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Assembly line nuptials: The gaijin priest

Script for foreign pastor

TOKYO (TR) – At the time, Aaron Frisell was just starting out as a wedding pastor in Japan. He stood at the head of the church, waiting to begin a ceremony when saw a problem: the pews before him were filled with gentlemen sporting punch-perms, flashy suits, hats and sunglasses.

Coming from a Christian background and having gone through many years of Bible training in the United States, Frisell knew that there are certain acts which are simply not acceptable in, as he says, “God’s house.” Wearing sunglasses and a hat are indeed two of them, and this applies to yakuza members the same as everyone else.

A standoff ensued. Frisell announced that he wouldn’t begin until everyone was appropriately attired. After a few awkward minutes, one gentleman in the front stood, removed his offending items, and the rest of the audience slowly followed.

“That was stupid of me,” recalls Frisell, 35, who estimates that he has presided over thousands of weddings in chapels, churches, and wedding halls over the past nine years. “That was naive as a young pastor. The Japanese don’t know; it’s not their culture. I don’t need a showdown of authority. Now I’m more mature — I just let it go.”

Adapting to cultural differences is indeed a key to success in the wedding pastor business for foreigners (gaikokujin). And what a business it is. Though Christians represent only 1 percent of the population, Christian-style weddings have increased in recent years to comprise over 60 percent of all nuptials. Be it for reasons of mere fashion or an increasing desire on the part of women to rise above their diminished standing in traditional Shinto ceremonies, this translates into a huge demand for these 20-minute ceremonies.

Prior religious training for the role of wedding pastor is usually nil. After studying a ceremony script and observing a few real weddings, prospective pastors with reasonable Japanese skills can be trying on their robe inside of two weeks. Though the language of the ceremonies is usually Japanese, the nearly identical scripts — from the opening salvos to the singing of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” — are in romaji (letters) to allow for easier pronunciation.

Generally, these rent-a-pastors are white foreigners, maybe English teachers or bartenders, who are looking to pad their income on weekends. Atheists are recruited as eagerly as evangelists. In Japan, it is entirely appearance that counts.

“Christianity is a foreign religion in Japan,” says Todd Thicksten, a 36-year old missionary from California who performs ceremonies at the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. “To the Japanese if you want it done right, you have to have a foreigner do it. It is an image thing. It is similar to thinking: If you want your pipes fixed, you get a plumber and not a trash collector.”

The look of choice that is preferred is perhaps a Sean Connery-type; one who possesses grace and dignity without being bombastic. A talent for delivering ample eye contact in a slow, even manner is a plus as well.

A happy couple
A happy couple

Increased competition in the last 5 years has dropped the standard wedding pastor pay rate from roughly 18,000 yen per ceremony to less than 15,000 yen. (Yet rumors abound of pastors garnering upwards of 30,000 yen in isolated areas or under special arrangements.) Still, this can amount to a tidy sum given that wedding pastors are known to perform roughly three to six back-to-back weddings a day with a short break in between each.

Though it is not uncommon to hear of makeshift wedding halls or chapels being carved out of three adjoining hotel rooms, most locations for the ceremonies go to great pains to recreate the palatial atmosphere of the best Europe has to offer.

The Maria Chapel, where Frisell performs the majority of his ceremonies, in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture has pulled out all the stops. The chapel’s pipe organ is from Germany, the stained glass is from France, and the hired gospel singers are from some of Tokyo’s top schools. Victorian furniture fills the lounge with stone cherubs frolicking in the numerous fountains scattered in between the sculpted greenery fanning out through the compound.

Relative anomolies

Frisell and Todd are both relative anomalies in the business given that their motivations are not monetary; rather, they are here to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are both employed by the Christian Bridal Mission, a company of 1,000 pastors (40 percent of whom are foreigners) with offices throughout Japan that began operating about 25 years ago. Unlike nearly all of the other estimated 40 companies in Tokyo that employ foreigners without an accredited religious education to simply run through the ceremonies, the Christian Bridal Mission recruits real missionaries and ordained pastors.

The rapid-fire style of the weddings and the fact that the audience is composed almost entirely of non-Christians makes for a perfect combination to spread such a message.

“I have a captive audience,” Frisell says of his lack of need to pound the pavement in a traditional missionary sense. “In 20 minutes, I can make Christianity approachable. You get the whole gospel message out — it’s the best; that’s the goal.”

But critics have condemned the practice in Japan because the majority of the wedding pastors are not accredited priests or missionaries. Calls of blasphemy are misdirected, says Reverend Kenny Joseph, the founder of the Japan Association of Preachers and Ministers (JAPAM).

“They are pinch hitters,” he says of the void in Japan for wedding pastors that these foreigners fill. To him, the biggest problem lies with foreigners who work as wedding pastors without a proper working visa and fake pastor credentials obtained overseas. His group is attempting to “clean the stable floor” of such unqualified wedding pastors by offering a 10-step certification program that gives wedding companies peace of mind in the knowledge that JAPAM certificate-bearing wedding pastors are not impostors. The current rate of passage for the program is only 40 percent.

“It is not a real church,” emphasizes Frisell, who says that the official wedding takes place with the signing of the marriage documents at the local city hall. “It is an assemblyline of people waiting to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. They sit down, they are quiet, they listen to gospel messages — and that’s it.”

Aaron Frisell
Aaron Frisell

This assembly line nature of the proceedings and the unique position occupied by the pastors has necessitated a few rules of wedding pastor etiquette: don’t leave the clip-on microphone turned on when using the bathroom between ceremonies; don’t speak Japanese too well (the Japanese prefer a foreigner who struggles a bit); don’t bow too low (maintaining a degree of authority is important); and be sure to get the couple’s names right.

“Basically, if you get the names wrong, that’s big time — the biggest mistake a pastor can make,” warns Thicksten. Should this happen, a complaint will be filed, and the wedding pastor’s company will have to pay for the wedding and offer numerous apologies and gifts.

Awkward moments are never in short supply, as any veteran wedding pastor will explain. The lack of understanding of church protocol on the part of the Japanese audience and fact that pastors can get nervous will often result in some interesting situations.

Thicksten explains: “Pastors have fainted. The audience thinks it is part of the show. They sit and wait for him to come to and finish the ceremony. Pastors have vomited in the plants. They think it is part of the blessing ceremony. Wedding pastors are humans. Things happen.”

The origin of the boom is often traced to the Christian-style ceremony in 1980 for Japan’s pop princess of the ’70s, Momoe Yamaguchi. Then, after Princess Diana’s lavish affair in 1981, phones in Tokyo area hotels were ringing off the hook with requests for fashionable extravaganzas.

Reverend Joseph, though, sees this bonanza as being more than a Japanese woman’s wont to wear a white dress. It is instead a rejection of her place in the Shinto ceremony.

“She is like a head of cattle,” he says of the bride’s role in a traditional Shinto ceremony where she maintains a subservient position to her husband at all times. “She’s no moron. The popularity of Christian weddings is not a passing fad.”

Yet isn’t it a bit sad in that the intended Christian meaning is absent from an event of such great importance?

“This is her day. It is celebration day and not indentured servant day,” says Frisell, the latter reference being to the average woman’s eventual place in male-dominated Japan. “It is an all-day event where she is the center.”

Note: This article originally appeared in April 2003 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.