As a soprano sings "Ave Maria," a Japanese couple march down the center aisle of a hotel chapel, past white trumpet lilies, to the altar where a US "pastor" stands, gold cross gleaming on white robes.
"Before God and these witnesses, I pronounce you husband and wife," intones Damon Mackey, a California native who took a two-day course to perform weddings on weekends, supplementing his income as an English teacher and part-time actor.
In Japan, where a love affair with Western "white weddings" is leading to a collapse in Shinto ceremonies, a new figure is taking over the altar: the gaijin, or foreign, "pastor."
Only 1.4 percent of Japan's 127 million people are Christians, but Christian-style ceremonies now account for three-quarters of Japanese weddings. To meet market demand, bridal companies in recent years have largely dispensed with the niceties of providing a pastor with a seminary education, keeping the requirements simple: a man from an English-speaking country who will show up on time, remember his lines, not mix up names and perform the ceremony in 20 minutes.
From a small beginning a few years ago, the Western wedding "priest" has suddenly become an established part of modern Japan's cultural tableau. The lure of easy money has prompted hundreds of foreign men to respond to newspaper advertisements here, like the one that read: "North Americans, Europeans wanted to conduct wedding ceremonies."
"Now all the hotels have chapels with someone dressed up as a priest," said William Grimm, a Maryknoll priest who edits the Catholic Weekly of Japan.
faker is better
In fact, the less overtly religious the pastor, the better. Hotel managers generally discourage proselytizing by authentic Christian pastors.
"The companies like the nonreligious guy who just follows the script," said Mike Clark, a Japanese language student who performed weddings before moving home to Canada last fall.
The boom in what some Japanese magazines call "foreign fake pastors" speaks volumes about modern Japan's attachment to appearances and its smorgasbord approach to religion. Japanese often choose Shintoism for childhood age ceremonies, Christianity for weddings and Buddhism for funerals.
"Of course, words are important, but in a ceremony it is more about the whole image," Masahiko Sakamoto, 25, said after watching Kenyon Nelson, a retired businessman from Missouri, perform a wedding at a hotel bridal fair. "And a foreigner fits better into a Western wedding than a Japanese person would."
Maki Oyama, his fiancee, said firmly that she wanted a white dress, a foreign pastor and a hotel chapel wedding. She added, "In soap operas you have more examples of white weddings than of Shinto ones."
The passion for Western-style weddings was first fueled in the 1980s by the televised weddings of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and of the Japanese pop star Momoe Yamaguchi. Since 1996, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the number of Christian weddings has nearly doubled while the number of Shinto weddings has plunged by two-thirds.
Western weddings revolve around love and elevate the bride to a princess, Japanese say. In a tradition-bound Shinto wedding, where the bride is encased in a wig and a kimono, the ceremony often seems to be more about the merger of two families.