Christian-style weddings remain popular in Japan, but allure is more about optics than religion

Kyodo - To people who might question Adam Altar’s credentials as an ordained Christian minister licensed to perform weddings in Japan, Altar would respond by turning the other cheek.

For young Japanese couples who may value pageantry over religion, Altar believes that he provides a more meaningful service than his counterparts from traditional Christian denominations who perform wedding ceremonies in accordance to the prescribed customs of their faith.

“You have to be under the umbrella of someone to do this job. I am not fake. I am licensed and ordained in two different churches,” the 44-year-old Altar, not his real name, said in an interview.

The American, who is also an English teacher and part-time musician, performs Tokyo weddings on weekends. He said he got one of his licenses online from the Church of Spiritual Humanism “for around 10 bucks.”

Since the late-1990s, Western “white weddings” overtook Shinto nuptials as the ceremony of choice. Thus as a foreign pastor of sorts, Altar found a niche where his services at luxury hotels and wedding chapels had become the new vogue.

Foreign nationals are not permitted to perform Christian weddings or other religious services in Japan without a visa for religious activities sponsored from abroad.

Christian clergy who oppose the ceremonies call many such foreign celebrants “bogus pastors.” But wedding industry sources argue that neither the participants nor the host venues, in the majority of cases, consider such Christian-style weddings to have overt religious meaning.

Most participants see the wedding as a chance to wear a tuxedo or white dress and walk down the “virgin road” (wedding aisle) before friends and family, bridal industry insiders say.

Christians make up about only 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million, according to data released by the Cultural Affairs Agency in 2015.

But a 2011 survey by research company Bridal Souken found that in the first several years of the new millennium, Christian-style weddings accounted for about two-thirds of Japanese unions, and currently a majority still prefer this type of ceremony over Shinto or secular ones.

Foreign celebrants, who in Altar’s experience are invariably Caucasian, are mostly hired by companies subcontracted by kekkonshikijo (exclusive wedding chapels).

“The chapels have nothing to do with congregations or worshippers. The Western ceremony is a chance to wear the nice dress and be like Cinderella or Snow White. Probably the men too, they want a bright ceremony to invite their friends to,” he said.

There used to be many online job postings for foreign celebrants, but these days most people are referred by friends, Altar said, adding that while the business is still profitable, it is harder to break into.

Altar, who took an academic course on the New Testament at university, said that when he first started in around 2000, he could make about ¥40,000 ($370) per ceremony, but the fee has fallen sharply with the increased number of celebrants. “It’s about ¥10,000 for one 20-minute ceremony. But on a good day, even now, I can make about ¥50,000 (for several weddings).”

Money aside, Altar said for him it is all about getting couples to relax and have a “good wedding,” which he conducts in Japanese. He has performed more than 1,000 Christian-style weddings.

“I wouldn’t say (all foreign pastors) do, but I take the responsibility very seriously,” Altar said.

“My focus is not on God as it is on the couple. The religious tones can be extreme,” he said, adding that sometimes when he launches into a spiel about God he can feel participants tune out.

“You say stuff like, ‘Shu Nomi Mae De’ — in front of God — you do this and that, and they’re like, ‘ugh.’ But they wanted it, then they really got it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m doing it, so it’s like, ‘I know man, but this is what you bought into.'”

Kiyoka Smith, 36, who worked as a regional wedding planner for about 10 years, agrees that the allure of the Christian-style wedding has little, if anything, to do with religion.

“I think it’s visual, something Japanese yearn to be like. It’s about the image of the (Christian) wedding, not religion,” said Smith, who met her husband-to-be at a client’s Christian-style wedding where he was presiding as a foreign pastor.

Jesse LeFebvre, 36, a doctoral candidate in East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University who has a master’s degree in Japanese religion, wrote a paper titled “Christian Wedding Ceremonies — ‘Nonreligiousness’ in Contemporary Japan,” which incorporated his interviews of 67 people in the Kanto region, including those considering Christian marriages, as well as foreign and Japanese ministers.

He argues that nonreligious attitudes in society often contradict behavior that is unmistakably religious at its core — a tendency to rely on religious professionals and rituals in a vicarious way when they suit a specific purpose, even though most Japanese consider themselves to be mushukyo, or nonreligious.

Japanese are said to live by the creed: “Born Shinto, live nonreligious, wed Christian and die Buddhist.”

“The thing I found interesting is when Japanese people said they were not religious they were quick to point out that it did not mean they were rejecting religion,” LeFebvre said in a phone interview.

“What they’re saying is: ‘I’m not in a cult, I’m not a weirdo, I’m normal.’ But it’s very easy to see other people as religious. So foreigners, like being Caucasian for example, is a sign to many Japanese that this person is authentically Christian.”

Because of a superficial understanding of the religion, Japanese often fail to differentiate between Protestant groups — which in general have looser restrictions regarding marriage — and Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity, LeFebvre said.

“I had several people who said they would never trust a Catholic priest who wasn’t married and had his own family because ‘how would he know about weddings?’ I was thinking in my head, ‘That’s a good point, but you know Catholic priests aren’t allowed to marry, right?'”

Thousands of kekkonshikijo, half of them freestanding wedding chapels designed to appeal to a certain aesthetic of gothic beauty and authentic religious decor, have sprung up around the country in recent years, according to LeFebvre.

By enlisting the services of foreign celebrants, the wedding industry, with an estimated value of ¥2.52 trillion ($22.95 billion) in 2016, has also found a way to cope with a scarcity of Protestant ministers who are generally unable to perform weddings on weekends because their main religious duties fall on Sundays.

LeFebvre said although Japanese ministers might be in demand for the a small minority concerned about whether a foreign pastor is authentic, Western Caucasian men usually get a pass because of a pervasive perception that they look the part.

“If it looks authentic, sounds authentic, then it must be truly authentic. (Japanese) don’t go to church or know a minister but because the minister at the wedding chapel is Caucasian (to them) he must really be Christian,” LeFebvre said.

Despite being nonreligious, all of the interviewees said they sincerely pray at Christian-style weddings.

Atsuo Murakami, 45, who works in Tokyo and is a member of the United Church of Christ in Japan, said he has fewer problems with Japanese choosing Christian-style weddings, but he wonders why more ministers are not Japanese.

“I guess the idea is to convey this exotic part of a package. I have fewer hang-ups about (nonbeliever) participants doing a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony,” he said.

“As long as they get together and pray, I think the presence of God is anywhere,” Murakami said.

As for Altar, he is confident that the Japanese couples he marries value his service, whether they are nonbelievers or true Christians. “To love, honor and cherish” are universal vows, he says.

“Most Japanese are completely agnostic, just like Americans. They’re not your flock. If I were marrying my flock, it would be a different story. But if they believe, then I believe not in Christianity but the idea of Jesus as in turn the other cheek or giving food to the hungry. That to me is Christianity.”