Japan’s wedding churches seek religious legitimacy

The proliferation of “wedding churches” in Japan is leading to a unique form of Japanese Christianity that is long on ritual and short on belief, according to an article in the Journal of Religion in Japan (online in July). For decades there has been a large Japanese demand for Western-style church weddings, usually in hotels and other neutral settings and mainly as a commercial and secular enterprise. But, as Jesse LeFebvre writes, wedding promoters and participants are increasingly seeking religious legitimacy for these ceremonies and their settings. While little actual Christian belief may be found among the participants in these ceremonies, they are taking on increasing Christian content. Specifically designed wedding churches are now more popular than wedding venues in hotels. LeFebvre cites research on a rapidly growing number of freestanding wedding churches that have appeared in the last decade and how they often rival established churches in their architectural splendor. The majority of churches are built in the Western classical and gothic architectural styles. “The bridal industry is building gothic-style churches at scale and in numbers that Catholic and Protestant churches in Japan could probably never afford or justify, at the same time that churches are being deconsecrated, repurposed, sold, or torn down in other countries,” he writes. There are at least 1,285 locations for Christian weddings, many centrally located. Now wedding chapels are replacing Shinto shrines which were located on the top of department store buildings.

Source: Hideyuki Kamon | Flickr.

Without knowing much Christian doctrine or history, Japanese authorities have learned to verify the religious authenticity of these churches, requiring licenses for Christian ministers and issuing other requirements that often involve religious factors. One bridal corporation, known as Ai Group, is affiliated with World Wide Fellowship, which includes such prominent churches as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Westminster Abbey, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Denominational affiliation is less important than claims of legitimization through famous church leaders, such as one church claiming that it was blessed by the pope. The use of relics is also included in this quest for Christian authenticity, with some churches claiming to have relics from St. Valentine and the seventh century’s Saint Hubert. Other churches have full-time ministers and conduct other services besides weddings, such as lectures on the Bible, marriage seminars, and Christmas Masses. LeFebvre writes that this further Christianization confirms that the wedding church phenomenon concerns more than commercial replicas and props. He concludes that in “postwar Japan, wedding ceremonies have arguably become more and not less religious as the Shinto ceremony, and now the Christian ceremony have come to replace older communal celebrations…New Christian organizations have emerged to supply the ritual specialists essential to the performance of this Christian rite…In nonreligious Japan, religion not only retains its value; in fact, the demand for it ensures that it will continue to create lucrative opportunities for those who have been able to meet people’s religious needs in ways that are perceived as acceptable and can be experienced as authentic, regardless of the legal categorization of venue.”

(Journal of Religion in Japan, https://brill.com/view/journals/jrj/jrj-overview.xml)