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How to not make a fool of yourself at a Japanese wedding

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By Ashley Thompson

Not long after I’d moved to Japan, I received an invitation in the fall from a co-worker to attend her wedding, to be held that winter. It was exciting enough that she chose to invite me to something as significant as a wedding without really knowing me that well, so I told her I’d be there. Though couples do still opt for a traditional Japanese wedding in addition to a Western one, it seems that weddings lately are trending more towards Western-type. My co-worker was having a Western one, although she and her fiance had professional pictures taken wearing traditional Japanese attire.

Then I realized, I needed to figure out the proper etiquette for attending a Japanese wedding. I’d heard somewhere before that bringing money for a gift is the appropriate thing to do, rather than actual, physical gifts. (I wish this was custom in the U.S….) I told her I didn’t have a lot of money at the time (but I would give what I could, since I wasn’t sure what the normal “amount” was. I doubt I put in a good amount, since most people give anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 yen and up. I also wasn’t sure what to wear, and told her about the clothing I currently owned (no dresses, only some skirts that were more “business wear”). She said whatever I wore would be fine.

A few days before the wedding I went hunting for money envelopes. The only ones I’d seen were at the local supermarket and drug store, and a scarce selection at that. I took pictures of the front of the envelopes, to send to a friend so he could read the kanji and tell me what they said. (I didn’t want anything that said something like, “sorry for your loss” or “congrats on your new baby!”). He helped me with some of them but said the calligraphy on others was too difficult to decipher. I was in a hurry and wouldn’t have time to shop for them again, so I just decided to be safe by choosing a pack of plain envelopes.

The day of the wedding I rode a shuttle bus with others from my workplace to the “church,” which really was more like a surreal castle tower with a walkway that cascaded down in a square spiral (see left), leaving the middle completely open to the ceiling, where the “priest” (who stated he was the “Lord” of the castle) was standing, waiting to perform the ceremony.

One of the first things I noticed was that all the women were dressed to the nines. It reminded me of my high school prom (that I stayed at for an entire 20 minutes). Frills and lace and fancy updo’s, while I was wearing a plain brown skirt and blue V-neck sweater, exposing my translucent pale skin and probably scandalizing every old woman there (not that there’s much to see). So, tip #1, if invited to a Japanese wedding, and it’s a Western-type one, assume that you need to wear something incredibly fancy. Men, ties are a must – the groom himself had coattails. Even if you ask the dress code, be prepared to hear: “Oh, anything is fine.” Believe me, it’s not. Oh, they’ll still talk to you and love having you there because you are a foreigner, (I felt like somewhat of a celebrity, despite the fact it wasn’t my wedding) even if you don’t dress up enough, but really, you should.

When the guests were arriving, they proceeded in a line to a waiting room until the actual start time of the ceremony. On the way in was a large table with the gift envelopes spread out in an orderly fashion. Looking at the table, my eyes took in bright colors of blue, red, gold and silver, with large adornments and ribbon tied in extravagant detail. I looked at my homely envelope, then turned to a girl behind me, showed her my envelope and whispered, “is this OK?” She smiled while assuring me it was fine. At the front of the line I handed my envelope over to the gift attendants, who took it, bowing profusely and thanking me, holding it as if it were gold. I walked away, into the waiting room, but stole a quick glance over my shoulder to catch the attendant stuffing it under the pile, where it would remain unseen.

So, tip #2, do not use a plain envelope. Buy a fancy one – the fancier the better. The kanji simply means “congratulations.” If you can’t find one at a nearby store, go to a stationery store or a place like Tokyu Hands or Loft.

The ceremony proceeded in a fairytale-like fashion, complete with mist billowing out over the floor, the rings floating down from the ceiling on a heart-shaped pillow, and various other theatrics.

We then proceeded to the reception, where a seven course meal was served, the bride and groom’s parents walked around filling everyone’s glasses for a toast, many, many speeches, and what else, Bingo. Somehow I ended up winning first prize in Bingo, receiving a portable DVD player. They gave all of the guests a lot of gifts, so be prepared to carry a multitude of bags home.

