Japan is a study in contrasts — a nation where modern foreign influences and ancient traditions collide. It is also a land of seasonal celebrations, where each month is assigned a significant role in the neverending passage of time: December marks the completion of a year, cherry blossoms in April spur rebirth, May ends the long period of hibernation with sunshine and play — and then Japan welcomes June, the season of wedding vows.
The “June bride” is one of those trends that Japan imported from overseas and folded into its own culture. In the 1970s, Japan’s nascent and struggling Western bridal industry popularized June as “the month of romance” in a bid to encourage couples to have wedding ceremonies in a month notorious for its never-ending rain, humidity and lack of public holidays. To be a June bride has since become a popular aspiration for many young Japanese women. Yet, before Japan had June brides, wedding chapels and white wedding gowns; couples celebrated marriages almost entirely at shrines and temples or privately in front of close family and friends throughout the year. Today, the country’s wedding scene is as diverse as romance itself, with ceremonies being held in both very traditional and very modern ways.
The following two movies illustrate Japan’s most popular ways to celebrate a wedding: one in a flashy Cinderella-inspired Western manner and one in a traditional way dating back hundreds of years when bride and groom wore kimono and the weddings were quiet as a whisper.
1. The 8-Year Engagement, 8年越しの花嫁
Western-style weddings started to become a popular trend in Japan in the 1960s when pioneer bridal designer Yumi Katsura opened the country’s first modern wedding boutique. The idea was to recreate the “fairy tales” Japanese women had seen in books and movies of being a princess in a setting that combined luxury and romance. A film that perfectly captures this is The 8-Year Engagement, based on the true story of cheerful, full-of-life Mai and shy, reserved Hisashi, a young couple in their mid-20s who meet in Okayama in southern Japan.
The movie follows them from their initial engagement in 2007 to their marriage ceremony eight years later. Several months before the planned nuptials, Mai begins to suffer a recurring loss of memory — a condition she is concerned about but doesn’t look into — until one day she experiences a seizure accompanied by hysteria. Taken to hospital, three days later she has a heart attack and falls into a coma. Hisashi cancels the wedding but continues to believe Mai will make a full recovery and the two will be able to walk down the aisle together. A year later, Mai is recuperating — but she has no recollection of her fiancé. Despite being encouraged to forget about her, Hisashi continues to visit Mai at the hospital, never giving up on their promise to marry. As in all fairy tales, miracles do come true and eight years later we see the two exchange vows in a chapel, surrounded by family and friends. It’s a heartwarming and ultimately tear-jerking romance that makes viewers once again believe in true love — and fairy tales.
The wedding scene in this movie captures the essence of a modern Western-style Japanese wedding. A celebration of this kind begins with a ceremony in a chapel where the bride and groom are “married” by a (usually) foreign priest. Unlike in many Western countries, the ceremony is only symbolic — the couple typically does not get legally married on the same day; this can take place a few months to a year earlier by signing the official marriage document at city hall. The wedding is usually divided into two parts: the ceremony itself, followed by a seated reception. There are usually no wild parties, no dancing and no impromptu events — everything is planned to the minute.
If you can hold back the tears while watching The 8-Year Engagement, you’ll see many scenes of a “typical” Western wedding. In close-up, strikingly similar to weddings in other countries, yet when the camera pulls back they are so clearly different when held in Japan. A highly recommended movie for anyone who is looking for a reason to once again believe in love and life.
Main cast: Takeru Sato, Tao Tsuchiya
Director: Takahisa Zeze
2.Enishi: The Bride of Izumo, (縁～The Bride of Izumo～)
「Enishi: The Bride of Izumo」
©️ENISHI production committee
The first major production to ever be filmed at Izumo Shrine in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture, Enishi: The Bride of Izumo is an emotional drama that explores Japan’s celebration of human bonding and family ties — the relationships that we take for granted but shouldn’t. Dedicated to Okuninushi, the Shinto deity of marriage, Izumo Shrine is considered to be the oldest and most spiritual shrine in Japan; a sacred place where couples from across the country go to pray for successful marriages and family life.
The opening scene introduces Maki Iizuka, a young woman looking at her reflection in the mirror. She is wearing a traditional white kimono, known in Japan as a shiromuku and a white hat, wataboshi, which hints that she is about to get married. The next scene, however, cuts to a funeral. Maki is now clad in black, alone and lost. Since she was six, after the passing of her parents, she had been living with her grandmother, Akie, who has just passed away. Left with nothing but the memories of her grandmother, Maki begins to sort through her family’s personal belongings when she finds an old box with a white wedding gown and a multitude of empty marriage registration certificates — all signed by “Soichi Akikuni,” the name of a man she had never heard of.
In a bid to find out more about her grandmother’s life and the mysterious man on the papers, Maki travels to Izumo, her family’s hometown, where she begins to learn truths about her past — and future. Her discoveries lead her to an important decision; one that she had been purposefully postponing out of fear and insecurity.
The movie’s title, Enishi (縁) means “a bond,” a human connection that is so strong it can overcome any obstacle. Whether it is a family tie, a relationship between couples, friends, parents and children — being bound by a strong en is considered a blessing in Japanese culture, one that serves as the foundation of life. Set amid the stunning backdrop of Izumo city, Enishi: The Bride of Izumo, is a movie that reminds us of the importance of cherishing those special kinships in life, even when things go wrong or we feel that nothing matters and there’s no hope.
The last 10 minutes of the movie give us the zoomed-in view of a traditional Japanese Shinto wedding, another of the most popular ceremony styles chosen by Japanese couples. Different from the West in practice, attire and style of celebrations, Shinto weddings are held at shrines where guests — usually family members and very close friends — sit in silence while a Shinto priest gives his blessings to the newlyweds. The ceremony is conducted in a series of small rituals, the purpose of which is to demonstrate the couple’s sincerity in front of the multiple gods found in every living thing, according to Shinto beliefs, and most importantly — to the couple’s family and friends.
Not just a movie about wedding vows and cultural beliefs, Enishi: The Bride of Izumo is a beautifully curated visual exploration of traditional Japanese rituals, social norms and behavior,
and the continuous push to preserve historical cultural beliefs in modern-day life.
Main cast: Nozomi Sasaki, Shunya Isaka, Yuta Hiraoka
Director: Hiroshi Horiuchi
Shrine weddings, chapel vows, lavish private festivities or a simple registration of marriage at the local city hall where the only witnesses are the couples themselves (and the bureaucrat in charge), as we’ve seen in the two movies above, there are multiple ways to celebrate matrimony in Japan. Perhaps one of the greatest differences between Japanese and Western weddings is that the celebrations here are almost never solely about the bride and groom — it is a ceremony held to dedicate and share their love and rite of passage to those who have helped them reach this special point in their lives — when two become one. This is why, rather than wild parties and all-night dancing, you’re more likely to see tears of parting and repeated expressions of gratitude at Japanese wedding ceremonies — regardless of whether they’re held in a church, a shrine or on a tropical beach.
Text by Alexandra Homma