas weddings more than 20 years ago, around 58,000 Japanese couples, 6.7 percent of the total, married abroad — five times up on 10 years before.

Of its 166 wedding venues in 11 countries, Masago’s company reports that Hawaii is most popular and that, on average, eight others accompany the marrying couple — usually their parents, brothers and sisters. Total expenses, says Masago, are normally about 2 million yen, less than the average cost of a traditional wedding in Japan, but still a significant sum.

“Until a decade ago, those who wed abroad usually had some reason, such as parents disapproving of the marriage,” she says. “These days, however, people think of it as a rare opportunity to travel with the whole family and spend several days together after the wedding.”

And views are changing even of traditional venues. At the Imperial Hotel, for example, there’s been little change over 10 years in the number of receptions it’s hosted (1,267 in 1990; 1,212, last year). However, according to Saeko Yamanaka from its public relations department, the size and style of the celebrations it hosts has. The average number of guests has gone down from 130 in 1990 to 90 last year, with groups of just 30-40 now not unusual. How have most couples cut back? By breaking traditions that don’t suit them — not to save money, but to spend it how they want. “Such people do not invite their workplace superiors or business associates of their fathers whom they may have never met,” says Yamanaka. “But they’re not frugal, and tend to spend a lot on things they feel are important, such as the banquet dinner, flowers or wedding clothes.”

As Oshima of Zeksi: insists, while the traditional idea of a wedding may be diversifying, the tradition itself will never die. “Whatever else changes, young women will likely always dream of being a bride.”