At some point during the reception, I was asked to give a speech, simply because I’m a foreigner. I didn’t know they would ask me beforehand, but I sauntered up, thanking everyone profusely in Japanese and explained where I’m from, then switched to English since at the time my Japanese wasn’t sufficient to say much else. I probably babbled something about well-wishes and good marriage and thank you for having me, etc. – trying to sound Japanese. So, tip #3, be prepared to give a speech. It may not happen, but there’s a good chance it might. Though everyone applauded and cheered when I had finished, I couldn’t help but think most of them were probably clapping out of politeness, wondering what the crap had I even been talking about, “Why did she say stuff about America?” and “Who is this person again?”

Now that you’ve learned the proper etiquette from my ridiculous mistakes, I hope it helps you for whenever you are invited to a wedding in Japan. Of course, the wedding was quite fun and I enjoyed it, but since I learned these etiquette lessons the hard way, now you don’t have to.

© Japan Today

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50 Comments
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Ever heard of Google? One should research these things (or at least ask someone) before making a fool of oneself. This is a waste of space.

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What surprised me the first time I went to Japanese wedding was how much money I was supposed to give in the envelope. I had put in 10,000 yen but everyone else told me that 30,000 yen was about right. These days, I politely decline invitations to weddings.

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It's common sense to use something at least more or less fancy to a wedding, no matter where you are on earth, not random clothes. Pft.

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I dread being invited to weddings-as I am told secretly do many Japanese. They are most definitely not the nosh-up knees-up affair I am used to back home, and paying 30,000 yen! To an obscure work colleague I barely know??! Thank you but no thank you! Wouldn`t mind if there was a disco or something, but at 8pm everyone went home!

At our wedding in the UK, the Japanese were the first to hit the dance floor and the last to leave - one of them physically dragged off at midnight! Aha! Bizness opportunity methinks! DJ miamum is in the house!

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Ashley Thompson - If you are reading this, do you think adults actually need your advice on No.1? Is dressing like a bag-lady at a wedding the norm wherever you are from?

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Is dressing like a bag-lady at a wedding the norm wherever you are from?

Absolutely! I forgot to mention that! Plain brown skirt and blue V neck sweater? To a WEDDING???!

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sjeesh what a negativity here.

Honestly I have to say, paying 30000 yen for a wedding is ridiculously expensive. 50000 if you go with the missus. HOWEVER, I do have to say that I love the Japanese weddings, they are arranged perfectly unlike back home. Just dont like that mother/father speech at the end, always need to make everybody cry. bah :(

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You can give less than the 30.000, but there are a rules on how to split the total amount(Number of money notes, etc). As for Gifts some things like Knifes, Scissors, etc are an absolute no-no, etc.

Doing a bit of research or asking an older co-worker/friend for help goes a long way.

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So, tip #2, do not use a plain envelope. Buy a fancy one – the fancier the better. The kanji simply means “congratulations.” If you can’t find one at a nearby store, go to a stationery store or a place like Tokyu Hands or Loft.

Addendum to tip #2: Envelopes that have a black and white color scheme are usually used for funerals. Do NOT use them.

Tip #4: Even number denominations (eg, 20,000yen, 40,000yen) are unlucky because they can be divided into two. Odd number denominations only (eg, 10,000yen, 30,000yen, 50,000yen).

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Tip #whatever, don't wear a kimono to a wedding if you're a foreigner. Just doesn't look right.

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You can give less than the 30.000, but there are a rules on how to split the total amount(Number of money notes, etc). As for Gifts some things like Knifes, Scissors, etc are an absolute no-no, etc.Doing a bit of research or asking an older co-worker/friend for help goes a long way.

Totally agree.

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Tip #whatever, don't wear a kimono to a wedding if you're a foreigner. Just doesn't look right.

I think kimono on foreign women look good, too. Just don't try to wear it by yourself. Make sure to get help from a professional (local beauty salon, hotel, etc)

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Well nowadays there are as many kinds of weddings in Japan as there are couples--everything from big, fancy, and traditional, to small, low-budget, and casual. Some of the traditional rules don't necessarily apply, so it's always good to check.

Still, the writer comes across as a bit dim. She's in the store, looking at envelopes, and doesn't think to ASK someone working IN THE STORE? (I guess many people are like that these days--rather turn to their "smart phones" than have to interact with a real person).

