The nakodo, the go-between, was so essential to the success of a Japanese wedding that even in the early 1990s, when Aki and I tied the knot, it would have been unthinkable to not have a go-between couple sitting up with us on the dais.
Even though our marriage had been arranged by nobody other than ourselves.
The catchy tune from Fiddler on the Roof … “Match Maker, Match Maker, make me a Match” played in my head as I thought about the long-standing Jewish tradition of marriage arranged through a match-maker. In 19th century Eastern European shtetls.
This idea that good marriages were arranged by good match-makers was ingrained not only in Japanese culture but in Jewish tradition as well. But it was so antiquated that I had to laugh at the prospect of having a go-between at our wedding.
In 1959, Aki’s parents marriage had been arranged by a matchmaker. Hiroko made it clear to her matchmaker she wanted to marry into a family business where she could put her quick, problem-solving brain to work. And that’s how she ended up being chosen wife of the eldest son of the inventor of the first electric rice polishing machine factory in Japan.
Couldn’t we all benefit with a wise bit of counseling before we embark on such an important decision as marriage?
My parents had found each other at a Jewish singles mixer, a party both happened to be at in Montreal–although neither of my parents was born or raised in Canada. A love match, my parents had called it in the beginning. When their marriage floundered, there was nobody to go to for wise counseling. For practically speaking, the go-betweens did have that honorable role. To be there in good times as well as hard times.
I was 29 when I met Aki at Akahigedo, an Eastern medicine clinic in Tokyo, we fell in love. We decided to get married. And now all that remained before forging ahead with wedding plans was to find the “matchmakers”.
I asked my very first friends in Tokyo to be my nakodo. They were a middle aged couple, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for a Columbia University alumni magazine article in 1985, which took place on my first trip to Japan when I fell in love as much with Tokyo as with them. Their eagerness to welcome me into their family made life in Japan more a feeling of returning home than anywhere else I’d traveled to. The Asanos agreed to be our go-between. We shared a love for knock-knock jokes. He would have me over for dinner once a week, his wife Sayoko spoiling me with gourmet French cooking.
The Perfect Fairytale Wedding with Asymmetric Go-Betweens
The Asanos agreed to being my nakodo–naturally. Who could be a better fit to sit on the dais with Aki and me? But a month before our wedding I got a call from Sayoko, sadness in her voice, to say that Sotaro wasn’t doing well. I knew he had been in remission with cancer. But now he was back in hospital and this meant he couldn’t be at our wedding. A few months later he succumbed to stomach cancer.
What to do? It was unthinkable-I was told-to not have any nakodo. Even Sayoko agreed to come anyway. Fortunately, the Wakabayashi family, there was a strong supply of uncles–Aki’s father Toshihiko was the eldest of 5 brothers. In a pinch, Uncle Susumu offered to sit in for Sotaro.
The wedding day arrive. April 7th, 1991. We’re in the South Peacock Room of the Imperial Hotel. Seated on the dais with us are a husband and a wife, both in their fifties, who looked pretty well matched in their wedding finery. They are married, but not to each other. Sayoko and Susumu were meeting for the very first time on the wedding dais. And after our wedding, they never met again.
What sort of symbolic opening is that to a marriage?
I asked myself that question while we sat on the dais, and my brow furrowed in concern that this wedding custom offered us a symbolic start that was not exactly what we needed.
But after a few glasses of wine, I started to relax when I saw how huge a gesture Sayoko had made by agreeing to attend without her husband. They were an inseparable couple who traveled together, dined together, and genuinely enjoyed each others’ company. Sayoko offered me the best gift imaginable by setting an example in elegant manners: to honor your commitments, no matter what.
What happened to the nakodo custom?
A few years later it was over. The custom of having a go-between at a Japanese wedding quietly died out. No newspaper headlines. Just an acknowledgment of the fact that it was the very rare bird these days that found marriage through go-betweens.
And it’s a pity really. Because having a friend to talk marriage over, to share your heart with, if and when the partner you expected morphs into someone you don’t recognize for a while, a nakodo can be a treasured friend.