Friday, April 25, 2008

The Japanese Wedding Dream

The popularity of Christian-style wedding ceremonies in Japan is widely known. Despite there being an extremely small percentage of professing Christians in Japan, upwards of 60 percent of wedding celebrations adopt this form and eschew the traditional Shinto ceremony citing primary reasons of cost and aesthetic. Another common reason is the ease of making arrangements through a white wedding agency as opposed to the complicated processes related to the Shinto version. It is clear that for many, the fairytale image of western chic is highly desirable and preferable to other

A central theme of this document is the question: "To what extent are these Christian-style weddings actually Christian?". Some say not at all, others say that they are inherently religious. The conflict of those standpoints makes for a toxic mix. When sizable amounts of money are involved then the conundrum of big business and religion makes for a fertile topic area for investigation.


The Bridal Industry is in the region of 2 trillion yen ($17.5 billion) per year. iht .com

[In 2007] 70 percent of newly-wed couples in Japan got married at "Christian style" weddings.

The estimated number of un-ordained, fake priests is between 80 and 90%.


This blog is the result of the author’s own observations of the Christian-style wedding phenomenon in Japan. There are evidently many conflicts of interest, misconceptions and questionable business practices to merit in-depth scrutiny. The writing started as means to collect facts and opinions about the industry which resulted from dialogue on internet forums. This paper was intended to assist the author in rebutting false or inaccurate claims which are commonly made in relation to Japanese Christian-style weddings. The points made here are to promote an understanding of Christian-style weddings from a Christian perspective. Additionally, it is to be a springboard for further discussion and action which will help promote transparency in the industry for the protection of labourers and consumers.

For the purpose of this blog, Christian-style means bearing the likeness of a Euro-American, conservative church pattern. Fake Priests are to be understood primarily as celebrants who have not been ordained by a verifiable Church body, and are not accountable to such. Neither are they professing to be Christian which negates the assertion that they are part of the ‘priesthood of all believers’.


This television commercial produced by the Victoria agency (all rights reserved) shows a little insight into the marketing of wedding celebrations in Japan. The young bride can be a princess for a day with all her friends and family in attendance. However, the church environment is unmistakably Christian. When big business and religion meet there can be regrettable inconsistencies.

Are there any other reasons why Christian-style weddings are so popular?
What do you think about the estimated number of 'fake priests'?
Are Japanese people aware of these figures?

Japanese wedding agencies

There are various permutations of Wedding Company but they are united in their preference to employ Western men to preside at Wedding Ceremonies. The actual event has ceremonial significance but is not the legal binding of marriage which is an unrelated, wholly civil matter. The main types of agency are as follows:

1. Those which have no motivation to propagate Christianity and see the ‘priest’ as an actor who may be of any or no religious affiliation and have little or no religious knowledge.

2. Those which employ a mixture of Christians and those with ‘a background in Christianity’ who are prepared to be part of the employer's ‘pre-evangelism’ agenda.

3. Those which exclusively recruit evangelical Christians. These agencies have evangelism as a motive and see the popularity of the wedding chapel experience as an opportunity to spread the Gospel of Christ. These outfits commonly offer follow-up pastoral care for couples and an invitation to the services of the local church.

In the cases of points one and two above, there is a tendency to shun the notion that the operatives are ‘fake’. This is evidenced by the practice of some of the larger businesses which provide short in-house Theological training courses for their staff. This enables the agency to declare to clients and potential clients that their celebrants are ‘priests in training’. 

Japanese law requires Christian-style Wedding Celebrants to possess an appropriate visa. A Visa for Religious Activities or a Spouse of Japanese Visa renders the applicant eligible for such employment. In that a holder of a Visa for Religious Activities is likely to secure work with a type 3 company, the labour pool for the other types of business are primarily holders of a Spouse of Japanese Visa. No comment is made here in regard to unscrupulous businesses which flout the visa regulations. An applicant can potentially receive an extension of activities on a Humanities Visa which would also legally enable them to function as a Wedding Celebrant but the process requires an employer’s contract, ‘religious documentation’ legitimizing their involvement in such a capacity and possibly other additional documentation.

No working visa except a religious visa allows foreigners to receive regular payment for conducting wedding services. [Japanese Immigration Bureau]


Are there any other types of agency not mentioned here?
Why did the law change to bring in the Religious Activities Visa for this kind of work?
How can a client know what type of agency they are dealing with?

Fake or real?

Writing in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies Michael Fisch understands the Christian-style wedding ritual as simulation rather than pretending or imitating. It is apparent that Michael Fisch worked for a company which operated with no religious motive. Yet he candidly writes about how his employer was insistent that if he took the job he would not be a ‘fake’.

Of Jewish extraction and neither a Christian nor ordained Priest, he draws on his own experience as a ‘priest’ and Baudrillard’s theory of Simulacra and Simulation which renders it inaccurate to state that the ritual is ‘fake’ as it produces symptoms of the ‘real’ in the participants. (pp67-68)

The element of persuasion involves also the participant’s voluntary suspension of belief as a means for suppressing the realization of the constructed nature of the event or any inherent contradictions (Myerhoff 1977, pp 199-200), such as the fact that the priest is only acting and the participant’s are not Christian (p 65).

However, suspension of belief requires that the participants are actually aware that the priest is merely acting. The reality is that some Japanese people are surprised to learn that there are in fact fake priests.

Omi Junko was surprised to find out that some of the Western priests were not genuine. "I thought the priests were all real and I think everyone in Japan think that," she said. [BBC News]

Although the author does not ascribe that level of ignorance to the Japanese people en masse, there is a natural assumption among many that the celebrants are not only practicing Christians, but are real ordained ministers of religion. (The author has personally discovered through causal conversations with educated Japanese people that some are surprised to learn that there actually are non-ordained ministers presiding at weddings in Japan). However, most wedding agencies do little in terms of informing their clients that the “priest” is an actor. Although there are companies which do ask the client if they would prefer an actual ordained minister, many do nothing of the sort.

