As early summer approaches, many conversations turn to talk of nuptials. Weddings are important life events, and as such, often feature in novels, plays, films and TV dramas. The anticipated but non-occurring wedding can also be a significant catalyst for change, and it, too, has its part to play in many tales.
Interestingly, two very popular TV dramas from the mid-1990s, one in the United States and one in Japan, began with brides rushing away from their weddings, and thrusting themselves unexpectedly upon people who play an important role in their future lives. But despite this general similarity, these opening scenes are worlds apart.
In the pilot of the long-running NBC sitcom Friends, Rachel, clad in a wedding dress and veil, bursts into a coffee shop in search of her friend Monica. Rachel, as she explains, has abandoned her marriage plans after realizing she was more attracted to a Limoges gravy boat wedding present than her future husband. Much of the humor of the scene derives from various incongruities. For example, while engrossed in revealing her tale of woe, Rachel doesn’t miss a beat as she asks the waitress to bring Sweet’N Low for her coffee. Rachel’s situation is serious, but at the same time it is the stuff of farce.
In the Fuji TV drama Long Vacation, Minami’s circumstances and the way they are portrayed could not be more different. Unlike Rachel, Minami has fled the site of her wedding in agonized mortification when her fiance fails to appear. Minami’s distressed escape takes a full two minutes at the very start of the drama and is not the least bit humorous. The viewer sees her running frantically, clutching her wedding kimono, ankles exposed, and later grabbing onto her tsunokakushi wedding headwear. At an intersection Minami hastily and anxiously surveys the streets, then runs on, eventually arriving at an apartment building where she bounds up the stairs, audibly gasping for for breath, with her kimono so disheveled that whole swathes of her legs are awkwardly revealed. Arriving at the door of her destination and coming face to face with a man she has never met, the bride-not-to-be manages to squeeze out the first words of the drama: “Ohayo gozaimasu. [Good morning.]“
Certainly, much of the divergence in the scenes stems from the difference between a sitcom and a sometimes comical but essentially serious drama. Yet the two sequences also offer hints regarding nuptial culture, both real and perceived, in the two countries.
Cultural anthropologist Cynthia Dunn has made several studies of Japanese weddings and receptions, and her work reveals additional insight into differing visions of the “I do” scenario and its implications.
Using data from 31 speeches made at Japanese wedding receptions, Dunn compares the image of marriage that emerges with the American model explored by researchers, including fellow cultural anthropologist Naomi Quinn, based on interviews with married couples.
The studies found that both Americans and Japanese spoke of marriage as a joint creation, a union and a journey. Many Americans also spoke of marriage as an “investment,” in which both spouses “give” and “get,” contributing and receiving dividends, as it were. This metaphor was not present in Dunn’s Japanese data.
Additionally, the Japanese wedding speeches focused less on compatibility and emotional fulfillment in marriage, although this was a common theme among the Americans talking of marriage.
Whereas the Americans spoke of “working on the relationship,” the Japanese couples were viewed as “working together” to accomplish their personal and societal goals.
The couple’s emotional relationship was not disregarded by the Japanese speakers, Dunn notes, but it was seen as a component of a larger objective, not an aim in and of itself. The newlyweds were more likely to be perceived as aligned together, looking out at the world and cooperatively battling various external obstacles that might hinder happiness. Their American counterparts, while certainly not oblivious to the world at large, appeared to face each other in wedlock.
In Japan, being married is often described as “like the existence of air” (kuki no yo na sonzai). The phrase has traditionally been used to suggest that the matrimonial bond is so natural that the partners are hardly aware of it and yet it is nonetheless essential. It is an unassuming but fulfilling view of the married state. Instead of “You take my breath away,” it implies perhaps “You give my breath to me.” Something poor, wheezing Minami would surely appreciate.
Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce. She is the author of “Getting Along with the Japanese” (Ask, 2001).