Lower costs fuel boom in exotic, quirky overseas weddings

by Ed Gutierrez

Regional correspondent

KYOTO — More than ever before, Japanese couples are opting to say “I do” and “Until death do us part” in established and specially constructed Christian churches around the globe — sometimes in the most unexpected places.

AWB White Weddings, with a customer base that is 95 percent Japanese, is the largest wedding management company in New Zealand and Australia. Last year off Broadwater on the Gold Coast of Australia, it built what it is touting as the world’s only floating church.

Complete with a white picket fence, shingled roof and stained glass windows, Our Lady on the Sea looks like a quaint European church until you notice it is also fitted with two pontoons, two engines, life jackets and awning-like sails that can be rolled out in case of bad weather.

Betrothals ride out in a boat to the anchored church and then a nondenominational service is conducted by a licensed minister.

The little church in the bay has proved so successful that it already is hosting 200 weddings a year, and is expected to double or triple the total by the same time next year, said Melanie Robertson, AWB’s marketing information manager.

For couples wishing to tie the knot overseas but not literally over the seas, churches in theme parks in California, on top of a mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia, and by the beaches in Oahu offer alternatives.

Whether exotic or ordinary, these churches mainly are used for production-line weddings in Hawaii, Australia and Micronesian islands such as Guam and Saipan — the top three destinations for overseas Japanese weddings.

Over the last five years, the number of overseas Japanese weddings has risen from 20,000 in 1993 to 45,225 in 1997, and 70,000 are expected this year, according to statistics from Watabe Wedding Corp., the leading Japanese firm for overseas wedding management.

Over the same period, the number of domestic weddings has hovered around 780,000 per year. “The number of Japanese getting married overseas is rapidly increasing,” said Shigetaka Fujisawa, general manager at Watabe’s head office in Kyoto. “We already have seen a 10 percent increase in overseas Japanese weddings compared with last year.”

The main reason for this increase, Fujisawa said, is that overseas weddings are cheaper than domestic ones. A traditional domestic bash involves renting a hotel reception hall for a banquet of up to a 100 guests, renting or buying multiple changes of dresses and suits for the bride and groom, and throwing a second party. These costs easily can reach 2.5 million yen to 3 million yen before the honeymoon even starts.

Even with the fluctuating yen, however, overseas weddings can be at least 40 percent cheaper, Fujisawa said. Couples need only rent or buy one pair of outfits on site. Normally, only seven or eight people attend the weddings, consisting of the parents of the couple, a few other family members and close friends.

Couples who marry overseas consider the wedding to be part of their honeymoon and usually have a scaled-down version of the “hiroen,” or reception party, when they return to Japan. “The concept of a Japanese wedding is becoming more Americanized — (changing) from a union of two families to the union of two people,” Fujisawa said.

“Young Japanese don’t want all the hassles and costs associated with a big wedding. Now they just want to bring the rings, so to speak,” he said. “The parents of the bride and groom can enjoy a vacation and perhaps bond a little closer with their children,” he said, somewhat disturbed by a recent media report that 56 percent of young Japanese women today don’t want to get married.

Optional wedding packages also have become more popular.

Couples under the wing of AWB are accompanied by a translator and escorted to and from the ceremony in a Rolls Royce. For extra fees, they can fly away in a helicopter after the ceremony and receive full video and photo coverage of all the events.