I was introduced to the bride and groom and respective families as “the priest who will perform today’s service.” My “authenticity” was never questioned. This was not because I succeeded in deceiving the guests and families by projecting such unequivocal sacred authority in my performance. Rather, I was able to learn later through interviews with informants, most likely neither the bride or groom, nor the guests or the hotel staff, and certainly not my employers, were concerned with whether or not I was an ordained priest. (p 59)

Thus, as the manager of H-company, K-san, stressed repeatedly during my job interview, I would not be a “fake” priest, but rather a performer, something like an actor. (p 60)

Supporters of the industry commonly cite that Japanese people don’t care if the priest is real or not. But this runs contrary to the practice of the agencies which request ‘licenses’ of the celebrants. These licenses are not required by law, but give weight to the claim that the priests are the genuine article. At times, clients are informed that the celebrants are ‘in training’ with the suggestion that they are actually training for the Priesthood. The estimated number of un-ordained, fake priests is said to be between 80 and 90%.

All I lacked was a license, a theological background and a religious belief. Landing the job was easy. I expressed an interest in the position, they faxed me the dates of my first seven weddings, and then I went for an interview. They showed me examples of wedding licenses and asked if I could bring them something similar. It seemed clear that I was being asked to create a fake document.

(Former Wedding Celebrant).

Many agencies prefer to employ Christians as celebrants or at very least those with a Christian background. This is, in part, because the agencies know that there are people who do care whether the priest is real or not.


In the script above (credit to the next link) you can see the words Christian Wedding Celebration. The priest introduces himself as a senkyo-shi 宣教師 (Missionary).It is believed that this script belonged to a real Christian missionary; yet if this standard one-size-fit-all script was delivered by someone who was not in fact a Christian missionary then it would be completely inappropriate.


This is a certificate issued to a Wedding Minister after three hours of training. It is taken from a blog which can be reached here.

The celebrant even has 'Rev' embroidered on his robes. The reader is left to assess the level of this person's Christian commitment.

This blog entry was dubbed 'Cosplay Confessional' yet it is very clear that the employer sees the work as more than Cosplay evidenced by the extent which they are going to to provide certification for the celebrants. It is also very unlikely that the happy couple see their participation as mere Cosplay on what amounts to one of the most significant moments of their lives.


Why do some agencies run Theology courses for their employees if 'nobody cares if they are real or not'?

If the event is merely a simulation then why is not clearly advertised as such? And why is a Religious Activites Visa required if it is nothing more than acting?

The ritual as a religious experience

Moore and Habel identify the mediated religious experience (Moore and Habel: 1982).  The believer experiences the sacred through mediators such as rituals, special persons, religious groups, totemic objects or the natural world (Habel et al: 1993).Wikipedia “Religious Experience”

Although it is sometimes said that the wedding chapel experience is not a religious one, the application of elements which are inherently religious makes this opinion highly questionable. There are people who believe the priest is real, the Bible is a real one, and the atmosphere is ‘authentic’. The carefully orchestrated simulation of a religious ritual has the potential to be construed as a religious experience. To claim that the couples never believe they are actually receiving a ‘blessing’ from God via the priest is to assume too much. This is not a clear cut matter of suspension of belief. When the participants fail to see the ‘actor’ and see the ‘agent of God’ instead, the whole simulation becomes something quite different. By failing to inform clients of the reality, a degree of illusion comes into play.


Humans are spiritual beings. Cultures across the globe exhibit the tendency of humankind to reach out to the Divine. Some cultures have elaborate codes and traditions and others are much more simplistic and/or mystic. Japan, at one time, had the state religion of Shinto. However, these days the vast majority of Japanese are known for having no particular religious affiliation.

That said; When the young student makes a special visit to the shrine to pray for academic success; or when the housewife rings the bell, clasps hands and makes her prayer, in that moment, could it not be a genuine religious experience?

Sure, they may well walk away and never give the thing a second thought. They would probably not conclude that the event had made them a practitioner of religion as such, and the experience of that spiritual moment may not affect their everyday life in any significant way. But what about that moment. A heartfelt yearning for spiritual reality, even just for a moment.

Now let us go up to the altar in any Wedding Chapel. A young couple are making solemn vows one to another. The atmosphere has been primed with hymns to Jesus and the venue is unmistakably 'Church-like'. The passage from the Bible has been read earnestly. The minister is now pronouncing a prayer of blessing... The couple don't fully comprehend the pastor's words, but in their hearts, they are reaching for the Divine, just for a moment.

A westerner who helped arrange a Wedding celebration touches on this topic here:

...[they] wanted to take part in it seriously. Not in the sense of believing the whole Christian message, but in the sense of this being a representation of the commitment they were making to each other in the eyes of each other and whatever God may or may not be up there.


The following video can be seen in full here on Youtube. Although twenty years old it raises some interesting questions that are still relevant today.

The Bride and Groom evidently see no religious significance in the ceremony to them personally yet the prayer of blessing and protection over the couple is quite profound. An internet source (transcript of the documentary) states that the priest was in fact a Catholic minister --- this seems very dubious as the Tamahimeden Palace does not appear to be consecrated ground and there is no hint of the couple receiving preparatory counseling of any kind . The author contacted the producers and this is what was told:

You are probably right that he was not a true priest and I am sure the couple did not undergo the proper training. It was not strictly a religious ceremony -- it just looked like one.
The point here is that if the producers made the assumption (at the time of writing the transcript) that the Priest was real; the happy couple could have just as easily drawn that conclusion too.

The commentator talks about the Japanese not taking interest in the substance of these matters. The cake in the Shinto style wedding at the start is made of rubber for goodness sake! But what effort is being made to make people aware of the deep significance of Christian marriage?. Precious little I fear.

Why is it that Japanese people (on the whole) are disinterested in the substance of Christianity? Some people make mention of the collapse of State Shintoism and the cynicism which followed. The essay which can be read here touches on this matter. Christians might better understand it in terms of what the Bible describes; people are dead in their sins and trespasses, they are spiritually blind. (Eph 2:1, 2 Cor 4:4) For this very reason, caution must be exercised when asking non-Christians about their understanding and experience of 'religion'.


Why do many people say 'it is not a religious event' when the Bible is read, hymns are sung and prayers are made to God?

