The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan

I will be traveling over the next few weeks to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece and France on a mega-honeymoon with the newly-rechristened Mrs. Jones. Special thanks go out to Roy, the Adamus, Curzon, Younghusband, Peter and his wife, Aceface, Ben, the Gaijin Biker gang, and the many other members of our brilliant cast of characters friends who came to the wedding.

We am getting on a plane to Europe as this goes to press, and I will hopefully be back before long with some good travelogue fodder from this multi-modal, multi-destination itinerary. With that, some topical rambling on the marriage process follows:

* * *

I am not really into “life moments” myself. My idea of a “life moment” is crossing the DMZ into North Korea, or surviving a night of the Yamanote Line drinking game. I skipped my law school graduation in 2007, and I was more or less happy to skip a wedding ceremony as well. But my bride’s mother was none too happy with this idea, and persuaded us to at least do something. On this point, she was very right and I was very wrong.

We toyed around with various ideas. The first idea, floated from said mother-in-law-to-be, was to get married at a mass-market wedding chapel near the family’s home in Waseda. I refused to pay for a ceremony conducted by a hung-over English teacher in a fake church, so that idea didn’t last for long. Then we thought about doing a beach wedding in Hawaii, which sounded nondescript enough and would give us the benefit of escaping Tokyo for a while.

I still wasn’t particularly moved, though. I decided that if we were going to have a wedding, we had to make it significant for us, and we also had to make it an opportunity to bring our many circles of friends and family together for a day–which basically meant doing it in Tokyo.

Then the plan fell into place quickly. She suggested going to her alma mater, Sophia University, a huge school in Tokyo run by the Jesuit order of Catholics. I am part of the Catholic Church on paper, as my Irish father grew up in the Church and had me baptized at the highly cognizant age of zero. As it turned out, they have a beautiful wedding chapel in the church section of the main campus in Yotsuya, which isn’t too expensive for a wedding, has some religious legitimacy to it, and happens to be right next to the place where the two of us shared our first passionate kiss. It was great on many levels.

There were two catches, though:

  1. There is a lot of paperwork involved.
  2. There is also a requirement to take marriage classes.

The religious formalities

We started by explaining to the church office that we wanted to get married.

“Are you Catholics?” the clerk asked.

“She isn’t, but I’m baptized,” I said. (I was tempted to call her a “heathen”, but decided that wouldn’t be cool.)

“Which church are you a member of?”

The last time I went to a Catholic church was when I visited my parents in Florida once back in college. “I’m not really a member of one.”

“OK, we just need to see your certificate of baptism.”

I called my father that night. He didn’t have a certificate in his files, but gave me the name of the church where I was baptized: St. Ann’s Church in Naples, Florida. Back then, he explained, “they were the only Catholic church in the whole city.” I then checked online, and found that Naples has ten Catholic churches now. But St. Ann’s is still around. I emailed them through their website and got a PDF certificate returned overnight, followed by a sealed copy in the mail.

They took this certificate and made a note of the details on a fresh marriage certificate, accompanied by a special “dispensation.” Apparently, this dispensation is required whenever a non-Catholic gets married in a Catholic church. The reason for the dispensation was pre-printed on the form: “because there aren’t enough Catholics in Japan.” I was amused enough to capture the text on my camera phone:

Catholic waiver

Our marriage classes went on for twenty weeks, every Saturday evening with breaks around holidays. The leader of the class was an octogenarian priest, Teruo Awamoto, who is intensely interested in marriage considering that he waived the right to get married himself. He joined us for about half an hour each night, sandwiched between two more half-hours of discussion led by two older married couples, one in their seventies and one in their forties.

Interestingly to me, there was very little dogma at the outset of the class, and we never opened a Bible until the last couple of classes, when we looked at the opening chapters of Genesis and were essentially told that it sounded weird because the authors were limited in how they could express what was going on.

