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Marriage Customs Of Japan

( Originally Published 1897 )



IT is with a feeling of relief that we turn from the cruel conventions of a decaying civilisation, such as that of China, to consider the marriage customs of the bright, happy, and intelligent people of Japan. They lead far more natural lives than the Chinese, and consequently there is often much happiness among them, especially in the country districts. But for all that Japan is not a paradise. To the " new woman " it would doubtless appear nothing short of an Inferno ! Whatever freedom may be allowed to girls, when once they are married they make very faithful wives. Japanese husbands expect the most complete subjection and obedience from their consorts ; and they certainly get it, for every girl is carefully taught from her child-hood that some day she must be an obedient and faithful, hard-working housewife. The result is highly successful. Whether this is due to a natural submissiveness on the part of Japanese wives, or whether their remarkable amiability may be accounted for by the effect of generations of training and veneration for tradition, we cannot say.

European notions are being so rapidly absorbed by these clever and observant people that it would appear as if all their old ways may have died out ere another generation grows up. It is therefore all the more desirable to record the ceremonies used at their marriages.

They marry early ; but as a mesalliance is held to be utterly disgraceful, even in the middle classes, people are not unfrequently reduced to the necessity of espousing those whom they have never seen. Thus, the treasurer of Nagasaki has no precise equal in the place, consequently his children cannot ally them-selves with the young people in the town, their acquaintances and associates ; but he must procure them wives and husbands out of the families of men of his own rank in distant cities or provinces. When no such obstacle prevents the course of true love from running smooth, and a youth has fixed his affections upon a maiden of suitable condition, he declares his passion by affixing a branch of a certain shrub (celastrus alatus) to the house of her parents. If the branch be neglected, the suit is rejected ; if it be accepted, so is the lover. And if the young lady wishes to express reciprocal tenderness, she forthwith blackens her teeth. But she must not pluck out her eyebrows until the wedding has been celebrated. At present the choice of a wife depends, in most cases, on the will of the parents, hence there are not many love-matches. But, in old days, the following custom prevailed in the province of Ozu. Whoever took a fancy to a girl wrote his name on a small board, and hid it between the mats in the ante-chamber of her house. These boards showed the number of her lovers, and remained there till she took away that of the man whom she preferred. When the branch has been accepted, or if the respective parents have agreed to unite their children, a certain number of male friends of the bridegroom are appointed as marriage brokers. These persons meet and arrange the terms of the marriage contract ; and when they have agreed upon these, they carefully select two auspicious days, the first for an interview between the young people, the second for the actual ceremony. The match-maker, or middleman, becomes through life a sort of godfather to the young people. Customs, of course, vary a good deal according to the locality ; but in some parts of Japan, the parties are not entirely unknown to each other before the tying of the " fatal knot," because the match-maker arranges for a meeting. This is called a " mutual seeing," and takes place at the house of the match-maker, or at some private house agreed upon by the respective parents. That is the correct way of doing it ; but, among the middle and lower classes, a picnic, a party to the theatre, or a visit to the temple will serve instead. Sometimes the man is even allowed to speak to the young lady, a privilege which must be highly prized ! If she fails to please, the projected match comes to nothing ; if, however, the young lady objects, that is a trifling matter which the parents can easily overrule. If both parties are pleased gifts are exchanged. This constitutes a betrothal, and is considered binding. The next step is for the future bridegroom to send presents, as costly as his means will allow, to the bride. She immediately offers them to her parents, in acknowledgment of their kindness in her infancy, and of the pains bestowed upon her education. Thus, although the Japanese girl is not subjected to the usual Oriental degradation of being actually or apparently purchased from her father by her husband, a handsome daughter is still considered as rather to the fortune of the family. The bride, however, is not transferred quite empty-handed to her new home. Besides sending a few trifles to the bridegroom, in return for his splendid gifts, the parents of the bride, after ceremoniously burning their daughter's childish toys, (in token of her being " grown up "), provide a hand-some trousseau, and bestow upon her certain articles of household furniture, such as a spinning-wheel, a loom, and the necessary utensils for the kitchen. On the wedding-day the bridal equipment is conveyed in great state to the bridegroom's house, and there exhibited.

With regard to the marriage-rites, the authorities we have consulted give somewhat different accounts. Thus, Isaac Titsingh, in his " Illustrations of Japan," says that there is no religious ceremony, but here he may be wrong. It is easy to conceive that, in such a country as Japan, a foreigner might frequently be invited to attend the formal ceremonies with which the bride is installed in her new home, without ever witnessing, or even hearing, of the religious ceremony.

