The picture of an 8-year-old wife posing beside her 27-year-old husband appears at the beginning of an article in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic. The caption of the picture begins by quoting her memory of what it was like two years before, shortly after they married: “Whenever I saw him, I hid. I hated to see him.”
Unfortunately, this is what many people think of when they hear the words, “arranged marriage.” Of course, the marriage described above was arranged, but it was also forced and illegal! Arranged marriages, but not forced marriages, were the norm in many cultures for thousands of years.
Arranged marriages are ones in which someone other than the couple marrying selects the spouses, curtailing the process of courtship. This is done with the consent of those getting married. It becomes a forced marriage if the singles are required to marry against their will. Following is a description of a system of arranged (but not forced) marriage that lasted 500 years.
Japan until mid 20th Century
Arranged marriage was very common in Japan from the 16th century until the last half of the 20th century and still exists today. The following information comes not only from available written sources but also from missionaries who have served scores of years in Japan observing and participating as go-betweens. The typical procedure was (and is) as follows.
- Parents. When the parents think it is time, usually when their son or daughter is 20-30 years old, they contact “go-betweens” (nakodo) to begin the process. Singles wanting to marry may contact nakodos themselves.
- Go-betweens. Go-betweens may be older individuals or couples who are highly respected people of integrity with many contacts. They may be family, friends, or professional nakodo. From the people they know who are considering marriage the go-betweens select several portfolios, each having a brief personal history (name, age, health, education, social status, etc) and photographs.
- Preliminary Selection. The parents and prospective mates sit down with the go-betweens and eliminate people in which they have no interest. They order the remaining portfolios in terms of desirability, and then they ask the go-betweens to investigate their top choice.
- Full Investigation. The go-betweens then check out “everything” about the chosen person including family lineage, social status, religion, medical and mental illness in the family, criminal records in the family etc. They use everything from available legal records to detective agencies, to neighbors and shopkeepers. Of course, this may cost much money, but the family believes it is worth it to find the best mate.
- Meeting. After both sets of prospective mates and their families have studied the reports and give their approval, the go-between arranges a meeting (miai) between both families. This is usually in a large hotel where they can eat and engage in small talk for a while. Near the end of the meeting, the potential couple move off to spend some time together to get better acquainted.
- Decision. If all goes well at the first meeting, the potential couples continue to meet until they reach a decision. If either the potential bride or groom or one of their families does not think the first meeting or any of the following meetings went well, they can tell the go-betweens later. The go-betweens then let the other family know; both families have saved face, and they go back to preliminary selection.
- Engagement and wedding. If the couples choose to marry, they go through formal betrothal ceremonies, and later weddings. At the weddings the go-betweens walk both bride and groom down the aisle and are part of the ceremony, including standing next to the bride and groom in the family pictures.
- During the marriage. The go-betweens are available to help mediate differences between the husbands and wives if marital disputes arise during the marriages.