If you’ve recently made the big decision to tie the knot, congratulations! You’re in for a lifetime of happiness! But before you can ride your mamacharis off into the sunset, you’ll have about six months to a year of daily headaches, tears, and quarreling with your partner known as the wedding planning phase! Just kidding. The lead up to the happiest day of your life doesn’t have to be that painful. That’s all provided you go into the process informed and steeled against the high-pressure sales tactics soon to be directed your way.
“Once in a lifetime,” “Eternal Memories,” “No Regrets”
The first thing you need to know before you start making appointments with venues is that a wedding is a very emotionally charged event, and planners not only know this, but rely on it as the very foundation of their business model. Prepare yourself to hear a lot of talk like, “you’re only going to do this ONCE and the memories are FOREVER” or “Option A really conveys your gratitude and appreciation for your guests.” Once the planner convinces you that one wrong move risks unhappy in-laws or being haunted by the memory of a wedding-gone-wrong for all eternity, they know that the walls of reason have crumbled and as for your bankbook… well, might as well just place it directly into their hands and tell them the PIN.
One-time event = one-time customer
The second thing to remember about the wedding industry is that it is completely different from any other business in the world. Regular businesses rely on customer satisfaction to bring repeat business. With a wedding, you’re (hopefully) only going to do it once. So should the process go sour or leave you with regrets after the big day? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much to them. You could furiously post bad reviews across the internet… but that’s about it. You’re more likely to just be left quietly stewing about the now new-car-sized hole in the middle of your bank account, and seeing your dreams of home ownership move several years into the future.
The #1 trick that wedding companies in Japan use to make BIG BUCKS
Here’s how it works. You’ll make an appointment to visit a wedding venue. By the way, in case you didn’t know, wedding venues in Japan are one-stop shops. You get the planner, the food, the music, the attire, the flowers- everything in one place (each venue has their own set of exclusively-contracted vendors). It all gets drawn up into a single sheet of paper broken out into line items called the 見積もり(mitsumori or “estimate”).
So you’ll arrive at the wedding venue for your appointment. Your planner and her flock of attendants, all clad in snazzy black pant suits and patterned scarves, will give you the royal welcome (standing outside, rain or shine, loads of synchronized bowing). After some pleasantries, she’ll lead you on the tour the facilities. She’ll show you the welcome lobby, the reception hall, the immaculate bathrooms… but she’ll really take her time with the chapel, making sure to lead you right up to the altar. She’ll have you face each other as you would on the day and hold hands. She’ll even offer to take your photo.
There you’ll be, gazing into your fiancé’s eyes, dreaming about how it will feel when you do this for real. A tear will come to your eye.
Now you’re in the right headspace. The emotions are flooding at this point, breaking past the very tenuously-built dam of logic you came in with. Your planner will look absolutely thrilled.
She’ll take you back to the office and discuss the ways in which you’ll make the wedding “uniquely your own.” She’ll listen attentively and guarantee that you can have it all. Whatever you want. Simply sasete itadakimasu (leave it all to them). After a while, she’ll go to the back, and return with a sample mitsumori.
It’ll be in the neighborhood of ¥3,500,000 yen.
Your eyes will water looking at the price, and you’ll glance at your fiancé in sticker shock, gauging his or her reaction. The planner will say, hang on a second, we’d really love to work with you as you seem like such a wonderful couple… let me see what we can do. She’ll disappear to the back once again and come back with a modified mitsumori, this time with several waribiki (discounts) applied. She’s most likely dropped the price down to just a smidge below the big 3 mark, like ¥2,900,000. She’ll even have a line for expected cash gifts (goshugi) that works out to… just under what the wedding costs. OK, that’s reasonable. It’s practically a free wedding!
Then, you’ll go home to sleep on it and allow your excitement to build. Better hurry though, or they might give your date away to another customer! Within days, you’ll return to sign the contract.
Great. It couldn’t have gone any better.