A lot of my younger friends (20s and 30s)in Japan have gotten smarter about getting married. They'll have a traditional ceremony/dinner for a small group--family, friends from high school, maybe a boss from work or two, if they were involved in introducing the couple), but then invite everyone else to a nijikai/after-party, where the level of formality is lower (along with the cost), and you basically just pay whatever the invitation says (often just 5,000 or 10,000) to cover food, drinks, and door prizes.

They know a lot of their co-workers and more casual acquaintances don't have a lot of money and don't want to spend oodles on formal clothes, so this is a way of including them and having a good time without hitting the wallet too hard.

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I gave 2 man. I knew about the 3 man but I find it a bit strange that you HAVE TO give this and that amount. I`ll give what I can afford. Weddings here seem like a money giving competition. Weddings are now a business, too. Must say the food is great but the lunch/dinner/dessert is too rushed. The dessert buffet at one weddign I went to was 30 minutes and then they closed it out. Just leave they grub out would you. Your friends should be happy that you came to their wedding, tuxedo and money or not.

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Yes, I have been to a couple of Nijikai. We were given name badges with pretend names and had to find our "match" among the guests, played Bingo (kill me now, please) and were given a packet of instant pot noodle as a "thank you" gift when we left (her father works for a food company). Wow! Thanks!

At another we had a demonstration of Hula dancing from her Hula dance class and of course we were "encouraged" to join in - especially the only foreigner in the place (waste of time pointing out that Hula dancing IS actually foreign to Japan!)

The most exciting bit was when the bride and groom were put in the middle of the floor and publically ridiculed with embarrassing personal questions. That bit was kind of fun.

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Think Tip # 1 should have read (which belongs in the first paragraph): If you don't really know the person who is getting wed, just don't go to the wedding.

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you can wear a kimono, but as a rule, you should avoid being more "medatsu" than the bride/groom. I had a similar problem recently, I am used with western-style weddings in Japan, but I was invited to a traditional Japanese wedding. I had a hard tme researching, because most of my friends and coworkers never attended one, and had no idea about the rules

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I can sympathise with Ms Thompson. I'd never been to a wedding anywhere, before I came to Japan, so I was doubly at a loss for what to wear. Also, as someone who didn't have fancy frocks and business suits, I really could've done with advice about what to wear. You can find out online now of course (I, ahem, didn't have that option) , but that doesn't deal with the problem of where to get the fancy clothes. We all know better now, don't we? It's easy to mock someone who doesn't know the same things as we do because they haven't had the same experiences, but it's not very mature to.

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My advice to guys attending weddings of Japanese in-laws and who will appear in the formal group family picture is don't smile. Despite your spouse's assurance that she will be smiling as will others, when the picture is developed you will be the only one.

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People talk way to much at Japanese weddings. Boring and dull. I prefer the Hokie Pokie.

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The biggest mistake Americans make even in Japanese restaurants in the USA is to stand the chopsticks up and leave them there in a bowl of rice at the dinner/reception. Marriage can be the death of freedom, but it doesn't have to be the death of happiness.

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Most Japanese weddings are a rather extravagant affair. The money envelope is to cover the costs... 20,000 yen is about going rate, 30,000 if you want to show a bit of extra respect, more if you really think highly of the person. What? That's about equivalent of $200 US for a going rate? not all that much for a fancy dinner and a bottomless bar. After all, you are there to celebrate someone's wedding. It's not like you are pissing it up against the wall. Anyway, I can sympathise that the author of this has been a little embarrassed, but trust me, you can get away with it because you are a foreigner. They will give you a lot more leniency for not knowing. Too bad if it was me. I'm a Japanese grown up in foreign soils. If I did something wrong, people would judge me so harshly.

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The great thing about most cultural faux pas is that ... no one usually cares. Oh sure, it's good to be prepared and to have some idea of what you're doing, but if you're the clueless foreigner in the crowd, no one's going to be shocked or scandalized if you don't own a party dress or have no idea what kind of envelope to use. Just so long as you don't do anything to embarrass anyone but yourself they won't have a problem unless they're old. (I've noticed that old people tend to be weirder about cultural faux pas, while younger people just don't care.)

