Down to the nitty gritty...
One thing to get your head around is that the wedding ceremony and the paper work have nothing to with each other in Japan: you can do the paperwork at your local ward office and you’re married. I’ve also heard of some people doing the whole ceremony and party without actually getting married. We were married on paper for almost a year before we had the big party, and that’s considered pretty normal.
Assuming you’re getting married in Japan, you’ll need to fill in a bunch of forms. First, go to your local ward office – where you intend to register your marriage - and get them to give you a list of the forms you’ll need. You can get help in your language if you need; check which days they have volunteer interpreters. You might need your original birth certificate, so allow time if you need to get a registered copy sent. The forms you need may differ slightly depending on your country of birth. For example Australian nationals get a Certificate of No Impediment which will cost around $90 (it will be in English and Japanese), whereas Americans get a Certificate of Competency to Marry, and so on. You’ll need to take your passport & possibly your intended spouse’s passport to your embassy, along with a copy of their family register (which they can get at their local ward office - costs about 300 yen). I really recommend calling your embassy and having a chat before you go in – it’s better to make an appointment anyway, and you can double check that you have the right forms.
The actual application to get married is fairly simple – but it needs to be written in Japanese and two people can witness it (better to get Japanese friends or family to witness if possible, as they’ll need to use their official inkan stamps). You can just drop the paperwork in to the office –you don’t even need to be there when you’re technically ‘married’, which I thought was a bit weird. You take all your papers to your local ward office, they check them, and print out a bit of paper that lists you both as married, and that’s it. The process took us about an hour all up with waiting in line. We’d both taken a morning off work, so afterwards, we had to rush back to our respective offices. Pretty anticlimactic. The nice women at the Australian embassy had warned me as such, and suggested we have a nice romantic dinner or something. No wonder the typical Japanese wedding party is such a big deal!
I do think the process was smoother because I’d already gone to the ward office to ask about the forms I’d need. I had my Alien Registration Card with me and they photocopied that and started a kind of file for me. So when we went to register the marriage about a month later, they knew my face and had already started the process.
Later, when I officially moved to my husband’s address and registered that, I was able to get a print out of the koseki touhon – family register – and I’m now listed as living at that address, as his wife. As a foreigner, you don’t need to change your name unless you want to. And if you do want to, you’ll need to do it in your ‘home’ country and passport first, then it’s pretty simple to just use your passport to update your Japanese id. I haven’t decided whether I’ll do that or not, yet.
Sorry, boring post, but if anyone is planning to go through this soon, be reassured that it’s not very hard.