When you date a Japanese girl there are a lot of cultural road bumps to overcome. Yet despite them–maybe even because of them–you might decide to make things permanent. Popping the question can already be stressful, but when you propose in Japan there's also Japanese culture to consider. While you're sure she won't drop a "no" on you because you didn't adhere line 4, section 24, article 9 of the Japanese Culture Handbook, you still want a sure-fire proposal that clicks with Japanese. Is there a "right" way to propose in Japan? And what happens after that?
Traditional Japanese Proposals
Well actually, since your girlfriend is aware you're not Japanese, she's probably not expecting a traditional Japanese proposal. Odds are, she wouldn't even like one. Old-fashion Japanese proposals were very indirect, and modern Japanese girls will probably just laugh if you asked them a traditional proposal like: "Will you make miso soup for me everyday?"
To a non-Japanese it might sound more like you want a personal chef rather than a marriage, but for older Japanese who valued indirectness in speech, it was a very clever way of popping the question. Another famously vague proposal professed eternal love even in death: "Do you want to lie in the same grave with me?"
The implication was that her ashes will be placed in his family plot of the cemetery, implying marriage. Nowadays though, it would be strange–and grim–to associate death with your marriage proposal. However romantic talk of death and miso soup used to be, in recent years they've understandably lost their flavor.
Modern Japanese Proposals
One wife I talked to was asked "do you want to grow old together?" But while some guys can still get away with "soft" proposals like that, modern Japanese girls expect something more direct. Nowadays Japanese men often propose in grand style at fireworks festivals by popping the question during a portion of the show bought and dedicated to their girlfriends.
There are no rules anymore. One non-Japanese I interviewed proposed to his girlfriend after a romantic guitar serenade in the park. His song and proposal were completely in English–and since his girlfriend had a strong command of the language, that was just fine. So when it comes to proposing to a Japanese girl, just do your own thing.
Wait! Should I Ask For The Parents Permission First?
You should get parents permission before marrying their daughter. You don't absolutely have to, but many Japanese fathers would be insulted if you didn't. Since you're never just marrying the girl, but her family too, asking them if you can marry their daughter is the best way to start your marriage off on the right foot.
You should have already met the parents before anyway. One non-Japanese who eventually married his Japanese girlfriend made it a point to meet the parents early on. Just imagine if this had been his first conversation with them:
"Hi. My name is Steve and I'd like to marry your daughter. Also, because I can't speak Japanese, please just respond with 'yes' or 'no.'"
He didn't want to be that guy, and you don't either. Meeting the parents early also tells you if you should invest in the relationship. Like Koichi mentioned, meeting the parents is usually a great experience, but some parents are stuck in the sakoku 鎖国, or "chained country" era when Japan underwent 200 years of self-imposed isolation. Their little girl is going to marry a Japanese–and that's the end of it. And honestly, unless your girlfriend is like the family-jewel-kneeing type mentioned in Koichi's post, that very well could be the end of it.
Family is extremely important in Japan. A "no" from both parents will throw an epic monkey wrench into any potential marriage. Just like anywhere, many Japanese girls (guys too!) will have serious reservations without parental approval. It may not even be the parents whose permission you ultimately need, but another relative who decides your fate.
One female non-Japanese I interviewed experienced a particularly interesting case of the strength of Japanese family bonds. Since she was the girl, she didn't have to ask for her future in-laws' permission. She did, however, need the blessing of her husband's aunt. Aunty was the head of the family, and all major decisions went through her. Luckily, the aunt loved her and the marriage went off without a hitch, but if she had gotten a "no," things would have been off.
Parent's Real Concern
The only problem you will likely have with asking for the parents' permission is the language barrier. You'd better prepare what to say in Japanese. Whatever you say though, the only thing that's really on their minds is if you are horse-backed marauder come to kidnap their daughter away to foreign lands. They want to know where you intend to live–Japan or abroad? Will they ever get to see their grandchildren? By saying "yes" to you, are they saying "goodbye" to their baby girl? That's what they really care about.
The best answer is honest, and starts with "she and I talked about it, and…" You should have talked about it with her, and when you deliver the news to her parents, make it clear–and that it is–a mutual decision between you.
The Japanese Engagement Ceremony
In Japan, someone might say "I'm getting engaged next month on the 14th." In traditional families, an engagement isn't finalized until an engagement ceremony, called yuinou 結納. Every Japanese I interviewed had an engagement ceremony, though age and social status determined the particulars. The younger, middle-class Japanese only had an informal ceremony amounting to a dinner between families. More wealthy couples held theirs in the traditional style, which costed upwards of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars.
"I'm the president of my company. It was expected of me," one Japanese businessman told me. "It was so expensive!"
Another older Japanese gentleman had a traditional engagement ceremony typical of his generation.
"We had an engagement ceremony organized by a nakoudo. My family gave my wife's gifts. Then at the end, we exchanged rings. There are many gifts, all symbolic."
The nakoudo 仲人 is the go-between for the families. They are an important part of Japanese arranged marriages, called omiai お 見合い. The go-between is an older, social superior who arranges the potential couple's first meeting. Should both parties wish to pursue marriage, the go-between then lays the plans–including those for the engagement ceremony, which they also attend. During a traditional engagement ceremony the two families meet over dinner and the man and his family presents the girl's with a set of symbolic gifts. The gifts depends on the region, but here's what's traditional:
Katsuobushi 勝男武士 is dried bonito. It represents virility.
Naganoshi 長熨斗 is a type of dried clam. It represents avoiding ill-fortune.
Surume 寿留女 is a type of dried squid representing a lasting marriage since it "lasts" for a long time.
Konbu 子生婦 represents fertility and having healthy children. It's also quite tasty.
Yanagidaru 家内喜多留 is a lacquered sake barrel. Don't be fooled by the word "barrel." It's handheld. It's a charm to avoid a wasteful wife.
Suehiro 末広 is a pair of fans representing prosperity. It can differ, but one is usually white and the other gold.
Tomoshiraga 友白髪 or takasago 高砂. Tomoshiraga is a white hemp thread representing the white hair of an old couple. Takasago is pair of dolls also representing growing old together that's given in the Kansai region.
Kinpoudzutsumi 金包包 or kosoderyou 小袖料, which is bridal money. The amount depends on the financial situation of the man, but it's supposed to be about three or four times his monthly pay check. It's similar to dowery, except it's paid to the woman's side. The man's family also used to get (onhakamaryou 御袴料 if the woman's family had no brothers, meaning no one to carry on the family name. Since in the past families with many daughters and no sons could go broke paying it, today the custom is usually ignored even in traditional ceremonies.
Lastly, there's the rings. Only once they've been presented does a traditional engagement ceremony finish and engagement is official.
Though because they're so expensive, Japanese engagement ceremonies nowadays usually just introduce the families to each other. Dinner serves well enough for that, with no money or gifts changing hands. Non-Japanese likely won't even be asked to have one. Since the non-Japanese's family probably lives outside Japan, arranging a meeting would be almost impossible–not to mention that communication would also pose a serious problem. But, if you want to impress your future in-laws, honoring some of the engagement ceremony's traditions would show them you appreciate Japanese culture. And that's always a good thing.
Just The Beginning
Aside from the engagement ceremony, getting engaged to a Japanese girl isn't so different from anywhere else. Even the language barrier between the non-Japanese and her parents won't pose much of a problem. Parents know a nice guy when they see one–just like they can smell a rat. If their baby girl is in love and you seem like an nice guy, that's usually good enough. What you really need to worry about is what comes next. You are getting married after all. The tough part starts now.