For the most part, the classes focused on practicalities of marriage: what couples forget to discuss before they get married, how husbands and wives can drive each other crazy, how children can change the equation of a relationship, and that sort of thing. I showed the outline text to some of my non-religious Japanese friends and they were amazed by it–one remarked “We should learn this stuff in school.” Of course one isn’t going to hear this sort of opinion through politicized public education, but I think it was all worth taking in nonetheless, even from my new wife’s secular perspective.

The formalities

The tough part about having a big wedding is making decisions. What type of ceremony? Where to have it? Where to have the reception? How many people? Who gets invited and who doesn’t? What kind of food? What kind of entertainment? How to fold the napkins? And so on and so forth. It’s enough to make you seriously hope you got things right the first time, because it would be too much of a pain to go through all the motions again.

St. Ignatius made the ceremony very straightforward: we simply had to pick music and Bible readings, and they were kind enough to suggest popular standards as a base. Although there is a standard template for wedding ceremonies, priests can deviate quite a bit from the template as long as a few basic solemnization requirements are met.

On the other hand, the reception at the Hotel New Otani was complicated to plan. They do a lot of weddings (and have a flashy website solely for this purpose), and they can accommodate many different scales and types of events, but this means that there are millions of possible combinations of items, and that’s before programming is even considered.

The best part of the wedding planning process, as it turned out, was attending the “bridal fairs” at the hotel, essentially showcasing all the food, drink, decorations and entertainment they can provide for a ton of money. These fairs are free, and although we received invitations in the mail, nobody ever asked us to show that we were invited. If you want free booze and wedding cake on a weekend afternoon, keeping an eye out for these kinds of events is probably a good strategy…

The legal formalities

At the end of the day, though, all of the above was moot for legal purposes: our wedding was made official two days earlier at Shinjuku City Hall, in basically the only way that it can be made official in Japan. Here’s how it goes down under the Civil Code:

(Notification of Marriage)

第七百三十九条  婚姻は、戸籍法 (昭和二十二年法律第二百二十四号)の定めるところにより届け出ることによって、その効力を生ずる。
Article 739. A marriage becomes valid by notification as provided in the Family Registration Act.

2  前項の届出は、当事者双方及び成年の証人二人以上が署名した書面で、又はこれらの者から口頭で、しなければならない。
2. The notification in the preceding paragraph must be made in writing and signed by both parties to the marriage and two or more adult witnesses, or verbally by the same people.

I met my wife-to-be at city hall, eager to drop my name in her family register. I had my enormous custom-made seal chop on hand with my full name in katakana. She had forgotten to bring her seal, so we had to run over to a seal shop and buy one “off the rack” with just her family name, which is fortunately not too uncommon.

The required documentation:

  1. The notification form, already signed and sealed by our two witnesses, who didn’t have to come with us to city hall
  2. My passport (specifically required)
  3. My alien registration card (also specifically required)
  4. Kazumi’s passport (not specifically required, but she had to show photo ID)
  5. An affidavit from me, notarized by the US Embassy, stating that this was to be my first marriage

Once we filled everything out, it was simply a matter of waiting as they booked everything into the official records. An hour or so later, we walked out with a marriage certificate in hand. The certificate was actually a “certificate of receiving notification of marriage,” as opposed to a license or a certificate of approval — so long as we met the relatively few legal requirements relating to age and polygamy prevention, getting married was just a matter of filling out the form and handing it in.

General tips

There are probably more that I haven’t listed here, but these come immediately to mind:

  1. If you are having a full-out wedding day, be sure to have a large breakfast early in the morning. It is very hard to find time to eat for the rest of the day, particularly for the bride who will probably be choking herself to death in several layers of lingerie and dress material. It’s a good idea to keep water handy, as well as a light and portable calorie source like Weider jelly.
  2. Although hotels and wedding halls can basically do everything pre-packaged in-house, you can often save money and get a better result by shopping around through third-party providers (even though the site may have a surcharge for bringing in third parties). We found our band, photographers and guest gifts online, and they were all (in our humble opinions) perfect.
  3. Have fun. We certainly did.

