Are Western-style weddings in Japan legal?
Choose the answer you want:
No. At the conclusion of a Western-style wedding ceremony in Japan, the couple are no more legally married than they were at the start of the ceremony.
But that is nothing to do with the ceremony style; if a couple had a traditional style wedding (shinzen shiki), they also would be no more legally married than they were at the start of the ceremony.
The only way to marry legally in Japan is to register the marriage at a municipal government office. This is Japanese law.
The civil procedure is not, and cannot, be part of a religious wedding ceremony. Since the end of World War II, religion and state have been separated.
So are Western-style weddings in Japan legal?
Yes. At the end of World War II, the Emperor and his embodiment of Shinto were constitutionally separated from the state. This means that religion in Japan now has no civil legal power.
This is especially true of the Christian religion since Christianity is very much a minority doctrine in Japan. Ever since the arrival of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century, Christianity has been seen as an intrusive force on Japanese society. It was often regarded as evil because it cut across the traditional Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism. When the Protestants arrived later, they were also considered a threat and seen as the spearhead of foreign powers with designs on colonising Japan.
The Christian faith continues to be perceived as a foreign religion and it is really only the past decade or so that Japanese attitudes toward Christianity have changed. Evidence of this is the popularity of the modern Western-style weddings.
Although the constitution of 1890 (Meiji period) guaranteed religious freedom, within 50 years the totalitarian Japanese government had a very strict grip on what went on inside churches. In 1939, the Religious Organizations Law was passed which forced religions to follow the Imperial ways; the government even sent topics for sermons to the churches. This control persisted until the end of World War II.
Articles 20 and 89 of the post-war constitution gave freedom back to religions and also separated religion from the state. Laws are changed all the time to suit the requirement of the day. The Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway on 20 March 1995 reminded people just how free religions were, and new laws were hastily enacted to monitor such cults more carefully. There is continued concern about the way the national tax system is being abused by so-called religious organisations.
The essence of Japanese law and the constitution is that a religion should be something that is good and beneficial to the community. And if that happens, the state fully approves and encourages the activities.
Perhaps legal is not the correct term. Perhaps the question should be:
Are Western-style weddings in Japan real?
You are invited to decide for yourself.
First go to the city office and see people registering their marriage. Sure, it is a happy day, people smile (a lot) and there is a generally pleasant atmosphere (well, as pleasant as a busy city office can be; usually old and under-funded).
Then go to a wedding ceremony and look around. People show immeasurably more emotion there. They weep, they sweat, they tremble with nervousness. Is that not real? Be assured, they are certainly not acting! The couple have been planning this day for a long time; months if not years. This day is just so great for them that for many it is impossible to act. Their nervousness and excitement causes their awareness of what is happening around them to be diminished. Expecting them to act is expecting too much.
The couple acknowledge aloud in front of their family and friends, their personal commitment to each other. Is that not real?
Let's face it; it's as real as it gets. This is the moment they couple have been planning for so long. The visit to the city office is just a formality.
Isn't it hypocritical for non-Christians to have a Christian style wedding?
In all the Western-style wedding ceremonies that we are aware of, the wedding message is based on the teachings of the Bible. The Bible teaches many things of course, including things about marriage and love.
In the wedding ceremony these teachings are advocated, but the couple are not invited to declare anything about their religious beliefs. What they are invited to do, is exchange vows, promising to love each other. And this promise is made after the pastor has explained precisely what love means. If they make their vows and truly mean what they say, then there is no hypocrisy.
What about the Signing of the Certificate in the ceremony. Is that a legal document?
Sometimes the Registration of Marriage Form from the municipal government office is signed by the couple during the ceremony, but this is unusual. The usual practice is to have a specially printed commemoration certificate. These are not legal documents, but their importance should not be undervalued. They are documents, signed in front of many witnesses, family and friends, during an extraordinary ceremony on the couple's special day.
The certificate is a reminder of the couple's promise to one-another. And they both sign.
So is it a real wedding?
Absolutely yes. This is where the promises are made to love each other for ever. The registry office is just what it says; registering the marriage with the local municipal authority. The ceremony registers the marriage with a much higher authority and is performed in front of the most important people, the couple's family and friends, as witnesses.
The wedding ceremony is a good way to display commitment and this is considered by most people to have a positive impact on any offspring.
So what if people don't have a ceremony; is that not a real marriage?
It takes much more than a ceremony to be married, and it takes much more than the registry office to make a marriage real. For a marriage to be alive there must be trust, respect and above all, love for each other. These are the three pillars that support the marriage.
They cannot be found in a ceremony, they cannot be found in the municipal office.
They can only be found within the couple.
See Western Style Weddings In Japan for more information.