Why are the clients often not told whether the Priest is real or not?

Why don't the clients ask probing questions more often?

Who cares?

[It's] their [sic] wedding, so who cares what they do?

(Anonymous poster on an internet forum).

There is opposition from the Catholic Church and most Protestant streams. There is also opposition from individual Christians and atheists; Japanese and otherwise.

The Episcopal Conference of Japan clarified the position of the Catholic Church in 1975. Priests may perform a wedding blessing for non-Catholics on condition that they take part in discussions on topics including relationships and having children for between three and five months.

The conditions required by the Catholic Church are enough of a hurdle for most couples to baulk at and seek less of a demand from a more liberal agent to help celebrate their wedding.

Japanese law requires Celebrants to have an appropriate visa. The Spouse of Japanese visa enables foreigners to take on any gainful employment in all spheres. The other visa which is acceptable is the visa for Religious Activities. This is because Japanese law tries to ensure that the priests are actually bona fide practitioners of Religion. Although it is not a totally comprehensive measure, it is clear that this provision in Civil Law (in place to protect consumers) is concerned whether the priests are real or not. From the perspective of Japanese Law, Christian-style weddings are not neatly bracketed a part of the ‘Entertainment Industry’.

The Fukuoka branch of the immigration department and the police are cracking down on "bogus priests." Media in the region recently have reported that certain hotels have been using foreigners on teaching visas to perform Christian wedding ceremonies, an activity that is legally permitted only with a religious visa.

(Japan Times)

On the understanding that there is this provision in Law, clients are predisposed to believe that the Celebrant is at least a believer and probably an ordained minister of religion.

In November (2003 sic), the Fukuoka branch of the Immigration Bureau warned a local hotel for letting a noncleric Canadian on a tourist visa conduct wedding ceremonies.

"No working visa except a religious visa allows foreigners to receive regular payment for conducting wedding services," an official at the bureau said, adding that companies that regularly hire noncleric foreigners will also face penalties.

But he said the bureau is not in a position to judge whether a Christian-style wedding constitutes a religious practice, adding that unordained foreigners with permanent residency can conduct such services.


There are non-Christian Japanese who find the matter of Japanese Christian-style weddings to be something of a national embarrassment. There must be very few countries in the world which have to contend with perennial 'Fake Priest' headlines. the case of a Christian wedding when the couple and the people there are mostly non-Christian. They try to mimic singing a hymn with little success. On these occasions I feel so embarrassed I want to hide behind a pillar or something. It's a world of comical nonsense. Japan Times
Professor Inoue Masao of Doshisha University was more forceful in his opinion about Japanese Christian-style weddings:
[The Church] completely repudiates the other side's belief as "heresy" [he has Shinto in mind]. Can the Church be serious in blessing the weddings of "nonbelievers"? After all, are not nonbelievers really "headed for damnation"? What meaning can it possibly have to be a "one-day Christian" just for a wedding?
Nanzan Bulletin Pg.38


So who does decide whether or not something is a religious practice? How can the Immigration Bureau and the Police enforce the law if they are not in a position to judge whether or not the law is being adhered to? The author is seeking expert guidance from a Japanese Christian lawyer in this regard.

Cultural Borrowing

Purpose built wedding chapels in Japan are commonly bedecked with 'authentic' church furnishings. Stained glass, pulpits, and ministers in robes. A crucifix decorates the wall and a large Bible sets the scene on a table in the centre. In regard to such attention to detail, the Japanese are faultless. Great energy has clearly been expended to make wedding celebration venues as genuine as possible.

For Christians, the ‘cultural borrowing’ of things sacred is deeply saddening. The traditions of Christian culture which made the white wedding possible have largely been adopted without the substance which supports them and grafted into Japan. The church doesn’t lay the blame squarely with the Japanese people per se; they simply haven’t been afforded the opportunity to understand Christianity.

Seven in ten among adults, and half of teens, say they do not know enough about Christianity to express a favorable or unfavorable opinion about this religion.
Gallup 2006

The full and free preaching of the Gospel has been limited in Japan to a fraction of time compared to that of many western countries. The result has been pseudo-religious consumerism peculiar to this part of the world and Japan has become subject to mockery by certain voices from the West.

However moronic anyone thinks it is though for these people to get married in a chapel, remember that it is a very special day for them (Anonymous poster on an internet forum).

The shallow regard for things which are considered holy by the Church: the Bible, the cross, hymns and the priesthood are thought to be most regrettable. It is seen by some as an industry which is taking advantage of ignorant people and showing contempt for the very institution which made the venture possible. There are others who have no religious interest but find the whole fake priest phenomenon is in bad taste.


On the matter of cultural borrowing a Hindu follower wrote:

"It is extremely depressing to find that although the swastika is a symbol of life, and symbol of joy, it has been made a symbol of evil, something the people of the ancient world never intended it to be."

[Please note that Godwin's Law is not in effect as no actual correlation between the actions of the Nazi's and the Wedding Industry in Japan is being invoked.]

Is it really OK to 'steal' a symbol which has a long established, profoundly positive meaning in one culture, and while ignoring its original meaning apply it to a different purpose in another culture?

Now, whereas it is impossible to undo the offense toward Hindus in regard to their ancient symbol; it is within people's power today to prevent the further degradation of the Christian symbol of the cross. In real terms, a suggestion is that the people who are conducting 'Christian style' Wedding Celebrations (and who are by and large) atheist or irreligious think seriously about this matter.


It has been observed that the Japanese have a general tendency to prefer form over content. Yet the reality is that in many situations the subjects simply don't know what the content is and are appalled when they find out.

One such example is the author's own conversation with a young Japanese woman about the large lop-eared logo on her sweater. It was the distinctive trademark of the Playboy bunny. When the woman was asked if she knew what kind of publication it represented she said innocently that she did not. The woman was discreetly informed and reacted with alarm that the amiable character had such a connotation.

Another case was with a well-to-do middle-aged woman whose pencil case sported a large green marijuana leaf. When asked if she knew what type of plant it was she replied in the negative. Needless to say, she was mortified after being politely told.