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Best advice is dont go and treat youtslf to something worth 30000Yen instad. no fear of looking a fool then.

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Dont forget the fresh bills...no crease marks whatsoever. I went to a wedding here with one of my friends from overseas who had never stepped foot in Japan prior to the wedding. His happy face turned pyscho when he thought someone was stealing his beer (bottle).....I had to assure him that all they want to do is fill up his glass for him....which they did, only for him to drink the lot in an instant without waiting for the kampai.

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Yeah - I always get stuck in and forget the kanpai and my husband has to dig me in the ribs before anyone notices!

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@shirokuma - I'm the author you're referring to here - and just to clarify - my Japanese at that point in time was not enough to be able to ask about proper wedding envelopes. While nowadays I can no problem, then I only knew the basics. That aside, it was a store that didn't have any employees working aside at the registers which were incredibly busy. Don't assume that everyone is fluent in Japanese when they first arrive.

For anyone else wondering: I also wrote a post about typical giving amounts for Japanese weddings, which you can find on my website, Surviving in Japan: without much Japanese (I can't post the link here).

@ratpack - Good point about the new bills! I think you can find that tip everywhere though, so I didn't feel it necessary to include here, but it is a very relevant point.

To all the comments about not feeling that embarrassed, I believe I noted that it's not that big of a deal if you make mistakes as a foreigner (usually). For me, it was amusing more than anything - you learn and move on.

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What about the long list of taboo words they don't want to hear coming out of a guest's mouth ? I read they were important to know of, and being foreign was no excuse.

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If you make a speech, be very very careful not to confuse "shinpu-san" and "ninpu-san". It's been done, believe me. (Not by me, thank goodness!)

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I do wonder what the author thinks about the question of whether to even go to the wedding in the first place (in a case like this). If it is someone you are somewhat close to, one should go by all means. But if its a co-worker that you're not close to, is it possible that they might be inviting you out of obligation, while expecting or hoping that you say no. I don't actually know the standard etiquette around this (do people give out obligatory invitations? is it ok to refuse), but it seems like an important point. Not that I ever get invited to Japanese weddings these days; I'm a disposable foreigner.

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aciara, and you can also add on your site that one can easily find new bills at any bank, some of them even have a special ATM for those

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She was decoration, she doesn't realize she was chosen to goto the wedding because she was a foreigner. Like the flowers on the table she was there as an accessory.

She is really green to Japan, I guess if you are straight off the plane no one tells you these things.

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Most people are invited to a wedding to get your money to pay for the weddings. I've been invited to weddings of people I never have talk too but we happened to be in the same building.

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Maria - with all due respect, an adult shouldn't need to be reminded to wear his or her Sunday best at a wedding no matter where it is.

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She was decoration, she doesn't realize she was chosen to goto the wedding because she was a foreigner. Like the flowers on the table she was there as an accessory.

This is absolutely true. I even found myself having to kiss every guy in the place on the cheek at one wedding just so their mates could take pictures of it. It seemed too impolite to refuse, and my husband was steaming when he came back from the bar area to find me standing at a table with a long queue of men brandishing cheeks and cameras!

Most people are invited to a wedding to get your money to pay for the weddings. I've been invited to weddings of people I never have talk too but we happened to be in the same building.

Also absolutely true and it works on an economy of scale - the more you invite the more you eventually cover costs and make a profit. Especially if you give out crappy instant noodles as free gifts (still bitter about that one!)

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I was at a hotel reception and I was huuungry. Everyone was nibbling at the odd pickings from this or that tray. I saw a great big red lobster on at the center of the table. Lobster! It seemed to be calling me, "Nessie....Nessie...."

I politely held out until I could hold out no longer. I grabbed it, flipped it over, and saw it was empty. Kazari! The whole table saw my face drop. And so, the lobsterer becomes the lobster.

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If you make a speech, be very very careful not to confuse "shinpu-san" and "ninpu-san". It's been done, believe me.

Oh man, that is a good one. I would love to be there when it happens at a dekichatta-kekkon...

