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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Style without substance?

Ayako Hirayama and Cameron Mclauchan The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO – Kumiko Amano is not a Christian, but had her heart set on having a Christian-style wedding.

To her, a Shinto-style wedding, which she felt would be suffocated by ritual, was not an option. Instead, Amano had her wedding at Crudesur Chapel – a facility with panoramic views of the sea on Ishigakijima, Okinawa Prefecture – in June 2006.

“Although Shinto was probably a bit closer to us in terms of religion, we put the look of our wedding first,” said Amano, 30, of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

“I didn’t have any qualms about having a Christian-style wedding. I’d always wanted to wear a wedding dress, so I’d been thinking about having the wedding at a chapel in a natural setting.”

She is far from alone. Although only about 1 percent of the population belongs to an organized form of Christianity – a figure that has remained static for centuries – two-thirds of Japanese couples have Christian-style weddings.

However, meeting this demand has required giving the supply of wedding facilities and celebrants a bit of a leg up. Indeed, at some Christian-style weddings in Japan, all is not as it seems – including the “church” and the “pastor.”

Some churches, such as St. Ignatius Church near Sophia University in Tokyo, provide wedding rituals for non-Christians, but they require the couple to take some instruction in the Christian faith before the weddings.

However, this commitment is more than many couples are willing to make. And it seems the wedding industry is adapting to accommodate this demand for a Christian church backdrop without the religious element.

Over the past 10 years, the number of churchlike buildings popping up around the country has risen. While their exteriors might bear all the hallmarks of a regular church, these buildings do not offer services for Christian worshippers – they cater to couples looking to tie the knot in a “Christian” setting.

According to Tohoku University Associate Prof. Taro Igarashi, there were 1,288 wedding facilities nationwide as of May 2006, of which 1,228 were capable of offering Christian weddings. About half of the churchlike buildings were independent “churches.”

Operators of some of these churchlike buildings, which feature long aisles and high ceilings, have imported stained glass and religious ornaments from Europe to give a more “authentic feel” to the occasion.

Igarashi describes such wedding venues as commercial buildings with religious decorations.

“A wedding extravaganza doesn’t fit with a Shinto-style ceremony that is rather conservative. Church weddings have become fashionable,” he said.

The final piece needed to complete the wedding puzzle is the celebrant.

Roger (not his real name), a teacher during the week, dons a pastor’s robe at the weekend and acts as a wedding celebrant for up to five couples in a single day. Over the past four years, he estimates he has presided over about 600 weddings.

He feels couples do not mind that he is not a real pastor since the chances are they are not Christians themselves.

“I don’t think it bothers them at all,” he said. “The main thing is that you do the job competently and professionally and look the part, so that they can take their photos and make their videos and whatever else it is that they want to get out of it.”

But this grates with Justin and Scott (not their real names) – Christian celebrants authorized by their church to perform wedding ceremonies.

They offer couples counseling to help with their spiritual preparation for the ceremony, and practical advice on what to consider when having a Christian-style wedding. They hope that more Japanese will become regular churchgoers after their weddings.

“To get more and more Japanese people coming; it’s a wonderful way to enter the church starting with the wedding,” said Justin, who began acting as a wedding celebrant in Tokyo about four years ago.

Scott acknowledged that some couples would be satisfied exchanging vows under the watch of a celebrant roped in for the event, but said he felt a heavy responsibility when performing the service.

“(We) try to give them the best in the minimal time (we) have to make them understand what Christianity might mean for their life,” he said.