English slogans are regarded as fashionable in Japan and can often be seen on printed clothing. The author remembers taking a young Japanese man to a church service in the UK on one occasion. He noticed that the man's black sweatshirt was emblazoned with a vulgar swear word which would be banned from pre-watershed broadcasting. The man was of course surprised and embarrassed and because he didn't want to offend anyone's sensibility he blacked out the word with a marker pen.

Of course these things are apparent in every culture; but perhaps all the more common in Japan? The assertion made here is that Japanese people ought to know the significance of Christian weddings. They should be informed by enlightened people. Many Japanese people lack the most rudimentary understanding of the contents of the Bible. The writer recalls a situation where he asked a woman if she knew about Easter. She confidently told him that Easter falls on October 31st and children often dress up as ghosts and goblins.

The Bible (often jumbo sized) adorns the altar at Wedding Chapels. If only the participants knew the uncompromising, hard-hitting and commonly shocking contents of the Book --- they might well reconsider having a Christian-style wedding altogether.
On the other hand; if only the participants knew the love of Jesus and the salvation He offers, which is explained in the contents of the Book --- they might well consider a Christian-style wedding being an event that introduces them to this wonderful Good News. Either way, the Bible is a unique book which once received, demands a verdict. It is impossible to remain passive or indifferent and treat it like a fashion accessory or merely a prop on their 'special day'.


It seems that Christian-style weddings are regarded as nothing more than a fashion or a fad.
It is regrettable that Christianity is seen merely in terms of an optional add-on in the pick-and-mix experience of Japanese life. As with all fashions there is a flux and a wane. Should the wedding chapels go out of favour, or lose their custom (as is quite possible simply due to the demographic situation), then would Christianity be seen, at least to some, as yesterday's fad? If the high profile of the wedding chapels in Japan is all that people see as the expression of Christianity then it is rather sad.


Cleanliness is next to Godliness?

In an article published by the Guardian newspaper (UK), it is stated that consumer goods are being
marketed in the West as having inherent religious significance by being juxtaposed with commonly recognized elements from spiritual traditions.

It is a traditional complaint of the churches that consumerism has become a substitute for faith, that instead of thinking about things of ultimate significance, people have become immersed in material- ism, buying more and more half-needed goods. Now the implicit message is that the half-needed things are themselves the religious symbols that will give meaning to life.

It should be noted however that Japan is not at all a post-Christian society. The television commercial which follows draws on the themes of the ideal wedding to help promote the sales of a brand of shampoo.

The video belongs to Pantene and is posted here for educational purposes only.

Does consumerism in Japan have religious significance?
Why is it said that Japanese prefer form over content and rarely question things?
Will people in years to come be embarrassed they had a Christian-style wedding without knowing the substance of Christianity?

Negatives and anomalies

There are clients who have simply not thought matters through and have regrets about adopting the form even during their faux Christian wedding. In one such case, the bride thought it might have been better to have had a Shinto ceremony at the very time her own ‘Christian style’ wedding was being conducted.

"If we had thought about our parents, we would have had a Japanese style ceremony but we are young, we wanted a more casual style," said Yuko, 30, who added that it was only during the ceremony "that I realised it was important". 

This is evidence that it would be advisable for couples to think more seriously about the form and meaning of their wedding ceremony before embarking on it with regard to their own preferences and the perception of others. With wedding rituals being a central life-cycle event, thoughtlessness towards the form is to be avoided.

Although hardly common practice, there are celebrants who adapt the ceremony to include American Indian prayers within a ‘Christian’ context. There is hardly the opportunity for true adherents of Native Indian spiritual traditions to voice opinion on their prayers being applied in such a way.

"I use an Apache wedding prayer in my ceremony. It works very well, although I had to take out the part about the bear god in the sky," (Mark Kelly – Wedding Celebrant)

If such a practice was being made during what was billed as a Christian-style wedding celebration it could hardly be construed as giving the client what they had paid for. When these prayers are delivered in English and when the clients lack English comprehension, the Japanese are excused from being aware of such inconsistencies.


There is a Japanese woman known to the author who in later life became a Christian believer. Although her own wedding (some 20 years previously) was a Christian-style wedding she had cause to question whether or not the presiding priest had in fact been genuine. Japanese people ought to be spared this anxiety.


I felt a little weird [sic] at the chapel cause priest was speaking English even we were all Japanese, singing and saying "amen" even though we're not Christian. Isn't this weird [sic]?
The comment above was made by a young Japanese woman on a blog which can be seen here. Many people think it is weird.

There is severe downward pressure on pay at the moment. The going rate has dropped from 15k to 10k in my area and the downward pressure continues.

The demand for this style of event has probably peaked. Demographics show that the numbers of people in the 'of marriage' age bracket is on the decline. In some areas of Japan the market for this kind of service is possibly saturated. The inevitable downward slide of the pay scale for part time workers will of course negatively affect some.

The couple often demand a refund and people are sacked if they make the slightest error in performing the ceremony.

As casual labourers, there is hardly the same degree of employment protection and arbitration available to regular employees.

Some venues can get through 15 or so weddings in a day. In this conveyor belt environment there is a huge constraint on time. One Wedding Minister commented that he was required to finish his part in just 18 minutes. This was apparently at a Wedding Fair but it is believed that a regular service is not a great deal longer.

In the video clip which follows, the Priest is talking extremely fast to get through the vows. The studio presenters comment on the speed of delivery. This clip can be seen on Google's video service under the title 'Funny Japanese Wedding' --- more evidence of mockery of this form.


Virgin Road

Where did this term originate? In western countries it is almost exclusively referred to as ‘walking down the aisle’. The phrase appears in Japanese pop culture for example TV drama titles, but what is the etymology of the Virgin Road? If it originated in Japan then it was most likely within the last fifty years. Christian-style weddings were very seldom until after WW2 .Given the high rate of promiscuity and sexual license in Japan, it is unsurprising to discover that attitudes to pre-marital sex are very liberal. Due to the fact that the majority of brides are, in actual fact, not virgins; it is inappropriate to refer to the chapel aisle as the ‘Virgin Road’.


