Faking it as a Priest in Japan
The Things We Do For Friends
If you could be a Japanese priest for a day, would you do it? This is perhaps a question that few laypeople outside Japan have ever pondered. However, despite being a British academic―neither Japanese nor a licensed cleric (or indeed official member) of any religion―I recently officiated at a wedding of two friends in Tokyo. To my surprise, my experience was by no means unusual among my fellow expats. One friend told me that, when he first started his job in video-game design, he donned cross and cassock to perform a French-Japanese ceremony for his boss. Another offered me to introduce me to professional companies hiring pretend priests.
Since the mid-1990s, these ‘white weddings’ have become the norm in Japan. Around two and a half percent of the country’s population identifies as Christian, yet functions modeled on Christian chapel services now make up the vast majority. Importantly, such ceremonies are largely for show―a couple’s union will be legalized separately in a distinctly unromantic procedure with a local registrar. The high demand for these rites and low number of authentic clerics has led prospective couples to look beyond licensed clergy, instead recruiting foreign-looking, usually white, males whose only qualifications are their ability to speak English and a smattering of the necessary Japanese.
The tendency to overlook priestly qualifications reflects the fact that, for most of Japan’s history, the country has lacked a Christian idea of marriage. In the Heian period (794-1185 CE) aristocrats would exchange florid letters and ancient Chinese poetry for months or even years before arranging a midnight tryst. If a couple saw one another for three nights in a row they were considered married. Later, as Confucianism became more influential, marriage came to be regarded as an institution ensuring the continuation of family and the household. In the arranged marriages that were common until 1945, individual preferences were disregarded and some couples would first meet at their wedding. As late as 1982, over ninety per cent of weddings were small-scale Shinto-style affairs with the bride wearing a white kimono to symbolize purity and a ritual drinking of sake followed by a dance performed by the miko (shrine maiden).
The growing fondness for functions that would not look out of place in the latest Hollywood chick-flick demonstrates the growing power of women in Japanese society. And, however eyebrow-raising this may seem to people living outside Japan, such services also represent an attempt at cosmopolitanism. Certainly, during the event in which I participated, I had the distinct and unusual sensation that both Japanese and non-Japanese participants were engaged in a curious dance, in which Japanese members felt they were attending a ‘Western’ wedding and the non-Japanese a ‘Japanese’ service. This mutual mirroring gave both parties license to behave in a more relaxed manner than they might have in their own culture. As early as one pm, participants were leaping to the dancefloor―before they had had time to consume alcohol. At the same time, the increasing popularity of sumptuous mock-Christian nuptials is also related to the onward advance of consumerism. One academic expert opined: ‘to young Japanese… having their wedding ceremony in a church has nothing to do with religion’ but rather ‘is related to the ongoing search for… elegant venues’.
This irreligious emphasis on extravagance has caused many to object to these Japanese ceremonies. One Christian blogger asserts: “Marriage implies promises being made where honesty and truth are paramount. A counterfeit priest and service undermines the truth with lies”. Moreover, one former professional, who later wrote a doctorate at Harvard on the topic, described experiencing a ‘crisis of conscience’ after serving as a wedding minister for roughly three years: ‘When I discovered that Christian wedding ceremonies were not merely commercial events for those involved I decided to stop performing wedding ceremonies because I felt I could not in all honesty meet the expectations’.
For my part, if I was going to be a fake priest, I wanted to be candid about it. Officiating was a role I never expected to be offered, but I was both flattered and eager to accept, as long as it was understood clearly that I was acting as a pal of the bride and groom not a pontiff or a professional. In practice, this meant dodging the dog-collar in favor of a shirt and tie and avoiding anything identifiably religious in my brief speeches, instead emphasizing the international partnership between the Japanese Bride and the British Groom. I was also reassured in the knowledge that not only had the legal details been completed, but also the couple were having an additional church service later in the year for friends and family in the UK.
If anything, I might more fairly be accused of brazen duplicity with regard to my Japanese language level than my ecclesiastical status. My preparations for the short Japanese sections involved recruiting my long-suffering Japanese girlfriend as a translator and performance coach and then obsessively practicing these parts until they sounded passable (an embarrassingly high-water mark for my language study thus far). This service followed a familiar format of opening words followed by parent and community blessing then vows and the exchange of rings with a final blessing at the end.
On the day itself, despite having only been practiced briefly in my flat several nights before, the ceremony passed without a hitch. But I also noticed that my duty was only one of numerous contributions to the wedding’s organization made by the couple’s friends―from the traditional best man’s speech to the bridegroom’s solo rendition of a few disco classics. In an era of social networking and widespread travel, in which divorce (dare I say it?) is unfortunately commonplace, such contributions signal the increasing importance of friendship in our everyday lives. Given this twenty-first century reality, installing an unqualified buddy to officiate is less outlandish than we might assume. Perhaps asking a friend fake it as a priest is less a Japanese oddity more a sign of things to come throughout the world.