28 thoughts on “The Jones hitch-up post-game show: notes on getting married in Japan”

  1. To mention a different option, we got married at Omiya Hachimangu, a shinto shrine in Suginami. It was cheap, but included live gagaku music and pretty good food at the reception. (My first marriage was in a church but lasted only a few years. The shrine marriage has so far lasted 27 years.)

  2. Congratulations!

    Marriage classes are a very good idea. My mother is a Christian minister, so she sent us all her handouts before we got married, and we went through most of them. If more people took them, there’d probably be fewer 成田離婚.

    My wife and I got legally married almost a year before we had the ceremony, so we have two wedding anniversaries. Certainly, we wouldn’t have wanted to plan the ceremony if we hadn’t been living together.

    We had the ceremony at Yushima Tenjin, and the reception at Happo-en. They put a report of our wedding online:

    The planning took months, but we enjoyed that, as well as the day itself. It was also eye-wateringly expensive, but we only plan to do it once, so that’s OK. (I see that the report is now filed under “luxury”. You can, therefore, probably do it somewhat cheaper, even there.)

    Interestingly, we were the other way round. My wife wasn’t really into life events, but I think that marking them is a very good idea. She also came round to the idea that having the wedding was a good thing.

  3. Niggling Curzon!

    “our wedding was made official two days earlier at Shinjuku”

    I thought the Catholics opposed that?

    “An affidavit from me, notarized by the US Embassy, stating that this was to be my first marriage”

    Or, that any previous marriage was lawfully, validly and completely ended.

    Who were your witnesses? Mine were my in-laws, but as my father-in-law was out, and since it would look dodgy if my mother-in-law signed for both of them and the handwriting was the same, I wrote my name and hanko-ed in his place. That’s an invalid act — but fortunately for the Curzons, the witness section is merely a 受理要件, a requirement for submission that has no impact on the validity of the marriage thereafter.

  4. Curzon, I think the Catholics are don’t ask, don’t tell with that kind of stuff, especially when it comes to 異宗婚障害 (IME almost gave me 異臭婚). The Presbyterian Church of Japan (I could guess it extends to JACC and the JBU as well, but I don’t know) is fairly rigid about the administrative paperwork coming after the wedding ceremony itself. In my case, we didn’t piss away two and half hours getting ‘legally’ married at city hall until after the honeymoon.

    But who gives a flying fart about that.

    I was impressed that Joe did twenty weeks on “mewwege”. My wife and I did a much less rigorous course trying to understand the teachings in the book of Ephesians, chapter 5, and we certainly didn’t do no twenty weeks…

  5. Fascinating account of the big day.

    hopefully you’ll be sharing the rest of the honeymoon too.

  6. “I am part of the Catholic Church on paper, as my Irish father grew up in the Church and had me baptized at the highly cognizant age of zero.”

    Doesn’t this seem a little churlish? That is what Confirmation is for (in practice you may not have very much choice at that age either but you are at least capable of cognition), isn’t it?

    Anyway, congratulations, glad you enjoyed yourselves.

  7. Congrats!

    We did the “live gagaku at the shrine” deal, like Wataru, at Hie Jinja and then headed up the road to the Otani for a meal and party afterward. It was a Sunday so we managed to get a private room at Trader Vics and do the all-you-can-drink champagne brunch deal. It can be a pain to get everything lined up just so, but rolling your own wedding day experience is a better way to go than the prepackaged dry-ice and bearded eikaiwa teacher route, to be sure.

    Enjoy the honeymoon. Sounds like a great trip.

  8. “Curzon, I think the Catholics are don’t ask, don’t tell with that kind of stuff, especially when it comes to 異宗婚障害 (IME almost gave me 異臭婚). ”

    When my two of my three brothers in law married at Japanese Catholic chruches in Japan, they were strictly instructed not to submit the 婚姻届出, so I wonder if St. Ignatius was the same, or if Joe ignored them.

