off the shelf: Modern Japan Through Its Weddings

brief reflections on books I haven’t read in a while

Signage from the author’s wedding. Photo by Mike Olbinski.

I love weddings. I’ve always loved weddings. By the time I was able to drive, I’d already been to dozens of weddings (the result of being both the youngest of a large family and a dependable altar boy eager to work weekends) and had some very hard opinions about how to do it right. Most of that approach, though, was really about taste and selecting good music and readings, not overdoing it on the flowers, and always generously tipping your altar servers. Until my first courses on ritual in divinity school, though, I hadn’t thought about what all those selections (and what a ritual’s general format) communicate — and I certainly hadn’t considered tampering with beloved and mush-inducing practices and traditions. In this regard, Walter Edwards’ Modern Japan Through Its Weddings, an anthropological examination of the wedding industry as a lens into cultural change in Japan, was a lightning bolt for me.

To conduct this examination, Edwards, the grandchild of Japanese immigrants to the US, moved to Japan and worked as a busboy and waiter in banquet halls to be able to apply his theoretical lenses to every element and aspect of wedding rituals and celebrations. He was able to study a significant cultural shift — from the ie to the katei as the primary social relationship in Japanese society — by focusing on the details of one moment in a couple’s and a family’s life. This gave me a starting point for understanding and constructing rituals — deep understanding and real meaning making start with a focus on the details.

Edwards’ study also provided me a front-row seat to how rituals can and should (and shouldn’t) evolve. It sparked a new curiosity about the evolution of weddings in my own culture and tradition, and I started to pay attention to the ways media (and now, especially, social media) have a direct (and not always desirable) impact on how weddings are constructed and experienced. Edwards also bolstered my budding skepticism of the Wedding Industrial Complex that, in Japan as in the US, emerged out of the needs of a shifting culture but now seeks to dominate and dictate that culture. As he writes, “Far from distorting the wedding’s function as a rite of passage — that of stating basic values — the industry has exploited that function by devising commercial services that fulfill it in a symbolically coherent fashion.”

Finally, Edwards’ study changed the way I think about ritual effect — both the intended and the unexpected outcomes of a ritual.

“Weddings do more than create a social bond between two individuals. They create ties, however tenuous, between groups of kith and kin as well. The solidarity being established between husband and wife must be similarly enacted by the guests — not doing so would make the wedding a failure.”

Like, guffaw. I had never thought about it that way, and suddenly I had a new lens on all of the formalities and etiquette connected to weddings. If a wedding provides the space for a new community to emerge, then the ritual has direct social impact. Specifically, a wedding can both reflect the experiences and identities of the people at the center and effect the world that those people want to create.

I started my career as a teacher and campus minister, and both in my classroom and in the retreats and liturgies I led, I kept these insights close, knowing that every choice had to be intentional, mindful of the community we inherited and the community we envisioned. As I started designing and officiating weddings, I became more and more aware of the tension between the desire to create a unique, beautiful, and transformative moment and the pressure to conform to popular images and the Wedding Industrial Complex that doesn’t want its market to know that most of the practices it promotes (with great sentimental and nostalgic appeal) are rooted in a world that most people want to leave behind. A bride’s white dress, her bouquet, and the inclusion of flower girls are rooted in a desire to amplify her fecundity and to reinforce repressive notions of gender. The lovely image of a father walking his veiled daughter down the aisle is rooted in the exchange of property that weddings facilitated. The uniformly dressed groomsmen and bridesmaids echo European court culture. The current practice of introducing a couple to their reception with a “first dance” or quick cake-cutting serve the needs of caterers, photographers, and DJs, not the formation of a community.

But when it’s done intentionally and thoughtfully, when planning a ceremony and an event begins with and keeps asking, What is the world you want to live in?, it can be a moment that changes the lives of everyone there. When my husband and I designed our wedding, the insights I gleaned from Edwards’ study freed me from freaking out about being the center of attention or going all Monster Groom on the planner and caterer. We focused on creating the world we wanted to see, the world reflected in our vows and our ceremony: a world characterized by equity and justice, a world that pursues joy and peace. Oh, and a world with really good food.



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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator |