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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Japanese Weddings in the Edo Period (1615–1868)

The social structure of the Edo period (1615–1868) developed under the strict control of the Tokugawa military regime. During this period, the families of the shogunate and provincial leaders (daimyo) arranged marriages based on political interests, and the consent of the shogunate was necessary for a daimyo wedding. The betrothed always came from the same social strata. Formal wedding ceremonies held in the Edo period were based on Muromachi-period (1392–1573) conventions. The wedding was traditionally held at night, but in the Edo period it became customary to perform the ceremony during the day, especially in the case of daimyo families. When a daimyo lord married a daughter of the shogun, the ceremony was more formal; in order to welcome his bride, the daimyo had to build a new compartment attached to his residence. Serious expenses were involved, but the political alliance fortified the position of the daimyo by raising his rank.

Wealthy and powerful daimyo ordered magnificent wedding trousseaus for their daughters, and these trousseaus became symbolic of the social rank and the political alliances upon which the marriages were founded. Preparations for the trousseau began upon the announcement of the engagement. The bride married into the groom’s family, so the trousseau was an important part of the dowry taken over to the groom’s estate in an elegant wedding procession. Such processions were depicted on screens and handscrolls, visual documents of the marriage on which even the names of the participants of the procession were recorded. Common townsmen had a similar tradition, and well-to-do merchants ordered expensive and refined household utensils, furniture, and kimonos for their daughters. However, their wedding ceremonies were much simpler, and the trousseau could have been taken over to the groom’s home in a few chests. Sumptuary laws issued by the shogunate strictly limited the usage of gold and other expensive materials by lower strata to control their display of wealth.

Regardless of an owner’s rank, the wedding trousseau’s items were prepared with the utmost care and attention, so apart from being high-quality craftworks, they reveal contemporary customs and provide an invaluable source for studying cultural history. Surviving bridal manuals shed light upon wedding ceremony traditions and provide details such as the size, shape, material, and decoration of trousseau items. A large variety of wedding-set items are described and illustrated in the Konrei-dōgu shokikei sunpō-sho (Wedding Trousseau Items Size Manual), a woodblock-printed handbook produced in the Edo period that lists nearly 400 pieces recommended for the dowry. Wedding sets commissioned by wealthy daimyo usually contained several decorative shelves; screens and paintings, some of which depicted auspicious symbols and scenes from the Heian-period (794–1185) court classic, The Tale of Genji; cosmetic articles such as a variety of cosmetic boxes, mirrors and mirror stands, decorative basins, tooth-blackening sets, and comb and hair-ornament boxes; calligraphy and painting utensils, such as a writing box and table, containers for writing paper in various shapes, and letter boxes; different kinds of incense boxes, incense pillows, and incense game boxes; leisure articles such as poem-matching cards; musical instruments; a tea ceremony chest; tableware; kimonos; books; dolls, and so on. These articles were elaborately executed, representing the social status of the families and at the same time expressing the notion that marriage was the most important event in a woman’s life. The maki-e (decoration of sprinkled gold and/or silver powder) shell-matching box had an especially important function within the wedding set. The handing over of the shell-matching box was a formal part of the wedding ceremony. The octagonal boxes were filled with shells, 360 pieces altogether, each decorated with a painted pattern on the inside, often alluding to classical literature. Only the two halves of one shell would match perfectly, a symbolization of the married couple.

Most of the furnishings and household utensils were maki-e lacquer pieces, most often decorated with similar patterns that included the two family crests to commemorate the alliance. The dowry pieces became family heirlooms, and several generations might have used the same items, a fact that often complicates the identification of the original owners. The number of items included in a warrior family’s bridal trousseau was restricted according to rank and income, and under a certain income maki-e lacquer decoration was prohibited. From the mid-Edo period onward, most of the furnishings were sent a few days before the actual wedding procession took place. When everything was received at the groom’s home, the trousseau was arranged formally in the dressing room. In the “wedding room,” motifs representing longevity (crane, turtle, pine, bamboo, plum patterns) and other auspicious symbols such as Mount Hōrai appeared on the vessels and on the hanging scrolls or screens. For the wedding, the bride wore a white kosode kimono and uchikake outer-robe matched with a white floss silk headdress to cover her “horns” (tsunokakushi, symbolizing the bride’s resolve to become a gentle and obedient wife). After the ritual drinking of sake, the bride changed into a kosode presented by the groom, which could be either a deep red or a five-color gold and silver kosode, or perhaps a kosode with a red or black background featuring auspicious symbols. The surviving pieces of the more elaborate Edo-period wedding trousseaus, decorated with symbols of longevity and good fortune, narrate for us the strictly controlled lives of the daimyô brides.