There’s always a catch
You’ll return for your first round of official planning some weeks later and sit down to talk about what you’d like. Your planner will listen intently to your every desire and show you brochures of what they offer, including a performing clown and a 20 foot balloon that you can arrive in for your grand entrance (these were actual options offered at our venue). These meetings can take hours. As you talk, you’ll see your dream coming more and more clearly into view. You’ll exchange excited giggles with your partner as an assistant brings you cup after cup of coffee and tea.
Then comes the next meeting. First things first. Your planner will slide a single piece of paper across the table: the revised mitsumori.
What a second. The total. It’s back to ¥3,500,000. No wait, it’s even higher!
How did that happen? Well, you know that A5 wagyu and long stem roses you wanted? Oh, did you think those were included in the original statement? The original mitsumori, the one you looked at on contract signing day, only included the absolute LOWEST TIER OPTIONS. That means grocery store quality pork chops, a handful of wildflowers, and a dress that looks like a wrapped bedsheet. Wait. What just happened?
This is the big trick to the wedding industry. They sell you the dream, but the “sample” bill that they show you does not reflect the actual price of the dream. Sounds kind of sketchy, but this is common practice. By the time you realize what’s happened, you’ve committed contractually, you’ve committed hours of time, and most importantly, you’ve committed your heart. So there’s no choice but to pile on upgrade after upgrade.
Falling for up-selling tricks is not an unusual thing by any means. According to this site, the largest proportion of survey respondents stated that their final wedding bill rose ¥500,000-1,000,000 by the end of the planning process. Another 14% saw their bill rise by over ¥1,500,000!
By the way, the average price of a wedding in Japan in 2019 was ¥3,549,000 and the total cost of a wedding in Japan from proposal through honeymoon was ¥4,618,000!
Not only that, but do you remember the calculation that led you to believe you were getting a free wedding? (Cost of wedding – Cash gifts = Actual cost) Well, did you forget something important? You still have to attend other people’s weddings and give them gifts of equal value! Oh yeah.
The cheapest way to have a wedding in Japan
The best way to avoid this whole process…is just to not go with the big wedding venues in the first place. That would mean booking out a restaurant, finding a wedding officiant (this could actually be anyone in Japan as the ceremony itself is not legally binding), and arranging all the decorations, goody bags, etc. yourself. It’s a lot more work, and no doubt someone in your respective families is going to raise an eyebrow over it. But your guests, and more importantly, you the couple are likely to have just as swell a time as you would at any stuffy affair. In fact, your broke English-teaching friends would probably be delighted to avoid coughing up another ¥30,000 in goshugi.
The next option, and one that is becoming increasingly popular among international couples is to have a １.５次会 (1.5 jikai). The name comes from the middle ground between a first party (or hirouen as described above) and second party (２次会 or “nijikai” or after-party), which usually has more of a relaxed vibe and often just includes friends. Like a nijikai, the 1.5 jikai will have a set price that guests are asked to pay at the door (usually ¥10-15,000 written on the invitation), but it will be significantly more formal and family-friendly than a standard nijikai. Keep in mind that the companies that sell 1.5 jikai packages will use the same up-selling tactics, though an overspend here is likely to do far less damage than a typical hirouen package.
Going into negotiations with the upper hand
If you really want to go all out and spring for the hirouen package, this is what you need to know before you pick up a pen and sign your life savings away:
- DO YOUR NEGOTIATING BEFORE YOU SIGN THE CONTRACT. This is very important. You bargaining power will effectively drop to zero as soon as that hanko ink is dry. Ask to have your exact preferences inserted into the plan, not just place-filler items.
- Lose the pressure. There are a stupid amount of wedding venues in Japan. For each of the four years that we’ve lives in our medium-sized town, a new wedding venue has popped up. So unless you’re going for the swankiest of the swanky locations, don’t let the venue pressure you into rushing your decision. There are a lot of places to choose from and most are hungry for your business.
- Decide on your top three non-negotiables. These are the things that you’ll be OK spending a little extra money on. For example, you may agree that you want to have one outfit change, a great photography package, and a bilingual officiant, but you’re open to changing your expectations on other items. If you go into the process open to having anything upgraded, you’ll end up with everything upgraded… and one enormous bill.