Here is a video originally posted on YouTube. The singer is delivering a rendition of Amazing Grace at a Christian-style wedding in Japan. I wonder if the Pastor is aware of his other videos for example the exotically titled "X-rated Japan Dancehall girls" which features on his channel.


In an account of a Japanese Chapel based wedding which can be read here, the writer recalls the music playing in the church was 'The ballad of John and Yoko'. As a foreigner, the observer thought it somewhat odd and inappropriate. If you are not familiar with the song here is an except:

Christ you know it ain't easy,
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
They're going to crucify me.
The way things are going
They're going to crucify me.



There is no archetypal Euro-American Christian wedding ritual. Yet the industry in Japan promotes a narrow stereotyping of the Priesthood. Celebrants even go to the degree of adopting facial hair to appear more ‘priestly’. Despite there being no practical or moral rationale; Western celebrants are preferred to Japanese. Whereas most Japanese churches have a native Bokushi, the high profile activities of the wedding chapels perpetuate the myth that ‘Christian’ chapels ought to have a westerner in the pulpit.

[To the Japanese] if you want it done right, you have to have a foreigner do it. It is an image thing.

(Wedding Celebrant Todd Thicksten)

A shallow appreciation of Christianity is perpetuated by the wedding celebrant’s work in Japan. Equal opportunities issues relating to women becoming celebrants is a subject worthy of further investigation. Gender equality laws prevent agencies from stating that they will only hire men, yet there are no women in the glossy advertisements. Ironically, it is said that part of the popularity of western style weddings is that they represent independence and a higher degree of gender emancipation for women compared to the Shinto ceremony.


This image is from Zexy's website.


Japan lags behind the West in areas of employment discrimination. Why does the Church in Japan permit the perpetuation of this kind of discrimination?

To what extent is the point 'a real church has a western pastor' valid?
In this age of communication; why are people not debating the pros and cons of Christian-style weddings which are a central life event?

What protection in law is their for Wedding Pastors who are often part-time, casual workers?

This is a modern phenomena yet misnomers like the 'Virgin Road' have been promoted. Why?

Taking advantage or taking the advantage?

Certain proponents relish the opportunity to take advantage of people’s ignorance. They think little of conducting their business under false pretences. These unregulated businesses are primarily money making ventures and are willing to spin a yarn if it helps their business interests.

About the ignorance of Japanese about Christianity:

I embrace it! It's undeniably true. (Anonymous Wedding Celebrant)

Duplicity from a Japanese company in an unregulated industry? You can count on it. I'm sure if it increased sales they would claim I was the Archbishop of Japan.

…not only is it unnecessary to be religious/born again, you don't even need to be a Christian. One poster has mentioned an atheist [sic] friend who was a celebrant and I know of at least one Jewish celebrant!

You don't approve of me (and hundreds of others) doing these ceremonies under false pretences…

Others see the popularity of the Wedding Chapels as an opportunity to evangelize people with the Gospel of Christ. Rarely do significantly large groups of non-Christians gather in a Christian context. The standard Evangelical understanding of the Gospel is by and large lost to the Japanese. This is hardly surprising when only 1% of Japanese are Christians. The Gospel has only actually been preached in Japan for a fraction of time compared to many Western nations. Missioners with evangelistic zeal have seized the unique opportunity afforded them to reach un-converted souls through the white wedding phenomenon.


Writing in the Japan Harvest magazine [Spring 2008], Dr Andrew Meeko ( a second generation missionary) says:

"I'll confess, my initial involvement with chapels was less than noble. Our ministry account was in debt ("Ah hah!" you say.) I know, I know. Well, "sin" though it be, some years after my bout with weddings, we were out of debt - but that's not all. It turns out that through weddings, I had preached on the love of Christ, in person, to one-out-of-ten in my city of a quarter million - and I hardly had to lift a finger."

He goes on to talk about how this was all part of the Lord's leading into a new ministry and out of debt. Yet for others it may not be the case. The following quote which can be found here is from a fellow Christian and details the situation that some missionaries face more clearly:

"There is a thin line between doing these weddings to pay the bills and doing them as a means of outreach," said the Rev. Michael Hohn, a German Lutheran who leads the Christ of All Nations Church just north of Osaka. "It is a good business. This helps many missionaries stay in Japan. You can put away a lot of money for retirement or to put your children through college. ... I, myself, want to do everything I can to make sure that the people I marry understand the vows they are taking. Otherwise, I don't know what we are doing."

For these (Type 3) agents, there is an apparent conflict of interests. Is it primarily to pay the bills or to minister the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Only each individual can know and judge their motivation for being involved in this kind of work. The unique situation in Japan is that 'doing weddings' presents itself as a fairly lucrative sideline; a peculiar temptation which is not present in the countries from which many missionaries originally hail from.


For years there have been calls for western missionaries to become pinch hitters and involve themselves headlong in Wedding Ministry. (Click on the link 'Resources for Wedding Ministers'). The result has been a trickle rather than a flood. Some lament the loss of a God given opportunity and failure to walk through an open door for the gospel. Others might conclude that it was never really the will of God for the church to be rallied to this particular mission field in a major way. It is never impossible or too late for God the Holy Spirit to change course. But it must be acknowledged that the Christian-style wedding industry in Japan is now utterly dominated by the irreligious business-minded. Tipping point has long been reached. So what is the way forward?


The case for de-westernizing Christian-style weddings

The true essence of Christianity is unseen. Jesus Christ taught that 'the kingdom of God is within you'. As such, the inevitable externals or cultural expression of personal Christian faith vary from group to group and nation to nation. The man-made shell of religious form at best has no inherent value before God, and at worst is a stumbling block to those who are seeking Apostolic Christianity.

The latter has certainly been observed in Japan. There is universal agreement that Christianity is largely perceived as a foreign religion. It has been commented that the reason Christianity hasn't made a big impact in Japan are the unpalatable western add-ons (everything from Church polity and hierarchies, dress codes etc.) and that these factors are hindering the growth of Christianity in this part of Asia.

