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Seeing a job ad placed by a Tokyo wedding company two years ago in an English daily, a 32-year-old Australian man applied for a position performing Christian-style nuptials at hotels and wedding halls on weekends.

Having never studied theology or attended a seminary, the man considered himself just an average Christian back home, but his Caucasian looks apparently qualified him to stand before Japanese couples as they took their vows, and to recite Bible passages in front of hundreds of attendants.

“I’ve never been a devout Christian or anything, and thought it was no more than an acting job,” the man said.

The payment for a 20-minute service was 16,000 yen.

“The company said they actually had qualified Japanese pastors, but they said their clients often prefer to have a Caucasian perform the service, regardless of their religious background.”

He declined the job, he said, because he was told he would have to have lessons on the basics of Christian rites and acquire a minimum Japanese-language ability at his own expense.

The increasing proliferation of Christian-style weddings has been met by an increasing demand for pastors who can conduct nuptials on weekends.

In a country where Christians account for just 0.8 percent of the population, the huge prevalence of Christian-style weddings can only be explained as vogue. This has led to especially high demand for Caucasians to perform the rites, leading many noncleric foreigners to work as “part-time pastors” or “weekend pastors.”

“It is of course not a religious experience that people seek in a Christian-style wedding, but to make a fashion statement,” said a spokeswoman for a Tokyo-based wedding service company that dispatches nonclergy foreigners to hotels and wedding halls to perform nuptials.

According to a survey by Xeksi, a wedding information magazine, 61.2 percent of 4,132 couples who married in 2001 and responded to the poll had Christian-style rites, 20.1 percent had Shinto-style weddings, 16 percent refrained from religious ceremonies and 0.9 were married at Buddhist temples.

“Many young couples think a foreigner performing the rites can add a more sophisticated or even solemn atmosphere to their weddings,” the wedding company spokeswoman said.

Ordained priests, both Japanese and foreign, are usually not available on weekends — prime time for weddings — as they have services to perform at their own churches, she said. The firm requires that people who perform weddings have at least written permission to do so from the firm’s affiliate churches, she added.

According to the Kanto Christian Bridal Association, a Tokyo-based group of 126 Japanese and foreign pastors that opposes part-time nonclerics performing nuptials, there are about 100 wedding service companies in Tokyo employing about 500 unordained foreigners and 200 noncleric Japanese for wedding rites. Many of the firms have no legitimate pastors registered, the group said.

The foreigners usually receive minimum training on Christian principles and rites and the Japanese language, and receive between 13,000 yen and 15,000 yen for each service performed. Hotels and wedding halls often prefer such practitioners because they are usually more responsive to requests from wedding participants or venues, the association said.

“The situation symbolizes the Japanese people’s lack of respect for religion or spirituality,” said Masato Innami, a Presbyterian pastor and head of the group’s secretariat.

Innami, who said it takes at least nine years to be ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in Japan, said the trend of nonclergy Japanese performing weddings started about 15 years ago, while the number of nonclerical foreigners handling the ceremonies has surged rapidly in the past five years.

“It is not an exaggeration to say the presence of bogus priests casts shame on the country,” he said.

Innami noted that in many cases, wedding participants are not informed that the person performing the service is not of the cloth. In other cases, wedding arrangers are merely intent on profits from tuition fees they charge foreigners for the mandatory training on nuptial rites.

But arrangers argue that such opinions do not reflect Japanese notions of Christianity and of such weddings.

“Although Christian-style weddings here follow traditional style, neither the participants nor venues actually want the ceremony to have religious meaning,” said the spokeswoman of the wedding service company.

“The celebrations are no more than a white wedding dress, bouquet, the ‘virgin road’ (aisle) and all the other fashionable elements of a Western-style wedding,” she said.

However, nonclergy foreigners performing weddings have caught the attention of immigration authorities.

In November, the Fukuoka branch of the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau warned a local hotel for letting a noncleric Canadian on a tourist visa conduct wedding ceremonies.

“No working visa except a religious visa allows foreigners to receive regular payment for conducting wedding services,” an official at the bureau said, adding that companies that regularly hire noncleric foreigners will also face penalties.

But he said the bureau is not in a position to judge whether a Christian-style wedding constitutes a religious practice, adding that unordained foreigners with permanent residency can conduct such services.

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