Ryuta and Maeko Kato ended their six-year marriage not merely by signing a divorce agreement, but by inviting guests to a public separation ceremony.
The erstwhile husband and wife began by mounting separate rickshaws on a blustery Saturday in Tokyo.
The atmosphere is almost funereal as the unhappy pair wend their way through the back streets of the capital’s Asakusa District, within earshot of the tourist hordes praying for happiness at Sensoji temple.
Their three guests — two friends and a cousin — walk behind the rickshaws with eyes lowered. Not a word is spoken.
The Katos are among a small but growing number of Japanese couples choosing to bring their union to a close at a public, and at times surreal, ceremony pioneered by “divorce planner” Hiroki Terai.
The 30-year-old, who goes about his work in the manner of a punctilious clergyman, brings the party to a halt at the “divorce mansion” — actually little more than a covered parking space next to a dilapidated building. The tatty location is a deliberate choice, he says — a symbol of the disintegration of the couple’s marriage.
Since conducting his first divorce ceremony in April 2009 Terai has presided over more than 60 separations and received 1,000 inquiries. Business is brisk, thanks in part to Japan’s divorce rate, which has started to creep up again since peaking in 2002.
There were 253,353 divorces in 2009, according to the health and welfare ministry, almost four times the number 50 years ago.
The half-day “divorce tour” costs ￥55,000 (US$682) a couple. Bigger ceremonies are held in hotel function rooms.
“People have a ceremony when they get married, so why not for divorces, too?” Terai said, as Mr and Mrs Kato, seated back to back, ate lunch. “Some people, even after they’re divorced, can’t quite accept that they’re no longer together. This gives them closure.”
A short toast made with tea — to avert any alcohol-fuelled airings of dirty laundry in public — briefly breaks the silence.
At the divorce venue, Terai offers guests a diplomatic explanation for the collapse of the Katos’ marriage. They had drifted apart and, despite attempts to reconcile, “ended up feeling they were no longer part of each other’s lives,” he said.
After a few words from the Katos and from a representative of the guests, it is time for the couple to come together in a final act of catharsis: the smashing of the ring.
Somewhat awkwardly, they grip a single mallet and with a thud bring it down on the wedding ring — actually a cheaper ring — squashing it on the second attempt, to half-hearted applause.
“I was surprised by how happy and relieved I felt when I brought the hammer down,” said Mr Kato, 34. “I could see the future ahead of me for the first time. It was like being reset to zero.”