Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Let’s Wedding: Nijikai Nightmares

My feet are swollen and throbbing. My hands are chafed. And my cheeks feel like they’re going to give out at any moment. I’ve never felt so physically or emotionally drained in my life. No, I haven’t just participated in a triathlon, competitive eating tournament, or even a beauty pageant.  I’ve just returned from a Japanese wedding party.

Though I love my Japanese friends dearly and am happy that they’ve decided to make a lifetime commitment to each other, I’m wondering if from now on it might make more sense for me to let them know my sentiments via a letter, an airplane-trailing streamer, or maybe a singing gorilla-gram. Anything that lets me refrain from actually attending another reception party.

If you haven’t had the pleasure (and I mean that in the absolute loosest sense of the word) of attending a Japanese wedding reception, this is the usual flow of the evening. You show up at the appointed time and pay the allotted amount to some friends of the bride and groom who are manning the reception. (7,000 to 10,000 yen seems to be the going rate for the second party or nijikai). The next two and a half hours will be the most highly orchestrated and regimented of your life. You’ll be told when to stand, when to sit, when to photograph the couple, when to eat, when to watch the video, when to clap… the list goes on and on. At one recent party, I was madly cramming cake into my mouth as we were being ushered out of the venue by the staff because, apparently, I had misused the time that had been allotted for cake-eating (maybe that two minutes had occurred when I took my bathroom/breathing break).

Wedding parties can also be a blow to the self-esteem regarding the old Japanese abilities. In addition to the nearly constant drone from the MC ordering you around, there are all the speeches from various friends and coworkers that can sometimes test the limits of your keigo capacity. It’s also hard to be in a room full of people who are crying without being sure precisely why. Are they tears of happiness? Anguish? It’s not clear, but it doesn’t feel like quite the right moment to whip out your dictionary, so you just stand there with a wan smile and a growing sense of discomfort.

Worst of all, though, is the compulsory “interactive and fun” quiz. The details vary from party to party, but this usually involves trivia about the couple, and the winner gets anything from a vacation in Saipan to a blender. I always find this the most tedious portion of the evening because by the time I’ve understood what’s going on, they’ve already moved on to the next question, thus eliminating me from participating.

I also learned the hard way that my Japanese has now reached the level that qualifies as “just enough to get me into trouble” (I believe that falls somewhere between 2 and 3 on the JLPT, FYI). At one friend’s party, she and her husband decided to bend the rules slightly and instead of making the quiz about themselves, they made it about their friends and family. So there I was, minding my own business when a picture of me flashed up on the screen. The MC asked, “Is this a famous Hollywood actress?” Much to my disappointment, everyone answered “no.” The couple then explained how despite me not quite making it to Hollywood, I did have the honor of playing an English woman on an NHK drama. “No, that’s wrong!” I couldn’t help myself from interjecting, “I played a drunk French woman, not an English woman.” All eyes were on me and everyone began laughing hysterically. Wow, I thought, I had no idea I could be so witty and amusing in Japanese. As it turned out, I couldn’t. The “explanation” I heard the couple giving was actually the second part of the question, so I had just shouted out the answer in front of everyone. But hey, everyone got a freebie answer and a laugh-at-the-silly-foreigner moment. It was a win-win!

You may wonder where the Surfing Chef (my main man) was during all this. Wouldn’t he have stopped me from embarrassing myself in front of a room full of people? (Well, that’s doubtful.) Wouldn’t he have explained the rules at a level of Japanese that I could understand? Maybe he would have, if he was there, but instead he was at home sleeping, or maybe hanging ten in Chiba. Yes, one of the strangest aspects of a Japanese wedding party is that you’re generally not allowed to bring your significant other. Whereas in the States wedding invitations usually allow you to bring your “plus one,” this is almost unheard of in Japan. So while I’m doing my time in the wedding trenches, SC is blissfully unaware and uninvolved.

Last summer, I went to three weddings back, and I had a few key revelations. One: American weddings are parties, whereas Japanese weddings feel more like kindergarten. Two, there may have been aspects of American weddings that were mildly unpleasant (politely correcting people who mistook me for my cousin, carrying on conversations with complete strangers, and keeping my mom from harassing the SC all fall into that category), but for the most part I was free to stand up, sit down, and generally move about as I saw fit. And the best part of all? No one interrupted my cake-eating time.