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Treasures of the library

Japanese Wedding Ceremonies Old and New

Japanese Wedding Ceremonies Old and New
by R. Curizuka Published in 1904
Lisa Sainsbury Library

Wedding gowns are supposed to be white. This tradition is believed to be attributed to the legacy of the wedding gown worn by Queen Victoria in 1840. The custom of the bride in a white gown spread not only in Britain but also in many other countries of the world, including Japan, in the 20th century.  

Some Japanese brides choose kimonos for their wedding day. Red and black are the colours1 generally chosen for wedding kimono, but white is also a popular colour. It is believed that brides chose the colour white influenced by the white wedding gown irrespective of Japanese tradition as a white kimono was traditionally worn for funerals in Japan2. Dressing in black at a funeral after the manner of Western countries became the custom in Japan at the time of either the Russo-Japanese War or World War II. Because of the war funerals were frequently held, thus dressing in white was replaced by wearing black as white clothes were not so easily cleaned.

However, there is an illustration with a bride in a white kimono in the book entitled ‘Japanese Wedding Ceremonies: Old and New’ published in 1904. The description of this illustration says,

Here is the picture of a wedding ceremony in which the bride is wearing white. This is in Japan the colour worn for the dead, and thus it signifies that after the marriage the girl is dead to her old life and begins a new life in a new home.

A white wedding kimono is historically correct, but in this context dressing in a white kimono for a wedding could be considered depressing. In contradistinction to the decline of the custom of wearing white at funerals, white wedding kimonos are still popular nowadays in Japan although many people are presumably unaware of the symbolism of white.  

In ‘Japanese Wedding Ceremonies: Old and New’, 34 polychrome illustrations in ukiyo-e style depict regional customs relating to marriage all over Japan from the Ainu in Hokkaido to Okinawa. Adding to the wedding illustrations, Japanese traditional styles of hair-dressing are shown. 

Following these illustrations, there are descriptions of each one, then an article explaining the contemporary Japanese customs related to marriage.  

The title of the book suggests that it contains both traditional and contemporary customs. However, the descriptions do not clearly state which is old and which is new, but the illustrations provide a clue from the hair-styles of male figures, i.e. whether they have topknots or not.  

The author3 of the book was Ryōko Kurizuka4 (18565 -1923). She was born in Yokohama and learnt English from an American Missionary in Japan from when she was 12 years old. When her Missionary English teacher went back to America she accompanied him and stayed in the States for several years to study6. During her return voyage home she met her future husband, Seigo Kurizuka (1850-1920)7, and they married on their arrival in Japan8.

Her husband stood as a candidate for the Diet at the general election of 1902. During his campaign, she was much more energetically active than Mr Kurizuka. She visited eligible9 voters’ houses to try to persuade them to vote for her husband. Largely because of his wife’s enthusiastic campaign, Mr Seigo Kurizuka was elected.

In a newspaper interview in 1914, Mrs Kurizuka said:

The world does not belong only to men. Therefore, both men and women should have equal rights10.

She was a kind of Japanese suffragette. Moreover, when China was suffering severe famine in 1920 with more than 20 million victims and over 500,000 deaths11, Mrs Kurizuka went to China. She rescued 30 orphans and took them back to Japan to provide them with protection and education12.

She was well known in high society for her cultural and political activities, her wide range of interests and her fluency in English. On the first of September 1923, she was killed in the Great Kantō Earthquake.  

Even though most pages of the book are illustrations, the artist name is unknown.  

Ogawa Kazumasa’s firm13 was the printer and the distributer of this book, which appears as Ogawa Shashin Seihanjo in Japanese on the colophon. His firm was renowned for producing photographic albums for the Western market. Conceivably the author, Mrs Kurizuka, chose Ogawa for this reason.

The binding of the book is similar to Ogawa’s albums, which is in the Japanese style of code tied format. The tie codes are in red and white, which signify joy and happiness in Japanese culture. 

