The more, the thriftier: guests indispensable for expensive weddings

November 7th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Almost a church: a wedding chapel in Chiba Prefecture

Japanese weddings, with their interminable sentimental speeches and stage-managed atmosphere, can be more grueling than heartwarming for some guests, and what non-Japanese usually fail to realize is that they are expected to pay for the privilege of enduring these festivities. Unlike funerals, where guests pay their respects, eat a little food, and leave, friends and relatives who attend wedding receptions pay cash gifts to the happy couple. According to the bridal magazine Zexy, while there are no hard and fast rules regarding the amount of the gift, the customary contribution is ¥20,000-30,000 for “friends and colleagues” of the bride and/or groom, ¥30,000-50,000 for a boss or supervisor, and ¥50,000-100,000 for relatives (calculated as couples). In the West, guests are expected to celebrate by giving something, too, but they usually offer gifts that are presumably for the couple’s new life together. Japanese cash gifts are meant to go toward paying for the wedding.

Zexy estimates that a couple spends on average about ¥1 million on their wedding themselves, and whatever difference there is is made up for by cash gifts from guests (goshuki). That means the more guests they invite (and actually show up), the more the couple can spend. In the wedding business parlance, there are two general types of wedding receptions. Hade-kon are “showy” weddings, meant to stress appearances; while omotenashi-kon emphasize “hospitality” by putting guests first. Hade-kon are not necessarily more expensive on a per-person basis, and in any case the venue will make as much money as it can regardless of the real intentions of the people involved. Anyone who has been to a Japanese wedding will probably note that there’s always way too much food and the presents the couple gives out to guests (selected from a list provided by the service provider) are usually superfluous.

According to the private leisure research firm Sogo Unicom, in 2010 there were 720,000 marriages in Japan but only 380,000 weddings, figures that Sogo says indicates the number of couples “not having weddings” is increasing. However, some of these couples not having weddings may, in fact, simply be having non-traditional weddings, which means a ceremony and reception at some place other than a dedicated wedding hall or hotel. As with many people in the West, they may be having the wedding at home or in a public space and then feeding the guests somewhere else. Given that most Japanese homes are not appropriate places for large gatherings, the wedding industry probably doesn’t have to worry about this sort of thing becoming a trend, but in terms of statistics it seems nobody is keeping track.

In Zexy’s latest survey of couples who “had weddings or planned them in 2010,” they found that of eleven regions, Kyushu spent more on average than any other — ¥3.54 million — making it the winner now three years running. The reason was clear: Kyushu weddings also tend to have the most guests (average: 99) and the largest selection of food. Kumamoto was the prefecture with the healthiest wedding business. The average wedding there cost ¥3.785 million. Keep in mind that these figures are only for the ceremony and reception and don’t include the honeymoon or anything else related to the union. Also, it seems that a relatively new phenomenon called kaihisei (managed system) isn’t catching on as much in Kyushu. Kaihisei weddings are even more considerate of guests than omotenashi-kon in that the couple sets a fixed amount for cash gifts, regardless of relative social station or family connection, usually less than ¥20,000. This certainly counts as progress, though it’s still a long way from BYOB.

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