If at first you don’t succeed . . .


FUKUOKA — Divorce and remarriage have been possible in Japan since feudal times, though until recently shame and social stigma ensured that few unhappy couples formalized their differences — let alone took the plunge again.

For women, in particular, divorce was often a fast track to destitution — unless they found sanctuary in a kakekomi-dera (refuge temple).

Now, though, the nation’s marital disharmony is officially up there with the West’s, with the number of divorced couples having shot up from 1.29 per 1,000 head of the population in 1989 to 2.0 in 1999. The surge in second-time singles means Japan has now overtaken France’s 1.9 per 1,000 — though it still trails Britain’s 2.7 (for 1998) and the United States’ whopping 4.1.

The human heart being what it is, though, hope has a way of triumphing over experience, and the number of so-called batsuichi (first-time-failed) individuals remarrying is growing accordingly. More and more people are having to navigate the largely uncharted waters of second weddings.

In my neck of the woods in Kyushu, where Tokyo trends tend to catch on a few years later, openness about remarrying is a phenomenon of the last five years. But just as elsewhere in Japan, much confusion still surrounds what form second marriages should take.

According to wedding writer Hitomi Mizuguchi, some remarrying couples worry that an extravagant wedding is inappropriate; others fret they’ll have to do just that. Families wonder whether yuino (betrothal) gifts should be exchanged. Actually, Mizuguchi believes, there are fewer rules today than ever. “We advise people to do as they want, while not totally ignoring the wishes of their families.”

Whether a small or large wedding is held usually depends on whether it’s the wife’s or the husband’s second trip down the aisle. A “big wedding” in industry parlance means up to four changes of dress, a lavish chapel or shrine ceremony, sumptuous decorations and a banquet for 150. Total costs? Often more than 3 million yen.

Big weddings are especially popular with conservative families seeing their sons marry for the first time.

“In rural Kyushu the groom’s family will go all out to let the world know their boy is marrying — even if it’s the bride’s second wedding and she wants to celebrate quietly,” says Hiroyuki Yamaguchi, director of the wedding agency and magazine Compal.

There are, however, some second-time brides who revel in flowery affairs — though to comply with a law intended to ensure the paternity of any offspring, they must wait six months before any new love blossoms into marriage. Nonetheless, Yamaguchi says, “We’ve received positive feedback from brides who had children from previous marriages act as bridesmaids. All the guests cried. It was a total success.”

Mostly, however, the trend toward Japanese couples opting for smaller weddings is being reflected in second weddings too. The bride’s dress (or dresses) tend to be simpler, speeches are minimized and there’s conversation instead of karaoke between the guests and bridal couple.

It appears guest numbers hover at an intimate 70. Also, while “important” acquaintances (such as bosses or employers) are almost obligatory at first weddings, they aren’t necessarily present at second weddings because they’re not always told about the divorce.

Statistically, more men remarry than women. Wedding agents and banquet organizers say that these men — and their families — favor discreet weddings. The percentage of women remarrying is also growing, though, and these women are often financially independent and confident in their tastes.

“Women marrying in their 30s or for the second time don’t have the fairy-tale notions about white weddings they had in their 20s,” says Minako Seki, public relations officer at the Fukuoka Grand Hyatt. “They’re very pragmatic.”

Masashi Wakiyama, a 32-year-old advertising executive, says he and his wife, Machiko, had no doubts over their recent wedding being a small one. “We both had big formal weddings the first time,” he says. “This time we thought we’d rather use that money to travel or to spend on our home.”

The changes are forcing the wedding industry to provide more personalized, and less expensive, services — a contrast to the past, when it could snub remarrying couples with their preference for fewer guests and no elaborate bridal dress. Hitoshi Nogawa, director of St. Martin’s Church, a wedding chapel in Fukuoka’s leafy Sakurazaka district, says, “Some second-marriage couples want to be married here without any guests; others want their own priest. We’ll have to be even more flexible in the future.”

Nogawa himself chose a pared-down party three years ago when he remarried. He and his wife held no ceremony, he says, and they made sure they talked with every guest at the party. “We just wanted everyone to have a really good time,” he says.

Slowly but surely, it seems guests, too, are catching on to the special charms of repeated nuptials. “I almost prefer second weddings,” says Hisatoshi Kikuchi, a veteran “VIP” guest since his days as senior director at advertising agency Hakuhodo. “First weddings just seem too public sometimes.”

As romantics everywhere are fond of saying: “Every cloud has a silver lining.”