Konrei oban nishiki-e sanmai tsuzuki
enlarged picture
Detail of Konrei oban nishiki-e sanmai tsuzuki (Three-Part Painting of a wedding ceremony). (©Pola Museum of Art)

Set of ornately decorated bridal utensils. (©Pola Museum of Art)
By Hisako Hata
Curator, Edo-Tokyo Museum

Among the textbooks that were commonly used during the Edo Period are a number of editions offering instruction on letter writing. One of them specifically addressed the art of composing love letters. As evidenced by the large number of such letters that have been found, moreover, one can surmised that written correspondence between lovers was a common practice.

Monogyny was the rule for both samurai aristocrats and commoners in the Edo period. Marriage partners were usually sought from families with similar social rank, and the consent of domainal and shogunal authorities were required for marriages involving samurai households. Wedding a partner of one's desire was rare, therefore, since the choice of spouse was made in accordance with the will and judgment of the parents. Cases of double suicide among young lovers were not uncommon when they found their parents' decisions unacceptable.

Those from low-ranking farming households that were less preoccupied with social status were freer to choose their own mates. Often, they met potential partners at local village festivals.

Tying the Knot
Marriage was a more formalized affair for higher-ranking farming households, though. Parents usually asked relatives and others with a broad network of acquaintances to find suitable marriage candidates. The family background of such candidates was checked, and if both families found the arrangement agreeable, a meeting was set up.

If both sides agreed to proceed with the marriage, an engagement ceremony was held, mediated by a village elder. On the day of the marriage, the groom visited the house of the bride, from where the couple, along with their parents and attendants, marched to the groom's house. The wedding ceremony was held at night, and the bride was introduced to members of the groom's village.

Marriage was even more complicated for leading aristocratic houses. A written request had to be submitted to the shogunal government, and newly married couples were required to visit Edo Castle to formally announce their wedlock.

The age of first marriage for women was much younger than it is today, although it rose toward the end of the Edo period. This was because girls began serving for a number of years as housemaids for aristocratic families and large landowners. Men who were employed business establishments were not allowed to marry until they were able to support a family, so their average age of first marriage over 40.

Divorces were fairly common, as were second, third, and even fourth marriages. Although it has been supposed that only the male had the right to demand a divorce, quite often divorce proceedings were initiated by the wife, and the cause of divorce was quite frequently the wife's involvement in an affair or her running away from home. In cases where discussions fail to produce an amicable divorce, women had a last-resort choice of seeking refuge in one of two temples in the country; after three years in the temple, the husband was unconditionally required to issue a letter of divorce.