Marriage customs and attitudes changed dramatically over the course of Japanese history, in a variety of ways, including the extent to which marriages were arranged by parents versus being chosen by the man, or by the woman; the ease with which the husband, or the wife, could file for divorce, as well as the process and attitudes about divorce; what it meant to marry into (and out of) a family, and whether the newly married couple would live with his parents, her parents, or in a new home; dowries; the number of wives and consorts a man might have, and what these different statuses meant for the woman; as well as the style of the ceremony and the extent to which marriages were (or needed to be) officially or legally recognized.
In the Heian period in particular, "marriage" seems to have been a relatively fluid thing, at least among the court nobility. In analyses of the Tale of Genji, Ivan Morris discusses how "courting" was to a certain extent undistinguished from marriage, and noblemen often lived apart from their paramours, who either maintained their own separate residences (being able to inherit, own, and pass down property at that time, a privilege less enjoyed by women in later eras) or were given residences by their nobleman suitor. As evidenced in the Genji, it may have been typical for a nobleman to visit his paramours only at night, spending the night with them and departing before dawn; also as evidenced in the Genji, it was not unusual for noblemen to maintain multiple consorts, though perhaps only one at a time could be the primary "wife." Divorces and remarriages were also relatively casual affairs - a man or a woman could simply cut things off with their lover, and terminate the relationship, and the remarriage of a widow or divorcee was no looked down upon. The Tales of Ise also show numerous examples of how men and women courted one another, and began and ended relationships. In one of the many vignettes in the Tales, a man is appointed to an official position out in the countryside for three years, and upon his return, his (former) wife says she is now engaged to marry another man; he tells her to love her new husband as he has always loved her.
Among samurai families, attitudes and practices regarding marriage and family were more patriarchal than for the courtiers of the Heian period. Women's ability to inherit, own, and pass on property was severely reduced, as was their power to ask for divorce.
In the early Edo period, marriages were typically arranged by parents and go-betweens, based on social or business interests, among both commoners and elites. Love was "condemned ... as an irrelevant and possibly disruptive element." Couples often did not even meet one another until the wedding, and afterwards were obliged to simply negotiate between them a way to get along and forge a life together. "The relationship which developed between man and wife was usually one of loyalty rather than of romantic attachment." Over the course of the period, however, marriage by mutual agreement of the couple themselves gradually became more widespread, even as they adopted some samurai practices, such as formal meetings with suitors (omiai), and the exchange of engagement gifts (yuinô). Among the peasantry, meanwhile, it seems that individuals had considerable agency in choosing their spouses, based on their own feelings.
Wedding ceremonies were small, private, affairs, which involved some minimal ritual, such as the sharing of a wedding meal, and the exchanging of cups of saké. The ceremony bore little or no deep religious meaning, in contrast to the Catholic Christian notion of marriage as a sacrament, and did not involve any extensive religious element to the ritual; the Shinto wedding ceremony is one of those many traditions which was invented in the Meiji period. The meal was typically attended by the couple, a few close relatives, and a formal go-between (nakôdo). Among the elites, wedding gifts (yuinô) were often exchanged.
Historian Gary Leupp compares marriage ceremonies to the forging of bonds between a lord and his retainer, or between a craftsman and his new apprentice; something that involves some small degree of ceremony, and seriousness of the bonds forged, but still not an extensive, public, or religious event as weddings very often are today. That said, Japanese were typically monogamous; a samurai lord or other elite might have one or more concubines (側室, sokushitsu), but none counted as his "wife" (正室, seishitsu), and a man would only ever have one wife at a time. A man could initiate a divorce on a whim, but that divorce, or the wife's death, was necessary before a man could take a new wife (much like today).
Prior to the Meiji period, commoner weddings were not typically performed before any sacred gods or spirits, were often entered into quite casually, and were not generally officially or legally recognized.
The Meiji Civil Code of 1897, which went into effect the following year, among other provisions, required marriages to be registered in order to be recognized by the law, and restricted the set of reasons under which a divorce could be officially (legally) performed and recognized. Prior to this time, marriage was seen as less official, or at least more private a matter, and the vast majority of marriages were not registered in any official way, nor legally recognized. These stipulations within the Civil Code were thus aimed at bringing Japanese societal standards regarding marriage up to Western notions of "modern" "civilized" standards, combating popular practices of entering into marriages comparatively casually, and divorcing without reason (muin rikon).
These legal changes, combined with discursive efforts by the government and/or Imperial Household Ministry (including presenting the Imperial family as a model of the modern family, and of modern marriage practices and attitudes), as well as various other factors emerging from within society itself, led to marriage coming to be seen as a more sacred institution, binding and serious, and of official legal significance. For these reasons, among others, divorce rates gradually declined, straight through the 1890s-1960s.
The Taishô Emperor, while still Crown Prince, became the first member of the Imperial family to be married in a modern Imperial marriage ceremony, as crafted by the architects of Imperial & national ideology, based on extensive studies of standard practice among European monarchies. Imperial marriage rites, particularly as performed before the gods or the ancestors, had no precedent in prior Japanese Imperial practice; previously, ceremonies had been performed to install new empresses and imperial consorts into the Court, but not to "wed" or "marry" them into the family. By the 1940s, however, the Imperial wedding as heavily infused with State Shinto was already seen as a “traditional” custom, after the country had seen a number of them.
Today, many Japanese continue to have wedding ceremonies in a Shinto, mock Christian, or other form, with varying levels of religious or cultural dedication or intent; these are separate, however, from the legal marriage procedures of entering into one another's koseki (family register), as performed at a local government office.
- Ivan Morris, "Women of Ancient Japan: Heian Ladies," History Today 13:3 (Mar 1963), 160-168.
- Helen Craig McCullough, Tales of Ise: Lyrical Episodes from Tenth-century Japan, Stanford University Press (1968), 90.
- Gary Leupp, Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900, A&C Black (2003), 44.
- Donald Shively, The Love Suicide at Amijima, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan (1991), 23.
- Leupp, 101.
- Leupp, 101, 241n2.
- Leupp, 45.
- Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 188-190.