All's Fair in Love and Boxing

Last weekend I visited Snowy Hokkaido for a rather fantastic Japanese wedding that had it all: romantic music, over the top dresses, and boxing. It was very traditional. This is a brief description of the events of that day, in case anyone out there is wondering what a Japanese wedding is like.

The wedding was for my friend Miss HighBridge, who I met at Tottori University when I was studying Japanese. She’s a native of Snowy Hokkaido, from the town of Kushiro, but after she graduated from Tottori she got a job with Nissan and ended up in nearby Obihiro. As I write this it’s -11C in Obihiro, and -4 during the day. When we arrived it was 1C, with an overnight forecast of -6, and the snow was only about 20cm deep. We flew to Obihiro airport on Saturday morning, and spent the afternoon exploring the centre of Obihiro. Miss HighBridge was right when she told us Obihiro is a nani mo nai machi, a nowhere town. So with nothing to do in town it was back to the hotel, a dip in the volcanic hot spring and off to the Hokkaido Hotel for the wedding itself.

Our invitation made it clear to us that in Hokkaido weddings are slightly different to the mainland: in the mainland guests are expected to offer goshugi, a present to the new couple, that is anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 yen ($200 – $500, I guess) in normal circumstances. In a Hokkaido wedding, you pay an admission fee and then don’t need to pay the goshugi. This wedding’s admission fee was 13,000 yen (about $130), but we also took a present of some ornate teacups and a pot from Tokyo (Miss HighBridge is a bit of a hippy). As is typical of a Japanese wedding, friends of the couple were running the reception desk at the hotel, where you hand over your money and present, and receive a little schedule for the evening. The first hint of what was to come was at this reception desk: 8 friends were running it, and there were four queues divided alphabetically to make the process go faster. This wedding had a lot of guests.

In fact, we discovered later, there were over 300 guests, and they were all listed in the schedule. The main ballroom had been divided into 33 tables, each labeled with a country name, and we had been assigned to Costa Rica, which was the table for people form Tottori University. My friend Miss Wisteria Village was there, and a couple of other people I could not remember from the University. The table also was home to the only 3 foreigners amongst the guests – me, the Delightful Miss E (my partner) and a nice Nepalese chap who is now working as a system’s engineer at a major electronics company (poor bastard). Because we had all traveled from far away, at our table was a little envelope containing some travel money (about $50), and a hand-written note from Miss HighBridge (for the Delightful Miss E: “Miss E who is always so fashionable and beautiful, I love you!”). So really we only paid $100 each for this event. Plus the airfare. And the suit. And the present. And Miss E’s new shawl. And the hotel room. And the new inner wear to deal with the arctic weather. And the team of hirelings to walk in front of us ready to shoot polar bears.

About 70% of the guests were men. This, it turned out, was because Miss HighBridge’s fiance, in addition to being a licensed pro-boxer, was the son of a significant family whose barley/potato/vegetable farm has been around for more than a hundred years. As significant members of both the local rotary club and the local farmer’s organization, they had a lot of social connections to invite to this event, and most of them being business connections, most were men. The nearest three tables to us were all men.  What we were witnessing here was a textbook example of the maintenance of social connections through social rites – not that Miss HighBridge and her fiance were pawns in some sort of sordid family bonding exercise, of course – this is the modern era – but the age old principle of using a ceremony for a rite of passage to grease social wheels was well in evidence. Very interesting!

Once we’d all had time to gather, the wedding started. First, the MC – yes, there was an MC (there is always an MC!) – gave a brief speech to thank everyone for coming, and then the lights were dimmed, the music came on, and the bride and groom entered through the main double doors. Miss HighBridge was in a kimono (not the traditional white one, but a red and gold one) with an amazing high hairstyle (actually a wig), and her fiance in Hakama, giving a very traditional look. They walked carefully through the tables of close relations, and took their position at a high stage, while everyone applauded.

Next there were speeches (mercifully short) by the town mayor, the head of the farmer’s association, Miss HighBridge’s boss, and then the friends of the bride and groom: the fiance’s friend got so nervous that near the end of his speech he lost his lines and had to finish early; Miss HighBridge’s friend started crying and sputtering but finished her speech very proudly. It was a very sweet speech about important Miss HighBridge is to the people around her.

During all the speeches, the two tables of young men to my right were chatting loudly with each other and smoking, and completely ignoring everything that was happening on the stage. We’ll hear more from these two tables – Cambodia and Australia[1] – later.

While this was going on an army of hotel staff were filling glasses with champagne, so that a member of the local council could give the kanpai (toast) to the bride and groom, and their families. We all stood, and raised a toast. Then, the meal began. During the meal, there were various performances and crazinesses involving the bride and groom, summarized below.

