Cincinnati’s Strange Fascination With Japanese Weddings

Dozens of fake weddings were staged at the turn of the century for fun and profit.

Before 1910, the Asian population of Cincinnati was extremely small, almost entirely male, and almost exclusively Chinese. It’s curious, then, that Cincinnati engaged in a 30-year obsession with Japanese wedding ceremonies.

Multiple drawings of a Japanese wedding

Image digitized by the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County and extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

Between 1880 and 1910, the women associated with several Cincinnati churches staged multiple Japanese weddings, attended by large crowds and often repeated to accommodate demand. Perhaps the first was presented in June 1884 at the Third Presbyterian Church, located on Seventh Street in the West End between Linn and Baymiller. The young people of the church organized the event and served berries, ice cream, and cake to the audience.

Interestingly, one of the last examples of this event, performed by the Be and Do Society of Hyde Park’s Knox Presbyterian Church in January 1908, was described as a “novel entertainment,” as if dozens of such ceremonies hadn’t already taken place in the city. In previous years, Japanese weddings entertained crowds at Pilgrim Chapel in Mount Adams, at the Phoenix Club, at the Baptist Church in Hamilton, at Norwood’s Town Hall, at Madisonville’s Masonic Lodge, and even at Music Hall.

It’s no coincidence that Gilbert & Sullivan’s fabulously successful Japanese-themed opera, The Mikado, had premiered in London in 1885 and debuted in New York a year later. Nor that Maria Longworth’s Rookwood Pottery was exploring Asian themes and hired the Japanese master ceramics painter Kataro Shirayamadani in 1887. Cultural appropriation was in the air.

Perhaps the most elaborate and certainly the most famous of Cincinnati’s Japanese weddings took place in February 1887 at the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Ninth Street. The ceremony involved 30 performers (musicians, torch bearers, messengers, and tea servers) in addition to the wedding party. Every participant—including the groom, the bride’s father, and the groom’s father—was portrayed by a woman of the Trinity congregation.

That ceremony was featured in the March 12, 1887 issue of the nationally distributed Illustrated Graphic News, which emphasized the traditional family values embodied in the Japanese culture:

“A lady friend of ours, who has made Japanese courtship and marriage a study, informs us that these affairs are arranged by the friends of both parties and that much worldly wisdom prevails in the transaction. It seems also that the path of true love does not always run smooth in these courtships, and that many suicides follow in the train of the arbitrary proceedings of cruel parents, who often part a daughter from her favorite lover.”

Surrounding the stage on which the ceremony would be performed, a number of booths selling refreshments and souvenirs were set up and staffed by young ladies in kimonos. The audience overflowed the basement Sunday School rooms and filled the adjacent hallway.

“At eight o’clock the sound of gongs and ear-piercing flutes announced the arrival of the bridal party. First came four ushers, then four torch-bearers, then the bridegroom on the arm of his father-elect, next the musicians, then the bride and her future mamma-in-law, followed by a bevy of young girl friends.”

The bulk of the ceremony involved drinking a lot of sake—nine cups for each of the participants. Most reports of these faux ceremonies repeated the claim that Japanese weddings were strictly legal mergers and did not involve religious blessings. In 1887, this was mostly true. The native Japanese Shinto religion did not create a wedding ceremony until 1900.

“This little drinking bout continued until the principal participants had taken each nine cups, and the high contracting parties are then so securely wedded that only the axe of Koko can divide them. Rice was scattered over the happy pair, and all the household gods, which are many and inclined to be irritable in Japan, being placated, the happy pair departed in peace.”

The Illustrated Graphic News described the costumes of the participants in some detail and provided a complete list of participants, who appear to be representative of Cincinnati’s petit bourgeoisie. The bride was a dressmaker, the bride’s father the wife of a bookkeeper, the groom was an artist. In charge of the souvenir booth was the wife of a commission merchant.

“After the wedding, cakes and ices were served, and there was a rousing business done in Japanese curios and homemade candies; the teacups used in the ceremony were sold and brought high prices. The affair proved a delightful social enjoyment, and will long be remembered by those who had the good fortune to be witnesses thereof.”

In the middle of all of these fake Japanese weddings, Cincinnati witnessed an authentic Japanese wedding on June 2, 1898, when Matsunosuke Sugimoto, seller of Japanese goods on East Fourth Street, married Etsu Najaki in a small ceremony at the home of Obed J. and Amanda Wilson in Clifton. Unlike the fake Japanese weddings popular in the city, the bride and groom wore Western clothing for their Clifton wedding. Officiating was the Rev. Christian Schenk, pastor of the First German Evangelical Protestant Church in Northside. The Sugimotos were Christian and, to the surprise of local newspapers, spoke English fluently.

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