There is a growing consensus among Christians that there is a need to de-westernize Christian missions especially in unreached areas or places which have been traditionally resistant to the Gospel. About this reformation in missions, Daniel D. Kim of OMF writes:
Every culture is imprisoned in sin. We must ask ourselves, what parts of Western Christianity are “Western culture” and what parts are true “biblical Christianity”?
Lausanne World Pulse

The Christian-style wedding experience in Japan is a thoroughly western cultural (religious) form. The other-worldliness and material aesthetic is intensely appealing to many but has apparently done little to help them see the spiritual. It can been seen as a dis-service to those who are led to believe 'that's all there is'; and it is a dis-service to those who are seeking the Truth beyond the smoke and mirrors of man-made culture. Although there are particular differences between Japanese Christian-style weddings and what is experienced in other countries which have been westernized, there are voices in Africa which are challenging the Western form of the wedding rite.

I believe God in heaven, the author of the institution of marriage, in his Divine wisdom, created all the diversities in cultures and for that matter rites of marriage for all different people’s across the world. Ghanaweb

The wedding chapel as a platform for the Christian message is a wagon with wonky wheels. Any benefits must be played off against the negatives which have been detailed in this document.


Are these conflicts of interest ever to be resolved? If so, how?

Is it acceptable for people to boast of their immoral involvement in this industry?

How advanced is the Church in Japan in thinking about these issues?

Hypocrisy in Japanese Weddings

Although not actively seeking to deceive, there is an element of operation under false pretenses. There are interested parties who assume that the ‘priests’ are ordained ministers of a verifiable Church body. In the industry’s zeal to create an authentic simulation of a ‘real’ Christian ritual, the essential fact that the priest is not genuine is commonly concealed. The agencies would be hard pressed to find marketing value in drawing attention to the fact that many of their ‘priests’ are no more than actors leading the masquerade. Yet this is the very matter which needs to be addressed to make the simulation viable and morally acceptable in the case of Type 1 and 2 agencies.

This leads to the undesirable impression that atheist celebrants are practicing hypocrisy. They personally deny the existence of God, yet give credence to the gospel of Christ in the pulpit. They are without a prayer for themselves, yet they invoke the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in prayer for their congregation.

Un-ordained Celebrants may be expected to give tacit approval to being used in a ‘pre-evangelism’ agenda by their company.

For him [his employer], these 'fake' weddings are a form of pre-evangelism (his term). He prefers to hire only born-again Christians, though this is not always possible.

(Anonymous Wedding Celebrant)

With this kind of conflict of interests it is unsurprising that some report a sense of unease that they might be discovered to be fake. Others speak more strongly of spiritual unease.

For much of the time at the beginning I was sure I would be discovered as being not only a fake pastor but as a fake Christian as well.

(Former Wedding Celebrant)

I still worry a little for my soul.

(Former Wedding Celebrant)

For some, especially those raised in observant households, the idea that they are "posing" as pastors is the source of a sense of shame or embarrassment. Others do not want their "real" job to know what they get up to on weekends. Many, however, do not want to get in trouble with the wedding companies where they work, jeopardizing this source of income. Nor do they want to be responsible for bringing the house of cards down.


These comments are hardly tenable as relating to people who are just acting a role. These ‘priests’ apparently didn’t perceive their involvement as pure role-play. In addition to this, there are clients who are concerned about being discovered as non-Christian. If all participants are aware that the ceremony is no more than a simulation, it begs the question as to why these people are ill at ease.


The clip which follows (audio only) can be heard in full at the WHIT website. This edited piece is the monologue of a Wedding Priest who speaks openly about the Christian-style wedding phenomena. He mentions that he felt it was 'immoral' to do this type of work at the start but that he got used to it, and the money...


Christians raise ethical objections to the matter of presiding at such wedding celebrations in a Christian context:

Few missionaries are totally comfortable with all of this. Many will only marry two Christians. Others will also marry two non-Christians, since they are at least members of the same faith. Others will marry a Christian and a non-Christian, hoping the non-Christian will convert. Some will marry non-Christians if they consent to a full series of counseling sessions about the meaning of Christian marriage. Others will marry those who agree to a single 30-minute session. Some missionaries do these weddings -- period -- since this allows them chances to preach to a captive non-Christian audience. (Terry Mattingly)

Babylonian confusion is the one constant which remains consistent throughout. A newspaper ran an article about a young Buddhist priest who got married in a Christian-style ceremony. (Japanzine) 

Although any number of permutations can be observed within the broad spectrum of Christian-style wedding practices, some general polarization can be observed.

A large number of fake priests are embarrassed by their occupation and are reticent to talk openly about it. Yet there are others who are quite brazen and unabashed in their revelry of their unique line of employment.

If you've ever found yourself wondering about the Wedding Minister business and how much fun it would be to do, then this ebook is for you. If you thought the Acting/modeling world was convoluted [sic], wait till you see how the Wedding Minister world operates! Give it a try. It may be just the thing you need in order to start having fun earning money and experiencing the rush that comes with being a Wedding Minister. (Matt Canham)


White Wedding movement

To avoid these unsatisfactory issues of hypocrisy, the adoption of a wholly secular White Wedding would be far more appropriate. Under the
White Wedding entry, Wikipedia records this:

Any selection or all of the following might be a part of the ceremony as well; a hymn or popular song, a Bible reading or popular poem.
Only by completely removing all religious elements would non-believing participants be spared feelings of unease and embarrassment. This would seem to be a simple fix but alas, in many instances this would be impractical or even run counter to the proponent's philosophy. The matter of removing / replacing stained glass windows which display Biblical scenes and Saints. The removal of crosses which form an eye-pleasing focus would be undesirable and for the Master of Ceremonies to don a tuxedo or suit rather than clerical robes would change the atmosphere to some degree. Some operators would be hard pressed to find a unique selling point for this type of service. For years they have striven to provide an 'authentic' simulation of a real religious ritual. To undermine that would require a major paradigm shift in their thinking. To say 'Don't be a hypocrite' would not make for good catch copy.


Why is there such apparent hypocrisy? How can it be eliminated?

Is this kind of compromise the hallmark of Japanese spirituality?

Why is there little debate about this?