Again, there may be one custom for Buddhists, and another for Shintoists, whose religion is the older. Some say that the civil contract must be registered in the temple to which the young people belong. According to Mr. J. M. W. Silver, the following ceremony takes place there : The pair, after listening to a lengthy harangue from one of the attendant priests, approach the altar, where large tapers are presented to them ; the bride, instructed by the priest, lights her taper at the sacred censer on the altar, and the bride-groom, igniting his from hers, allows the two flames to combine and burn steadily together, thus symbolising the perfect unity of the marriage state ; and this completes the ceremonial." The bride, covered from head to foot in a white veil, is seated in a palanquin and carried forth, escorted by the marriage-brokers„ her family, and the guests invited to the feast. The men are all arrayed in their ceremonial dress, the women in their gayest gold-embroidered robes. The procession parades through the greater part of the town, affording a very pretty spectacle. On reaching the bridegroom's house, the bride, still veiled, is accompanied by two playfellows into the state room, where, in the post of honour, sits the bridegroom with his parents and nearest relations. In the centre stands a beautifully-wrought table, with miniature representations of a fir tree, a plum tree in blossom, cranes, and tortoises. The first is a symbol of man's strength, the second of woman's beauty, whilst the tortoise and the crane appear to represent length of life and happiness. And now it is time for them to drink the saki, or wine—this is really the principal part of the ceremony. This is done with endless formalities, and the wine is poured out by two young women who are called " The Male and the Female Butterfly," probably emblems of conjugal faithfulness, since butterflies appear to fly about in pairs.

Perhaps the description of an actual eye-witness will be more acceptable to our readers ; we therefore take the liberty of quoting the account of a well-known traveller, Miss Bird, in her book entitled " Unbeaten Tracks in Japan."

Two young girls, very beautifully dressed, brought in the bride, a very pleasing-looking creature, dressed entirely in white silk, with a veil of white silk covering her from head to foot. The bridegroom, who was already seated in the middle of the room, near its upper part, did not rise to receive her, and kept his eyes fixed on the ground. She sat opposite to him, but never looked up. A low table was spread in front, on which there was a two-spouted kettle full of saki, some saki bottles, and some cups, and on another were some small figures representing a fir tree, a plum tree in blossom, and a stork standing on a tortoise. After this, which was only a preliminary, the two girls who brought in the bride handed round a tray with three cups containing saki, which each person was expected to drain till he came to the god of luck at the bottom. [This reminds us of the Hindu custom of placing the god of obstacles under the canopy.]

The bride and bridegroom then retired, and shortly reappeared in other dresses of ceremony, but the bride still wore her white silk veil, which one day will be her shroud. An old gold lacquer tray was produced, with three saki cups, which were filled by the two brides-maids [the male and the female butterfly] and placed before the parents-in-law and the bride. The father-in-law drank three cups, and handed the cup to the bride, who, after drinking two cups, received from her father-in-law a present in a box, drank the third cup, and then returned the cup to the father-in--law, who again drank three cups. Rice and fish were next brought in, after which the bridegroom's mother took the second cup and filled and emptied it three times, after which she passed it to the bride, who drank two cups, received a present from her mother-in-law in a lacquer box, drank a third cup, and gave the cup to the elder lady, who again drank three cups. Soup was then served, and the bride drank once from the third cup, and handed it to her husband's father, who drank three more cups, the bride took it again and drank two, and lastly, the mother-in -law drank three more cups . . . After this the two bridesmaids raised the two-spouted kettle and presented it to the lips of the married pair, who drank from it alternately, till they had exhausted its contents. This concluding ceremony is said to be emblematic of the tasting together of the joys and sorrows of life. And so they became man and wife till death, or divorce, parted them. This drinking of saki, or wine, according to prescribed usage, appeared to constitute the Marriage Service " to which none but relations were bidden. Immediately afterwards the wedding guests arrived, and the evening was spent in feasting and said drinking, but the fare is simple, and intoxication is happily out of place at a marriage-feast."

At a marriage ceremony, neither bride nor bride-groom wears any clothing of a purple colour, lest their marriage-tie be soon loosed, as purple, with them, is the colour most liable to fade.

According to Titsingh, the bridegroom must find some man clever at letter-writing who will indite for him a letter to his father-in-law in some such terms as these :

I have the letter which you have sent me, in which you inform me that you are glad that all the ceremonies which were to take place up to this day are over. The vessel of saki and the tray of fish (or whatever the present may be) which you have sent me have been received by me in very good condition. I return you, with all my heart, my humble thanks for them. I flatter myself that we shall soon have an opportunity of speaking to one another. My father also presents you his thanks, through him, who has the honour to be, with the highest respect,"

(The name and signature). (The date).

The bride also has with her a person acquainted with the usual wording of letters of this kind. Her epistle is to the same effect. It is a strict matter of etiquette that in these letters no other subject whatever should be introduced.

It is hardly necessary to say that there are many superstitions with regard to marriage observed by young girls ; one of them is that nothing will induce a girl to pour tea over a bowl of " red rice," for if she did so her marriage day would be sure to be rainy.



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