Japanese Find Romance and Rituals Far From Home
PARIS, Aug. 6 — The first time that Hirosha Watanabe and Naoko Shibuya entered a church was the giddy moment when they marched down the aisle, he in pearl gray tails and she in a frothy wedding dress, to the strains of the Wagner classic “Bridal Chorus.”
They were joined at the altar of the American Church in Paris by a minister, an interpreter, a video maker and a photographer — the players in Japanese wedding packages for lavish Western ceremonies with traditional trappings.
Most of the brides and grooms are more familiar with Shinto practices than Christian rites. But they are flocking to Paris and other romantic European locations in search of rituals, stained glass and bellowing pipe organs, all chosen from convenient online catalogs.
So many Japanese wedding tourists are trading golden rings in the peak summer and autumn seasons that the interdenominational American Church enlisted retired pastors for the marriage ministry dominated by the couples. A towering Adventist church outside Paris and the American Cathedral, which offers Episcopal ceremonies, also perform large numbers of the ceremonies.
“We view it as an outreach opportunity to offer a radical cross-cultural welcome from our perspective,” said Zachary Fleetwood, the dean of the cathedral, adding, “We find that couples are deeply moved and touched by the experience, and so are we.”
These dream weddings — with prices from about $2,750 to $5,800 — are, in fact, fantasies. Few Japanese couples can establish the 40-day residency requirements for a legal French marriage, and most arrive on a 6:30 a.m. flight from Tokyo hours before their ceremonies.
Instead, they marry in civil ceremonies in Japan and then head to the Parisian churches for “blessings,” “celebrations” or thanksgiving ceremonies.
Wedding tourism companies are an established tradition in Japan. Hawaii remains the preferred destination, but lately officials there have started to fret about a softening in the romance market.
Europe and the mainland United States have shared a small slice of the wedding travel market, but in an annual report on overseas honeymoons and weddings, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare indicated that Europe now holds about 2 percent of all the overseas ceremonies. About 20,000 couples had European ceremonies in the past year.
The nuptial catalogs include details of fairy-tale castles in France and Switzerland and stone churches in London and Paris. The packages also include all the wedding basics — from white dresses and makeup and hairstyling to the grooms’ fresh white gloves.
Some of the couples go overseas because at home, “They have to ask their friends and relatives to come to the ceremonies,” said Akihiro Hayashi, a Tokyo analyst for Ichiyoshi Research who tracks the dominant player, Watabe, and its competitor, Best Bridal. “They have to make plans for a party with the family that on average costs about $30,000, while they can pay about $10,000 for an entire overseas wedding and travel,” he said.
Although American Church officials do not disclose the fees they receive, they said that wedding contributions amounted to about 15 percent of the church’s operating budget and that weddings of Japanese couples made up about 80 percent of the ceremonies.
The Rev. Kenneth Stenman, a retired Lutheran pastor from Colorado, arrived this summer to take up duties as a minister to Japanese couples. On a Monday morning in July, he met two couples for the first time as they stepped out of a car with just minutes to establish rapport.
“There are a lot of pastors in the States that won’t officiate at a wedding if you aren’t members of the church, but I never felt that way,” Mr. Stenman said. “I feel like it is a ministry, a service that I could provide for people, and in that contact with them, I can communicate a little bit of God’s love.”
Mr. Stenman’s basic strategy, as with Mr. Watanabe and Ms. Shibuya on that Monday, is to provide a quick tour of the church and a brief meeting to explain rituals. Every time, he leans close to ask the couple a question that usually does not need Japanese translation.
“Do you love her?” he asked, eyeing Mr. Watanabe, who burst out laughing and answered, “Yes!”
“Do you love him?” Mr. Stenman turned to Ms. Shibuya, who nodded vigorously, shaking the pale roses pinned to her upswept hair. “Oh, yes!”
Occasionally, couples like Kentaro Takanami and Kana Yamauchi know some English.
“I used to live here in Europe before,” the new Mrs. Takanami said, brushing tears from her eyes as she left the church sanctuary in a rustling white train and a silver rhinestone crown and veil. “Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be married in Europe. And France is a very beautiful country.”
The dominant wedding travel brokers are Japanese, and they are preparing for the future softening of the market with the aging of the Japanese population. Watabe, for instance, is prospecting for Chinese clients in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Some wedding agencies in France have formed their own trade group, Association Oui, with a Web site in English and Japanese that lists quality standards, pledging to provide only genuine ministers, not actors.
But the wedding agencies and the association are cautious about discussing business. Perhaps that is because in London the Church of England was criticized a year ago for performing blessing ceremonies. Critics complained that wedding tourism transformed churches into theme parks for tourists.
In Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent suburb on the edge of Paris, l’Église Adventiste de Neuilly is marrying Japanese couples almost daily. Members of the French Adventist church held a vote on the issue after Watabe approached officials several years ago, with a majority agreeing to allow “celebration ceremonies.”
Bernard Cassard, a pastor who handles all of the ceremonies, said church members had decided that the ceremonies were a form of evangelism. He acknowledged, though, that the Seventh-day Adventist religion was stricter for its own members, refusing to perform weddings of Adventists to nonmembers.
“It’s an occasion for us to know people who aren’t Christian,” Mr. Cassard said, sitting in the church’s leafy garden after the end of a ceremony. “The principle of the celebration is to give them a little teaching about Christianity.”
He looked up at another resplendent Japanese bride and groom striding out the doors of his church. A photographer motioned to him. Wordlessly, Mr. Cassard moved out of sight of the camera lens.