Unlike the white wedding kimono, many of the tribal customs in this book have died out. An example of one of these extinct customs was the throwing of stones at the wedding venue during the ceremony in Gifu, which symbolised casting good-luck at a marriage.  

You may enjoy exploring the digital images in this book, with oldJapanese traditional practices, some of which may be considered to be primitive, bizarre or vicious. 


With sincere thanks to Sir Hugh and Lady Cortazzi who generously donated this book to the Lisa Sainsbury Library. 

Akira Hirano
Lisa Sainsbury Library


1. Traditionally, wedding kimonos had three layers in white, red and black. The outer layer was in black, followed by red. However, this extravagant custom faded away during the Meiji period because it was too costly to prepare a set of three elaborate kimonos.

2. Traditionally both men and women wore a white kimono at a funeral. When a samurai committed seppuku, they dressed in white. At my grandfather’s funeral in 1980, he was dressed in a white kimono in his coffin. This was the last time I saw a white kimono at a funeral.

3. At first, I could not identify who the author was. On the cover and the title page of the book, the author’s name appears as ‘Mrs R. Curizuka’. On the colophon, the author’s name is shown both in Japanese as 栗塚龍, with her address, and in English as Mrs Rio Crizuka. I found two newspaper advertisements of Mr Seigo Kurizuka’s law firm from 1898 and 1899. They showed his home address, which is the same as the address on the colophon of the wedding book. Mrs Kurizuka could be either his wife or his mother. But, the first name of Mr Kurizuka’s mother is Yuki, she died in 1894. Therefore, the author of the book, Mrs R. Curizuka, cannot be Seigo Kurizuka’s mother. It proves that the author is the wife of Mr Seigo Kurizuka.

4. Unlike the book’s colophon, her name is usually written as either 栗塚龍子 or 栗塚竜子 in Japanese. The kanji characters of her first name can be read as Ryūko, Ryōko or Tatsuko. Some records read it as Tatsuko, but this cannot be correct as her initial is R. Some records show it as Ryūko. However, the colophon of this book spells out her first name as Rio, thus, Ryōko is probably the most appropriate pronunciation.

5. Many resources indicate that she died on 1 September 1923 at age 67, but I could not discover her birthday. If her birthday was 2 September or after, her birth year would be 1855. If her birthday was 1 September or before, she was born in 1856. If the records show her age 67 as in the Japanese traditional way of counting, she was born in 1857. However, I believe she was born in 1856 because it was the year of the dragon, which is suggested by her given name.

6. Sudō, Aiji. “Kurizuka Shōgo to sono fujin”, Meishi Meike no Fujin. Tōkyō. Daigakukan, 1901. pp. 84-85.

7. Seigo Kurizuka (1850-1920) was one of the most eminent jurists during the period of the formation of the Japanese modern legal system. After studying law in France, he worked for the Ministry of Justice. He then became a judge (1891-1898), opened his own law firm (1898-1920) and was elected as a Member of Diet (1902-1904).

8. “Fujin hyōbanki: Kurizuka Shōgo fujin Tatsuko”, Yomiuri Shinbun, 9 October 1904.

9. Only wealthy males had the right to vote. (They had to be 25 years old or older and pay state tax of more than 15 yen.)

10. “Meiryū fujin ōsetsuma no inshō (3) Kurizuka Ryūko fujin”, Asahi Shinbun, 20 May 1914.

11. Akiyama, Arata. Experience of Disaster and Chineseness: The Case of North China Famine in 1920. Journal of Japan-China sociological studies. (23), 55-64, 2015-08.

12. “Ase to doro ni kurozumu 30-mei no kigaji Shina kara hikiukete sewasuru Kurizuka tōji”, Asahi Shinbun, 8 June 1921.

13. Please refer to the articles on Kazumasa Ogawa in our E-Magazine Issue 17 and Issue 18.