- Ask Japanese friends what they really enjoy about a wedding. Most Japanese adults have attended a fair amount of weddings. Ask the ones you know about their best wedding guest experiences. From this survey, you can see that the top responses all involved emotional, moving experiences. This could be in the form of sweet, handcrafted vows, a letter expressing deep thanks to your parents, or a video that shows how the relationship started and bloomed into the beautiful love it is today. What do all these things have in common? They’re all free! Nobody really cares about their hikidemono or “goody bag” (ever seen how much unboxed pottery there is for sale at Book Off?) or whether they drank Moet and Chandon vs nameless champagne or if there were black truffles in their pasta. Even your most unemotional guests will be focused on whether there is enough food to avoid the overdrawn-wedding-day hanger, rather than the presence or absence of a single scoop of caviar.
- Consider unlucky days and off-season. I know, I know. Even if you’re not superstitious, it’s kind of foreboding to be getting married on a day that is explicitly unlucky. But trust me, not a single soul at your wedding will bother to look it up, and some years down the road, you probably won’t remember yourself! The unluckiest day of the 六曜 (Rokuyo or “six day calendar”) is 仏滅 (butsumetsu, the day Buddha died). Because these dates are a lot harder to sell, wedding venues will be much more willing to negotiate with you if they can guarantee a filled spot. Also, keep in mind that the wedding season is March to May and September to November, so any time outside of those months would also give you a better chance of working the price down significantly.
- Look out for hidden charges. I bought my dress in the U.S. and brought it back with me, which ended up being cheaper than the cheapest RENTAL OPTION that a lot of venues offered. However, most of these venues still wanted to charge me a ¥50,000 mochikomi fee to bring my own dress! At the venue we chose, I made sure to state my expectation of zero mochikomi fees, and luckily, they agreed to it. Because of this, we brought our own parting gifts (some Hershey’s kisses with messages on them that cost me maybe 5,000 yen), made our own videos (took a bit of time but otherwise no cost), and made homemade decorations (some I got on Etsy, others at Daiso!).
- Keep in mind extra costs (especially foreigner-specific ones). In Japan, it’s traditional that if anyone is traveling to your wedding, you should reimburse them at least partially for their travel costs. It’s also recommended to give gifts to anyone making a speech, both sets of parents, and the key members of your planning team. As a foreigner, there were costs associated with having guests fly in internationally. We ended up covering the hotel costs for family, as well as providing a private tour guide and a few extra meals. All in all, these costs added significantly to the total amount spent on the wedding.
- Plan fun, cheap activities for your guests. Since you won’t see any dancing at a Japanese wedding, it’s always appreciated when a couple plans something fun and active for the guests to do. In today’s インスタ映え (“Instabae” or Instagrammable) culture, a photo booth with cute props would be a cheap and welcome addition to your reception. We chose a famous local tradition that involves throwing candy from a terrace above for our wedding guests to catch. It was a lot of laughs, albeit a few people almost had their eye out with some of the harder pieces of chocolate. You can get a big bag of snacks for 10 to 30 yen per piece (just be sure to pick soft things).
If you can keep all these tips in mind, you’re likely to be able to plan a wedding that is not only beautiful and fun, but doesn’t break the bank. Though I’ve said some less flattering things about the sales practices of this business, I have to give credit where credit is due. Most Japanese wedding companies do a phenomenal job regardless of the package you choose. It’s an essential part of Japanese “majime” values to always do your best, no matter how much your client cried in front of you during planning sessions. On the day of our own wedding, I was pleased to see that every detail was seen through to perfection, and was impressed with the highly professional conduct of every single member of staff (they even tried speaking a little English when they could!).
I hope that these tips will help you when planning your wedding and save you not only a good portion of your hard-earned yen, but a lot of tears and frustration. Good luck in your new life together, and as they say in Japan, happy wedding!