Wedding Ministry in Japan

Hurdles to involvement in Japanese Christian-style Wedding Ministry

There are various ethical issues which would be best addressed by the potential minister before embarking on this particular mission work amongst non-Christians.

1. Understand that pandering to the preference for western men to preside at Christian-style weddings is not helping correct the myth that Christianity is a ‘foreign’ religion.

2. Appreciate the Japanese tendency to view religion as serving people’s convenience. Religious syncretism is rife in Japan and religious form is easily absorbed without the substance. Even unintentionally, giving credence to this may run counter to presenting the radical essence of Christianity.

3. As the matter of legal marriage in Japan is a wholly civil matter; it is quite possible that the participants are actually married a degree of time after their wedding celebration. After receiving blessings from the pastor, the couple's consummation may actually constitute fornication.

4. Pre-event orientation time with the couple is essential to a) explain the Gospel and give time for reflection before the business of the actual celebration and b) to adequately explain the choice of words / prayers which will be used to avoid hypocrisy or misunderstanding.

All of the above must be trumped by the individual’s strong conviction of calling to this specialist ministry. If God has appointed you, then He has anointed you and there is no barrier in heaven or earth which will prevent Him fulfilling His purposes as you yield to Him.

Western or Christian?

There is a commonly held view that because there are many non-believing people celebrating weddings in churches in the West; it is perfectly acceptable for Japanese couples to do the same.

But it is not the same. There are significant differences in many respects:

  • Firstly, the likelihood of a wedding being presided over by a fake priest in the West is extremely slim.
  • Secondly, irreligious people from cultures which have been shaped by Christianity have a greater degree of understanding of the significance of matters deemed holy before choosing to reject. Japanese people, by and large, do not have this advantage.
  • Thirdly, should the clients be moved by the Bible message delivered by the celebrant, the option for further pastoral care is rarely offered or even possible.
  • Fourthly, the conduct of a wedding ceremony in the West has legal ramifications. The Japanese version does not share that degree of weight.
  • Fifthly, in western countries, the wedding blessing is seen as part of the wider remit of the Church. The Church corporate offers services to parishioners from cradle to the grave. In Japan, the chapel wedding is an isolated event and (most often) primarily a money generating business.
  • Sixthly, the Japanese form is in many instances the simulation of a ‘real’ ritual, the Western counterpart is not a simulation.
  • Additionally, the Japanese experience casts a narrow stereotype and does nothing to promote gender equality which is a hallmark of Western cultures.
In Japan, 'Korean-style'
kimchi is is still universally recognizable as kimchi but leaning a little more towards Japanese pickles than the famous product of its immediate neighbour. It is also inaccurate to call the wedding celebrations which are in focus here as Western-style and efforts should be made to resist labeling them as such. However, in that a usable, overarching term is required, Christian-style wedding is the most appropriate when considering all the relevant factors. It is hoped that in this modern age, consumers would be developing a keen sense of healthy skepticism about anything touted as "..............-style".

The motivation people have to choose a Church based wedding in the west is not only for aesthetic reasons:

75 per cent of those opting for a church ceremony say that one of the main reasons for their choice is that they want a 'proper' wedding. They see church as a positive choice, and not ‘just another venue’. In fact, 60 per cent of those surveyed said that their church has a particular meaning for them or their fiancé.

“Couples preparing to commit their lives to each other clearly value an environment and support network that is about far more than just being a ‘venue’. The Church offers an open door before and after the wedding day itself – and this research shows that people appreciate that.” (The Church of England)

Incidentally, the most popular Christian hymn at these weddings is "What a friend we have in Jesus" (the sad irony being that many participants do not know Christ), whereas in the UK, the song doesn't even feature in the 'most popular' listings. This is yet more reason to call these celebrations something other than western-style.


Dr Andrew Meeko (Japan Harvest magazine, Spring 2008) writes:

"Pagans build [wedding chapels sic.], then pack sanctuaries and beg you to come preach"

Many people beg to differ. Type 1 agencies (see Types of Agency) certainly do not share that opinion and Type 2 agencies are not so positive in the assertion that the clients are begging ministers to preach. In fact, things are to the contrary in the vast majority of cases.


There are voices to the contrary of Dr Meeko's perspective. These words appear on Seiyaku's website; the contents of which are an attempt to play down the Christian element of the Christian-style wedding experience:
The trappings are there in these Western Style Weddings; the Bible reading, prayers, hymns, but it is not a time for preaching. The couple are there to get married and would be pretty annoyed if they were bombarded with evangelism. The ceremonies are based on Christian teachings but perceived by the couple primarily as a western style, rather than a Christian style.... which is why we call them 'Western Style Weddings' and not 'Christian Style Weddings'.

The writer is assuming that 'real Christian weddings' are distinguished by the congregation being 'bombarded with evangelism'. Quite what is meant by that is left to the reader to decide. If, in actual fact the words Western and Christian are synonymous to the Japanese (on the understanding that Christianity is seen as a foreign religion) then perhaps a more accurate descriptor would be "Christian (Western) style Weddings". It is unsatisfactory to remove the word 'Christian' when the Bible is about Christ, the hymn is about Christ and prayers are offered in the name of Christ. Rev. Kenny Joseph echoes this point:

They are 100% religious sacraments - not cultural - with two hymns, a sermon, two prayers, 15 Bible verses, a solemn proclamation and a benediction.


Is is better to refer to the phenomenon as Western-style rather than Christian-style? What advantage would they be in doing so? It would be regrettable if a false dichotomy of Western-style (Christian) and Japanese-style (Shinto) were to become common parlance. This would be unsatisfactory as Shinto (or Shinto-style) weddings are very much in the minority in Japan and therefore cannot be heralded as definitively Japanese-style. Some recognition of all the other styles of religious and secular weddings which are to be seen in Japan and the West needs also to be acknowledged.

There are, of course, problems associated with stereotyping. Western-style (wedding) actually means bearing the marks of a Euro-American, High Church tradition. Yet are these forms of wedding a majority in Euro-America? This point on the Church of England's website suggests otherwise:

Today more than a quarter of all marriages in England take place before God in the traditional setting of a Church of England church.

