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

Since the late-1990s, Western “white weddings” overtook Shinto nuptials as the ceremony of choice.

For young Japanese couples who may value pageantry over religion, Adam 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.

 

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.

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