  • The second dress: Somewhere during dinner, the bride and groom disappeared and returned through the main doors, Miss HighBridge now in a white dress with a 2-3m train, and her fiance in a blazing white tux (to match the dress). They returned to their high seat, just as before.
  • The pouring of the drinks: all through the meal, young people queued at Miss HighBridge’s table to pour her and her fiance’s drink for her. They would then dutifully sip the proferred booze, before subtly tipping it into a champagne bucket beside their chairs. This was a wise move; neither of them had a chance to eat, so liberal administration of beer was probably not a good idea – especially given what was to come
  • Photo ops: gangs of friends beset the couple, and demanded to have their photo taken. Team Costa Rica, being 10 people, had to burden one of the groom’s friends with 10 cameras, and he duly took one shot with each while we stood around the couple. This was the first time I ever met Miss HighBridge’s groom (Mr. Young Mountain). We exchanged a brief “how do you do” before the next team pressed me off the stage
  • The friend’s dance: in the middle of the meal, a group of 6 friends of the couple came into the room, in hip-hop/suits mixed costumes, took position on a small stage near the main doors, and performed a hip-hop dance – complete with minor attempts at break dancing – for the amusement of the couple and assembled guests. It was great. Note that this was all very staid compared to the last wedding the Delightful Miss E attended (more below)
  • Cutting the Cake: The bride and groom cut the cake and fed a little piece to each other – well, except that Miss HighBridge cut off a huge piece and nearly choked her fiance on it. I am led to believe that this is traditional, as well.
  • Lighting the booze: The bride and groom poured some alcohol into a mechanism, something like a champagne fountain, only this was a series of tubes that fluoresced as the alcohol entered them, and stayed glowing through the rest of the ceremony
  • The third dress: Somewhere before the candle service, bride and groom returned in a third dress, this time red with a train, and her fiance wore a pinstriped tux and tails with red shirt (to match the dress)
  • The Candle service: Bride and groom passed from table to table, lighting a candle in the centre of each table.

But the craziest part of the wedding was the part just before the candle service: the boxing match.

The Boxing Match

As I mentioned above, Mr. Young Mountain has a pro-boxing license, and a professional record (I think it may be only a few fights). So of course, there had to be some recognition of this in the wedding. This recognition took the form of a boxing match, between Mr. Young Mountain in his suit and some nameless friend of his, introduced simply as “the current champion,” in full boxing gear. A referee was found, Miss HighBridge was brought to the edge of the ring to watch, and the bout began. After about 30 seconds Mr. Young Mountain knocked the champion down, but it was a standing 8 count and Mr. champion was soon back into the fray. The next victory was Champion’s; he knocked Mr. Young Mountain down and it certainly looked like Mr. Young Mountain was out for the count – until Miss HighBridge stormed onto the stage with some kind of white bat, took out the referee with a single double-handed strike, and then set about the champion in a frenzy of blows. Down he went for the count, and the crowd cheered as she helped her fiance to his feet and turned him to face the crowd, victorious. Justice (apparently) had been done, and the symbolism of the couple working together to overcome all adversity had been clearly displayed.

A Tale of Two Weddings

Let us compare this show with that of another wedding from two years earlier, much smaller and in very similar style, attended by the Delightful Miss E. This wedding also featured the “friend’s dance,” only they were wearing horses heads while they performed the dance. For the main set piece performance, instead of having a boxing match, they had two short games. The first involved the groom: he was blindfolded and all the young women from the audience were lined up in front of him, along with the bride. Each kissed him on the cheek, and his challenge was to identify which of the kissers was his wife-to-be. He was successful. Then, the bride was blindfolded and all the young men in the audience similarly gathered. Her task, however, was to feel each man’s arse and determine which was her lover. To hoots and catcalls from the audience, she successfully identified her fiance.

I think it’s safe to say that the more recent ceremony was a much more serious affair.

Finales and Farts

With the boxing match out of the way, the final toast needed to be proposed. First there was a brief interlude in which the parents of the bride and groom stood in a line on the stage. The bride and groom then approached and stood solemnly in front of their parents, while Miss HighBridge read a short but very sweet speech thanking her parents for all they had done for her over her life. The tradition in Japanese family life is that the bride moves in with the groom’s family, so I guess in the past this may have been her last chance to say something important to her family. Of course in this case she’ll be visiting them regularly in the neighbouring town, so it’s not the same context at all, but it’s a very nice gesture.

Finally, there was the “banzai”. I don’t think this is a regular component of weddings in Japan, but in this one it was performed. Basically, for a banzai, everyone stands facing the stage, someone on the stage makes a brief speech, and then yells “banzai!” three times. Each time, we all yell banzai and raise our arms (you see this at political victory speeches). It’s a kind of encouragement to success, or something akin to “three cheers.”[2] 

So anyway, we had to do banzai. During the preparatory speech for this banzai, someone on table Australia farted really loudly, and someone on table Cambodia said “Akira!” in a loud and scolding voice. Everyone on the closest four tables broke down laughing, but no one at the front noticed, and we all started our banzai.

Second Stage

This marked (trumpeted, even!) the end of the ceremony, but the young friends of the bride and groom were off to second stage, where we spent another two hours carousing at a local bar and congratulating Miss HighBridge on her efforts. She can’t remember any of it, of course, and doesn’t know what it was like. She was too busy charging around lighting candles or taking out referees or pouring beer into a bucket. During this second stage I had a nice chat with the vanquished champion (a real estate agent) and a handsome young dairy farmer who explained some things about Obihiro farming life. Then it was back to the hotel, a 2am dip in the hot springs, and an exhausted sleep. And I wasn’t even the one getting married!

The next morning Miss Highbridge was up early, met us at 11am, and took us to a crazy warhorse sledge race where the Delightful Miss E won 300 yen. But that’s a story for another day …

fn1: Oh, the shame!

fn2: Banzai is also the word mothers use when bathing young children – when they say it, the child lifts his or her arms and the mother washes the armpits.