This is also the trend in the United States. There are few statistics available but this was published in 2003:

Fewer American couples who marry today see the need for religion's approval. The rate of civil marriage is on the rise coast to coast, a USA TODAY analysis of marriage license statistics suggests.

The same pattern is being reported in Catholic churches in Australia.

If Church based weddings are actually in the minority or decreasing in Western countries, then it is hardly accurate to name the Japanese expression as Western-style. It may even be more accurate to describe the Western version as subordinate (at least in terms of numbers) as a cultural expression and give kudos to the Japanese version as being definitive. In other words, describe Western church weddings in reference to Japanese church-style weddings and not the other way around. It is therefore, a false perception that Christian-style weddings in Japan are actually Western-style.

Add to this the fact that Japanese wedding agencies are setting their sights on emerging economies like China to expand their enterprises:

Fast forward about 10 years and now Japanese wedding companies are wanting to export the business to China, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

This cultural form has been adopted and adapted in Japan and is now going through a new permutation in other Asian countries. The Chinese may well understand the import as being
Western (and that is almost certainly how it will be marketed), but in fact it is actually the thoroughly Japanese version. Many players are already in the market in China which started to boom in the mid-nineties.

This photo (credit to the previous link) shows a Chinese couple posing in front of a Church building on their wedding day. It is expected that the desire for an 'authentic' Christian-style wedding will be evident in increasing measures in China.

Compared to other parts of the world (the UK being a special case in point), the Japanese version of Christian-style weddings is setting the trends. They have appropriated elements of the 'original', transformed them to some extent and are now exporting the result to other nations. This is about 'ownership' of culture; it has not only been assimilated into Japan, but it is now mature enough to spread to neighbouring countries. But it will not likely be seen as a Japanese import. It will probably be received as Western-style yet will possibly be even further removed from the noble ideals of the original than the Japanese type.


Fake wedding cakes have been a peculiarly Japanese twist on the Christian-style wedding for decades. Further evidence of the way this is shaping Western forms of wedding is the very recent (2007) growth in popularity of fake cakes in American weddings. Ms Aya is meeting the demand of Western couples who want fake cakes. This is arguably an adoption of what has previously been a laughing point for westerners and is now an import of a Japanese Christian-style wedding norm.


There is a striking venue in Karuizawa (Japan) which is known to be the worlds number one wedding chapel. Although difficult to believe it boasts over 4000 weddings a year. The Hoshino Wedding Chapel is a monument to the popularity of so-called Western style weddings in Japan. But it is the Japanese who lead the world with this phenomena. The Japanese have really taken ownership of this Christian form.

Click on the image (credit to the next link) for a larger version. The 'Lord's Prayer' can be clearly seen on the altar steps in this picture of a church which perhaps inspired the architect of the Hoshino Church. This picture is taken from an on-line forum which can be reached here.The video which features next shows the interior of the Church and is taken from a YouTube clip.

The author contacted the producer of the video (a cousin of one of the newly-weds) and was informed that the participants are not Christians.


Quiz Time

A:Which of these ceremonies (courtesy of Bellclassic) actually draws on thousands of years of sacred heritage?

B: Which of them is a thoroughly modern invention?

C: Which of them are modeled after Christian forms?

A = 1. Yes, Christian marriage taps into the root of Judaism and therefore sacred marriage goes back to the book of Genesis.
B = 2. Shinto ceremonies (the type you see today) are little over 100 years old. You can read it here

Surprisingly, however, the Shinto wedding is wholly a product of modern times. It is reported to have begun with the wedding of the Crown Prince (later Emperor Taisho) in 1900.

C = 1+2. Actually both of them!

The people of Meiji Era Japan learned from Westerners the concept that marriage should be a sacred event. Japanese who witnessed weddings conducted in Christian churches were impressed by the dignified atmosphere and the teaching of the meaning of marriage. They decided to create a comparable wedding ceremony. (Assoc.Prof. Kiyoshi Shida)

So are Shinto ceremonies better described as Shinto (Christian-style) Weddings? Or maybe Shinto (Western-style) Weddings would be better in that the Christian elements have been removed?

This picture is from the website of a large Buddhist Temple in Tokyo. This Temple offers 'Western Style' Buddhist weddings. The pipe organ which can be seen on the far left was imported from Germany. Although these weddings are not billed as Christian or even Church-style, the potential blurring of Western and Christian is very evident. If there are Japanese people who equate Western with Christian then it is a very inadequate perception.

Whereas the Shintoists adopted the Christian form in respect of its 'dignified atmosphere and the teaching of the meaning of marriage', the Buddhist version seen here adopted the aesthetics in a greater measure (the organ, the dress) and panders much more closely to the wishes of a modern Japanese bride.

Of course, this is a real Buddhist, religious ceremony. In their attempts to make the event Western they are up against this widely held attitude about 'Western-style weddings':

"It would seem very unreal and fake if there was a Japanese person conducting the ceremony. Very shady actually.


Christianity shapes (and is shaped by) culture, and actually transcends culture. It is a personal religion which is expressed through well established traditions, norms and forms in many countries of the world. It is a living faith which is not bound by culture.To label the form as Western rather than Christian is to attempt to dismiss the practice of faith which actually shaped the Western form over an extensive period of time.

Christianity is undeniably a world religion. Japanese Christians do not perceive Christianity as a Western import --- they see it as the very welcome growth of the kingdom of God which is not to be constrained by borders, labels, or cultural conventions.

There are voices which state that Christianity is regarded as a foreign religion in Japan. But then again, Christianity in the UK was thought of in much the same way in the first centuries. To impose language which will affirm the perception that Christianity is foreign, or alien, is to undermine the appreciation that Christianity is a personal faith of which Japanese people can have equal 'ownership'.

Arguably the greatest reason not to refer these events as Western Style is that the Japanese do not refer to them in this way. The industry, clients and general public tend to use the terms Church-style and Chapel -style much more.


What is the best term to describe this phenomena?

Is the Shinto ceremony also to be described as 'Western-style'?

Why are certain people trying to remove Christ out of the equation?