Three nights of sex, one morning of rice cakes: Marriage in old Japan

Marriage in the Christian world is a pretty clear thing: you go to a priest and there’s a ceremony. Ritual things are said and done – and at the end, you’re married. The secular marriage us Westerners have is pretty much the same: you go to someone, declare your intent and then, through the power invested in the ritual by tradition and common convention, you’re married.

In old Japan, things were… different?… Very different. Hugely different. So different that if old Japan rules were applied today, you’d probably be polygamous by now.

Okay, to clear things up, when I say ‘old Japan’, I mean, oh, 9th century to 12th century – Heian Japan, when Japanese literature became interesting and prose started flowing forward like a river of inky goodness; when women were admitted to court and became poets and writers, when society was elegant and beauty in art was of the utmost concern.

And from this period of beauty and elegance comes a novel, The Tale of Genji, where the handsome, astonishing prince has affairs with beautiful, refined women who adore him (more or less). The story eventually grows into strangeness, but one thing that got me confused from the moment I first started reading it was marriage.

Although Genji is declared married at one point, he never lives with his wife. There’s no ceremony that you can notice. He kidnaps a girl and grows her into the perfect wife, but does he ever marry her?… Who knows. At one point he builds a huge palace for his ladies – but are they wives? Concubines? Tolerated illicit affairs? Friends with benefits?…

Turns out that, erm. Well, erm… “Erm” is the best way to describe it.

The wedding ‘ritual’

Heian Japan didn’t have a public wedding ceremony. It didn’t have a particular ritual with a priest or monk (Buddhist or otherwise). It didn’t have much at all. There was a courtship consisting of exchanging poetry and messages, or maybe the parents arranged for the marriage – the couple didn’t see each other in either case (the woman had to remain hidden; accidents did happen, but that was the principle).

After months or years, or however long, the ‘marriage’ would happen. The man visited the woman at night and left at dawn. He returned the following night and again left at dawn. On the third night, he’d stay until daylight, when he’d be ‘discovered’ by the bride’s parents. Then the couple would be offered breakfast – third day rice cakes. (source)

That’s pretty much it. Three nights of sex (at least theoretically), one morning of rice cakes. The only reason I myself am not married by Heian standards is that there’s never any rice cakes to be found for breakfast.

So, did they announce it to the world?… Well, if this happened with the aristocracy in the capital, they didn’t need to. The nobleman had a retinue, he traveled in ox-driven carts, it was a small city and gossip traveled with the speed gossip usually travels. People would know. (same source)

Living arrangements

The couple wouldn’t live together – initially there would be a long time when they’d both be living with their families and the man would visit at night. If the time came for them to live together, the man would move in with the woman. Sometimes the parents of the girl would leave to live in a new home, or they would provide the couple with a new house – in either case, it was the woman who owned the property and it was she, with the help of her parents, who raised the children.

Her parents also helped her husband in his career – so a man would usually want to marry a woman of high rank, for the political help her family could provide him. The children would belong to the wife’s family, but they were part of their father’s clan, interestingly enough. Towards the end of the Heian period (the end of the 12th century), women started to move in with men instead and things became more patriarchal. (source)

Polygamy (polygyny, really) and divorce

Theoretically, a woman was only allowed one husband, but a man was allowed multiple wives. One would end up as the ‘first wife’ – traditionally, the first he married, although some exceptions existed. Other wives had a lower rank in the household and their children received less support at court.

Divorce was a piece of cake – this time not literal. The couple just stopped seeing each other, if they lived in different locations. If they lived together, the man would leave – in very rare cases, it was the woman who left. No rituals, no forms, no signing anywhere. Pretty easy.

Divorce (or death) also made it possible for lower-ranking wives to replace the ‘first wife’ from the point of view of position and importance (same source).

All in all…

Kind of a thorny issue for women (especially if you add to the above that they were supposed to never manifest clear erotic interest in men). They could be married against their will – technically, so could boys, but only when they were young enough. They could have property, but not hold jobs, so the death of their parents and/or husband could lead to inability to cover the expenses – and therefore poverty.

A thorny issue for men, too – they needed to marry into good families, to make sure that they remained in good standing with their parents-in-law for political and economic support. And they needed to make certain that they treated their high ranking wives with the respect due to their and their parents’ positions.

Plus, everybody had to be elegant, to play an instrument, compose poetry and understand art to strike a good match. And even if I love the arts…

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