When Hiroki Terai was a child he once asked his parents why there was no such thing as a divorce ceremony and they laughed at him. Now, as Japan’s first professional “charisma divorce planner,” he watches with satisfaction as soon-to-be-former couples join hands on a mallet and smash rings, beginning new, separate lives.
Last March, a friend of Terai’s from college, on the verge of his own divorce, echoed that life-long question. “Japanese culture celebrates both beginnings and endings,” he said. “Why is only the beginning of a marriage marked?” A month later, Terai held his first divorce ceremony for that friend at a restaurant in Shinjuku. Word got out, and it struck a chord. Requests started coming in. After performing a few more on his own, he teamed up with day-trip specialists Friendly Travel to run the ceremonies as a half-day package tour for ¥3,000 per person.
The parting couple meets near Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and rides in separate rickshaws with friends and relatives following on foot to a “Divorce Mansion,” a doppelganger of Japan’s ubiquitous wedding halls. There, they stand before their guests and listen as Terai recounts the circumstances leading up to the decision to separate (they’ve briefed him in individual meetings beforehand). He says that although one side, usually the wife, will often demand a blunt statement about exactly what went wrong, he opts for tact. “I won’t just come out and say ‘he cheated,'” Terai says. “I’ll say something indirect that gets the message across. And I always add that ‘there are surely circumstances known only to the two people involved.'”
The guests of honor each make speeches, and then, as at a Japanese wedding party, one person is chosen to speak on behalf of the assembled friends, preferably someone who has been divorced. This speech almost always starts with “Rikon omedeto gozaimasu” (congratulations on your divorce). The friend emphasizes that divorce is another kind of beginning, and that friends will continue to be there. Up until this point, there’s “a strange sort of vibe,” Terai says. “People don’t know how to respond, whether they should clap or stay quiet.”
Then comes the key moment: the smashing of the rings. “I based it on the image of the cake cutting.” In their “final joint act,” the two each put one hand on a mallet. In a light-hearted stroke of symbolism, the mallet has a frog on it to represent the couple “changing” into singles. (The words for “frog” and “change” are homonyms in Japanese.) After the smashing of the rings, Terai says the mood changes as well. The audience applauds spontaneously, and looks of relief and happiness come over the couple.
Staying with the kaeru theme, the Divorce Mansion’s mascot is a friendly looking pink frog statue Terai had made to order. The battered rings are dropped into the frog’s mouth and left there. Although the statue seems to be giving the peace sign, it’s actually flashing a warning of sorts: Terai said the gesture reflects the fact that, with the most recent stats at 250,000 divorces a year, “two out of six couples in Japan get divorced.”
The frog may be cartoonish, but the ceremonies are absolutely no joke. “Once a couple has decided to break up, I’d like to see them make a clean, clear break that lets them both move forward,” Terai says. “The message is really powerful.” The reaction has been serious, too. Terai says he’s gotten about a hundred inquiries from people across Japan who say they would like to start similar services. And although he’s ushered only 23 couples to singledom, he says he’s gotten hundreds more requests for ceremonies that didn’t reach the final stages of planning because – surprise – the couples wouldn’t work on it together.
Although the divorce rate in Japan has been on a gentle decline since peaking in 2002, you wouldn’t know it from its appearance lately in the news and pop culture. Attention has been drawn to divorce both by high-profile international child custody cases and lurid stories of wakaresaseya, the shady business of hiring an actor who serves as both temptation and private eye to (among other things) break up marriages.
NHK, following up last year’s comedy-drama “Konkatsu Rikatsu” (Marriage Seeking, Divorce Seeking), is now running a five-part drama called “Rikon Dokyo” (Divorce Cohabitation) based on a popular manga of the same name by Cocco Kashiwaya. The story is about a divorced couple with a young daughter who split up after eight years of marriage and then move back in together for financial reasons.
Smell the potential for a happy ending? So does Terai, at least once in a while. Two of his ceremonies have ended up with the couples deciding to stay together. One man and woman, both in their fifties, reached the end of the ceremony and then decided to reconsider after they missed the rings with three blows in a row.
Not so fast with the hearts and doves, though. Since he started being profiled in the Japanese and Korean media in the last year, Terai has had over 800 total inquiries. With bookings through the middle of July, we don’t think he’ll be out of work any time soon.
The travel agent, Friendly Travel, has a page in Japanese with all the details.