A common saying in Japan is that one goes to a Shinto shrine after being born, gets married in a Christian ceremony, and is given a Buddhist funeral when one dies. Traditionally, about a month after birth, parents take their child to a shrine to have a priest pray for his or her health and happiness. When a Japanese person dies, it is considered normal for them to have a Buddhist funeral.
But isn’t it interesting that, in a country where less than one percent identify themselves as Christians, it is also considered natural for Japanese people to have a Christian wedding ceremony? It is true that most “Christian” weddings are not done in a church; they usually take place in the wedding chapel of a hotel (though I have done weddings in restaurants and other places). But it is amazing that many Japanese people are willing to have a pastor perform their wedding.
Reasons for choosing a Christian wedding
Just because someone has a Christian wedding does not mean that they are Christians, any more than going to a shrine as a child or visiting a temple makes them a Shinto or Buddhist believer. If you were to ask a Japanese person if they were Buddhist, most would say yes. And if you were to ask the same person if they believed in Shinto, they would probably also answer yes. An article from last year says that according to the Annual Statistics of Religion (Shūkyō Nenkan) published by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, 190 million people were involved in religion in 2015, more than the population of Japan!1 It quotes a Chinese media source that said: “Japanese have a strange sense of religion.” The article also says that “Going to a shrine, church, or temple has hardly any religious meaning to Japanese. It can be argued that those places are just considered somewhere to get married, somewhere to celebrate the New Year (or a newborn baby), and somewhere to pray for the dead.”
So why get married in a Christian ceremony? Alas, as has been mentioned, it has nothing to do with religious faith. The main reason Japanese want to have a Christian wedding seems to be: “that’s how they do it in the movies.” Japanese are known to admire all things Western, and this is part of it. The image of a little white chapel with the bride in a white wedding dress and the groom in a tuxedo is very powerful.
A great opportunity
But this willingness of many couples to get married in a church or have a pastor perform a Christian ceremony provides a real opportunity to minister to them. Though they might not know it, they are asking to come under the hearing of God’s Word. That is a great opportunity for us in this land where getting people to hear what God has to say is very difficult.
My experience in conducting weddings
I began doing weddings at the wedding chapel of the Kōchi Shin-Hankyū Hotel 26 years ago. The year before, the hotel approached me and asked if I could be their wedding pastor. I had never really considered doing weddings before, but when they shared the type of person they were looking for, I agreed to take the job. In fact, I was the only one in Kōchi Prefecture who could have done so! You see they were looking for a foreigner, a pastor or missionary, and a non-Catholic. So, I accepted their offer and got involved early enough to help them with the design of the hotel’s chapel (being an architect by training helped). I also performed the groundbreaking ceremony, the dedication service, and, more recently, a rededication service when they remodeled the chapel.
Though we missionaries think of doing weddings as a ministry, for hotels it is a business. So, market forces can change things, even at places we have done weddings for a long time. For instance, when I first started doing weddings 26 years ago, I asked to do two two-hour sessions of premarital counseling with each couple, and the hotel agreed. But that quickly changed to one two-hour session, since most of the couples did not live in Kōchi anymore. Many grew up in Kōchi, but as it is a small “country town” with very few jobs, most people go to the big cities to find work. That means that when they return to Kōchi for their wedding, they don’t have the time for lots of counseling. Of course, if someone were to ask to be married in our church, I would insist on at least two counseling sessions. But as a hotel employee, I can’t force that on people. In fact, recently, I have not had any counseling sessions with couples, because they often come back to Kōchi right before the wedding.
But even though I rarely do premarital counseling now, the hotel has allowed me to expand my message during the wedding service to include a direct appeal from Scripture to the couple (though, of course, others are listening). Since then, I have gotten many positive comments on my message, which have led to opportunities to share Christian principles in many different formats and in various places. I praise God for that. I also give each couple a Gideon New Testament.
I used to do about 120 weddings a year, but that has recently dwindled to less than 40. However, this still means that, with an average attendance of 50 to 60, I can share the words of God with thousands of people every year. The reasons for this decline in the number of weddings include the lower number of people of marriageable age and tighter financial constraints, which cause more couples to just register their marriages at the city hall and not have a wedding ceremony.
We need to be aware of the possibility that things might change. Since we are working for a business, there is no guarantee of how many Christian weddings we can do or how long we can continue to do them. I know some “wedding pastors” who were asked to leave because the hotel or wedding chapel made a contract with another group (often a music company) who would provide a pastor, an organist, and singers for a cheaper price. I am glad that has not happened to me, but there have been times when the hotel wanted the Christian weddings I do to have more of a party-like atmosphere. I thank God that it has gone back to a more reverent situation.
But we are really working for the Lord. And we can be grateful that people are interested in having a Christian wedding. Though in my case, only one couple has come to our church (and that for only a short time), I have a long list of people (over 3,000 couples) I can pray for. I hope and pray that some of them will be in heaven when I get there.
There are more than market forces at work when it comes to performing Christian weddings in secular places. Please pray for us as we seek to be a light in this needy country.
1. Taken from 正月に神社、教会で結婚式、死んだらお経・・・奇妙な宗教観を持つ日本人＝中国メディア
(accessed March 8, 2018).
Wedding photo from https://hmi-wedding.jp/kochi/
Ken Reddington and his wife, Toshiko, are church-planting missionaries in Kochi-ken. Ken is a missionary kid who returned to Japan as a missionary from the US in 1978.