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Don't be the only gaijin @ a Japanese wedding in inaka, if you can help it. By the time most of the speeches are over and everyone has had some drinks, you will definitely be singled out as a foreigner, and asked questions meant to embarrass you. It happens, to some extent, at most weddings. For this is for many of the wedding's guests the only chance they'll get to speak to a gaijin, and at such an important event, and with all the truth serum being consumed, they talk to you, and while sometimes it is pleasant, it is the other times, when they put on airs, or attempt to reduce my culture to a loud phrase about nothing, that I remember. Skip the unknown's wedding, if you can. Stay home. And save some money and the entire weekend for yourself and Japan mountain adventures.

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If you can endure it, the banquet usually lasts two hours and then the staff comes in and starts cleaning up (for the next two hour stint.) My advice for foreigners faced with ridiculous requests like kissing all the strangers on the cheek is don't do anything you wouldn't do at your own wedding reception. I've been to 20 or so Japanese wedding receptions and have seen people get roaring drunk, including at my own, but I've never seen anything like that. That sounds like sexual harassment to me. Some people under the influence of alcohol (or even pretending to be drunk to excuse their behavior) will badger foreigners into doing something that Japanese would never do. Just say no.

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A plain white envelope for a wedding in Japan? And it's not necessarily "the fancier the better." The fancier, the more money is inside.

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you will definitely be singled out as a foreigner, and asked questions meant to embarrass you

Sounds like a great time to turn the table on 'em.

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SHINPU?? and NINPU?? Actually this happened when I was mucking around doing weddings here in Japan, they say a gaijin, ok, he must be Christian, so they asked me to marry a few Japanese, and the first wedding the Shinpu, bride was coming down the VIRGIN ROAD with a HUGE BELLY, no virgin here, so I was so shocked, being from hard core Catholic Mexico, that I said today we have the NINPU, the pregnant woman instead of saying today we have the bride SHINPU with her genki groom, oops!

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These days, I politely decline invitations to weddings.

I believe most Japanese do this as well.

I've been to three weddings here (not one of them my own, alas ...) The first one I had to attend the actual ultra-Japanese ceremony with the flutes and everything. It was very strange. The other two were just the eating parts afterwards. Plenty of dumb games, but plenty of free drink. As everyone left they presented gifts to the bridge and groom who were standing on this podium with a gold backdrop. I was corked at the time and in honorific Japanese offered them the centerpiece from one of the tables, which they got a kick out of.

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Perhaps they're EXPECTING you to make a fool out of yourself - as long as no-one gets hurt - it makes the wedding more memorable.

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"I've been invited to weddings of people I never talk to"

That's not as bad as not being invited to the wedding of a couple who met because of you. Yes, that actually happened to me. Did I feel miffed? You betcha!

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Tip #4 be yourself (your best self!)

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Lighten-up, people. The author of the article was a new resident of Japan and didn't have the luxury of being independently wealthy like (apparently) all of you who derided her for not having a ballroom gown handy. She could only afford to put 10000 yen in the envelope and you're busting her chops for not going out and spending even more on a gown and hairstyle?! A little dose of reality, people, please.

Her warning can be summed up as this: If invited to a wedding in Japan, don't believe a word of what you're told by the ones doing the inviting, because you will be lied to from the moment you're invited until the moment you leave the ceremony.

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Maybe it would've been better if she refused the invitation and just send them a card. I don't have a problem with people having the beautiful day they want, but I do have a problem with them spending money they don't have and then expecting gifts to compensate. What's worse is the tendency to invite a tons of people the couple doesn't care about to get more gifts and to make the cost per guest based on a larger scale a bit cheaper at least in regards to catering. I think the wedding industry is huge almost everywhere and it's something women buy into. I say women because few men want elaborate weddings and read magazines about nothing but weddings. The original intent of the ceremony and gifts has been pretty lost in commercialism and status seeking. There are some people who takes out mortgages on their homes to foot the wedding bill. It's just ridiculous.

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How to not make a fool of yourself at a Japanese wedding

Don't show up?

Being a foreigner = automatic fool status. "Look at the foreigner!!!"

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Don't show up is good, especially if you're the groom. Being the groom is one sure way to make a fool of yourself. You just don't know it until later.

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