  9. @Casey

    No, it doesn’t seem churlish to me. Infant baptism, while a source of debate between different sects (e.g. Presbyterians practice it but the Baptists ironically do not) has an entirely different meaning behind it than ‘confirmation’ does, or a baptism following ‘confession of faith’ would. Infant baptism may in its concept be closer to a bris in Judaism, since both are related to the covenant that God made with Abraham.

  10. When my two of my three brothers in law married at Japanese Catholic chruches in Japan, they were strictly instructed not to submit the 婚姻届出, so I wonder if St. Ignatius was the same, or if Joe ignored them.

    Neither. We asked the priest in charge of the class, the priest who conducted the wedding and the old couples leading the class about this (only after Curzon raised the issue with me months before), and they all answered, in effect, “We don’t care.” I suppose it may be different if you are in a “legacy” congregation of old-school types versus a congregation led by missionaries (Ignatius is run by Jesuits).

  11. Sounds wonderful. I hope that you will be blogging some on the trip when you get back. Bon voyage.

  12. Just realized that none of the comments for this article are showing up in the RSS comments feed.

  13. So she’s changing her name to Jones? I guess she got tired of being an oba-san.


  14. Also… you are lucky the Catholics in Tokyo made it so easy for you to get hitched to a non-believer. Try being Jewish sometime. The only rabbis in Tokyo are hardcore conservative/orthodox, and they wouldn’t marry us unless my wife converted.

    So, big deal, you say, have her convert. Yeah, about that… it takes a yearlong course of study followed by an actual test at the end. The test is not just for show, either; it’s hard, it requires study, and people fail it. Riiiiight. We ended up flying in a reform Rabbi from New York who probably would have married me to a ham sandwich if I asked him to, but he got the job done.

  15. Ju2tin, what if a Jewish woman wants to marry a goy in Tokyo? Do the rabbis still object? My perhaps flawed understanding is that a Jewish woman and a goy can still have Jewish kids.

    By the way, there aren’t English teachers willing to work as fake rabbis in Tokyo?

  16. Congratulations !

    I got married the catholic way too, but with the French church of Tokyo. I remember we had to get a dispensation for my wife too, but don’t remember this funny little reason for it.

    We got some “wedding class” too, and some sounded kind of like what you had, but there sure was more bible reading involved, and it was only a priest and us. I’d be interested to see your “outline text” to see what was different, and what we possibly, God forbid, forgot to speak about before stepping through the gate.

  17. Peter, there may be English teachers willing to pose as fake rabbis around Tokyo, but I’d bet their Hebrew is a little rusty. Even at the reform level of Judaism, there’s a lot of stuff you need to do that’s hard to fake your way through.

  18. I don’t know if it’s easier for a Jewish woman to marry a non-Jewish man. I know that Jewishness is inherited (religiously speaking) from your mother, so any kids from such a relationship are “born Jewish”, while kids from a Jewish man/non-Jewish woman marriage are not. But I don’t think that makes it any easier for a Jewish woman to marry a non-Jew.

  19. In any country with a significant Jewish population (aside from Israel, which still has archaic Ottoman era laws on the books) there’s absolutely no difficulty in finding a rabbi who is willing to marry a Jew and a Gentile. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis would be totally willing, and I think even Conservative rabbis might be. But in places like Japan the community is tiny, and there’s only like two actual rabbis in the entire country, who are both Orthodox.

    “Peter, there may be English teachers willing to pose as fake rabbis around Tokyo, but I’d bet their Hebrew is a little rusty.”
    I bet there are some English teachers who are dual nationals US/Israeli whose Hebrew would be more than good enough to fake it with a prepared script.

  20. Ultimately, our way was easier, albeit more expensive, than hunting for Israelis to play fake-rabbi and preparing a script, and I daresay we got a better “performance”.

  21. Peter,

    You’re correct. You’re Jewish if your mother is Jewish. Your caste (yes, Judaism has castes) comes from your father.

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