The Basics of Japanese Wedding Etiquette

Published April 29th, 2022

Weddings are without a doubt a big event. For some, it’s one of the biggest celebrations of their lives. I must admit, mine would be. Some of us are at the stage in life where we’re getting invites to our friends’ and colleagues’ weddings. What if you find yourself on the receiving end of a Japanese wedding invitation?

Like other aspects of Japanese culture, Japanese weddings have their own unique etiquette. Those of us who have never been to one might be lost as to how to go about it. Not to fret – this article is your go-to guide for how to act, what to bring and what to expect at a Japanese wedding!

A Japanese Wedding

How is a Japanese wedding different from other cultures? We discussed what happens at a Japanese wedding in Season 2 Episode 9: Ceremonial Stages of Life of the Nihongo Master Podcast, so check that out if you’re interested in the full details! Here’s a brief summary of what goes down:

For the Japanese, it’s not just the bride and groom becoming one, but also the two families. While nowadays it’s becoming more common for Japanese couples to have a modern wedding in a chapel, traditional Japanese weddings usually take place in a shrine and follow the customs of Shinto religion. Traditional weddings are usually extremely private, with only family members and a select few guests present.

The bride and groom get extremely busy on their wedding day — not only are there a few outfit changes, but there are a couple of rituals to go through before they officially tie the knot. The bride’s first outfit usually consists of a white kimono (shiromuku, 白無垢) to symbolise her submission into the new family. Along with it is a type of head wear consisting of a hood called wataboshi (綿帽子) and a wig called tsunokakushi (角隠し), The full outfit can weigh up to 20kg!

While the bride changes into a few other types of kimono, the groom is only in one outfit throughout: a montsuki haori hakama (紋付羽織袴), a kimono set with his family crest on them. Both of them then usually change into a more modern white dress and suit for the reception.

But before changing into that, they have to stick to their traditional wear for the ceremony rituals — other than the purification, oaths and prayers, the couple has to share nuptial cups — three sizes of sake cups all filled with sake. They sip each cup three times. Then their parents do the same.

This ritual is known as the san-san-kudo (三々九度) each three sets of sips represents something: the first set represents the three couples, the second set represents hatred, passion and ignorance, and the final set represents the freedom from the three flaws.

So now that you briefly know what happens at a Japanese wedding, traditional and modern ones, let’s look at the etiquette for them.

Pre-Wedding Preparation

The first thing you need to do is to RSVP. You’ll be given a wedding invite with a reply slip to send back. Fill this one in and post it back, regardless of whether or not you’re going. Take note not to write anything taboo in the slip, and if in doubt, just write “congratulations!”

After RSVP-ing, the tricky part comes in: preparing the wedding gift. In Japanese culture, wedding gifts come in the form of gift money known as goshugi (ご祝儀). On average, it’s three bills of 10,000 yen, which is about 300 US dollars. If you’re the boss to the bride or groom, you’ve got to fork out about 50,000 yen instead.

The wedding gift has to be in a goshugibukuro (ご祝儀袋), a standard envelope for weddings, which you can easily get at local convenience stores.

While the amount you give is not fixed, even numbered amounts are avoided, because this can imply the idea of being split. Oh, and even if you can’t attend, you’re expected to give goshugi, just slightly less in amount.

What to Wear

When it comes to the outfit for the wedding, it’s pretty much the same as other cultures’ weddings. The basic rule: elegant but not too flashy, and don’t wear white. Colours like black and pastels are the most common choices. For the gentlemen, a nice suit with a tie and black shoes does the trick. For the ladies, an elegant dress that’s not too revealing with subdued heels is the way to go.

You can also wear a formal kimono, but only wear it if you know how to wear one properly. If in doubt on whether you can wear one, ask the bride or groom that invited you.

How to Behave

Japanese Western Wedding Photography

Whichever part of the wedding you’re invited to, be sure to be on your best behaviour. I mean, this goes without saying, just like any other wedding you attend. If you don’t know anything, just ask. It’s better than doing the wrong thing.

During the wedding banquets, be sure to be early or at least on time. They often start on schedule and follow a standard procedure of speeches, ring exchange, cake cutting and the rounds the couple takes to thank the guests.

You might find a bag under your chair, which are gifts for the guests known as hikigashi (引き菓子) or hikidemono (引き出物). Hikigashi is often sweets and pastries, and hikidemono are fancier gifts like cutlery or glasses. On your way out, be sure to thank the newly wedded couple and their parents for the ceremony and gift. Oh, and this is also the perfect time to hand over the goshugi.

If you’re invited to the afterparty, known as the nijikai (二次会), prepare another 10,000 yen. Even though you’ve kind of paid for your part of the afterparty, you shouldn’t go overboard with your drinking. Control yourself, as the purpose of the afterparty is to congratulate the bride and groom. You don’t want them to be taking care of you at the end of the night.

A Unique Japanese Wedding Experience

While we can go into even more detail of how to act and what to do during a Japanese wedding, this guide covers the basics that you absolutely need to know. Basically, as long as the goshugi is prepared, you won’t really get much else wrong.

If you’re interested in more in-depth fun facts about Japanese etiquette, check out our Nihongo Master Podcast for all of that and more!