[Research] Contemporary Japan’s “Nonreligious” Conversion to Christianity

In this post, Jesse LeFebvre unpacks the enigma of Japanese nonreligiosity by analysing thejesse presence and increase of Christian weddings in Japan. He argues that Japanese nonreligiousness has altered strategies of Japanese Christian missions and influenced the bridal industry.

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of contemporary Japanese self-identify as nonreligious (Reader 2012). However, this self-identification is far from a wholesale rejection of religion, and often employed both to reject and affirm religious behaviors and identities (LeFebvre, 2015). Most typically, nonreligious attitudes reject religious dispositions that are perceived as deviant, unhealthy, or foreign while simultaneously affirming religion’s importance. Nonreligious individuals tend to rely on religious professionals and vicariously entrust specialized acts of prayer and ritual to religious authorities when desirable and appropriate. Along with various Buddhist and Shinto rites, Christian wedding ceremonies are now one of the occasions where nonreligious Japanese rely on religious professionals. Nonreligious attitudes are responsible for significant transformations in Japanese Christianity and the bridal industry and the successful response of the Christian churches and the bridal industry to consumer demand has led to an explosion in Christian wedding ceremonies. In short, the popularity of Christian weddings among nonreligious individuals has transformed the policies and approaches of Christian churches and created new Christian ritual venues and religious organizations.

The story of contemporary Japanese Christianity is one of success and failure in the face of overwhelming “nonreligiousness.” The story of failure depicts the inability of Christian churches to acquire Japanese converts (Mullins 1998); both transplant and domestic Japanese churches face aging membership and dwindling baptism numbers. In 2006, Christians accounted for 1.2 percent of the Japanese population (Agency for Cultural Affairs 2006, 31). Similarly, Christian religious organizations accounted for a mere 2.3 percent of Japan’s 182,468 religious juridical persons (Ishii 2007, 59). This data, along with an aging church population, led researchers to suggest that a marginal Christian population is headed for rapid decline (Saito 2005).

However, these statistics on Christian affiliation do not account for the unprecedented popularity of Christian wedding ceremonies or address how nonreligiousness has altered Japanese Christianity. By the mid-1990s, Christian weddings surpassed Shinto weddings and, since 1999, continue to be the wedding ceremony of choice among sixty to seventy percent of Tokyo couples with similar trends in popularity throughout the country (Ishii 2005, 31). Christian wedding ceremonies have attracted and sustained the interest of a majority of Japanese—the majority of whom are nonreligious. In short, the majority of Japanese are not only “Born Shinto, Die Buddhist,” (Reader 1991), but they also “Identify nonreligious, Wed Christian.”

Nonreligiousness has transformed the traditional Japanese Christian churches and the bridal industry. Although frequently dismissed as bridal-industry activity, Christian churches and personnel were essential in the rise of Christian weddings and their popularity. On the 1st of March, 1975, the Vatican granted the Japanese Catholic Church special permission to conduct wedding ceremonies for non-affiliated, non-Christian couples (Japanese Catholic Pastoral and Evangelization Committee 1992. 1). Nonreligious Japanese have access to this Catholic sacrament in a manner on par with baptized church members. These forms of access were instrumental in popularizing the Christian wedding in the late 1980s and the 1990s. The Catholic Church used in Kanda Masaki and Matsuda Seiko’s “wedding ceremony of sacred shining (seiki no kekkon)” became the setting of the 1991 Japanese television series Itsu ka, sarejio kyōkai de and one of the most popular venues in the early years of Christian weddings.

In addition to new policies and approaches, the nonreligious demand for Christian weddings has given rise to new religious institutions and powerful partnerships between commercial and religious groups—occasionally blurring the lines between the two. One successful example of religious and commercial partnership is the Christian Bridal Mission (kirisutokyō buraidaru senkyōdan), which was founded in 1980 and incorporated as a religious juridical person in 1986 (Ishii 2005, 49-50). From humble beginnings, this non-denominational Evangelical Protestant Church—the first Christian organization devoted exclusively to the production of weddings—grew to national proportions. Currently, the Christian Bridal Mission has over one thousand ministers—making it one of the largest Christian organizations in Japan.

Where the active majority of people are nonreligious, mechanisms for establishing a convincing reference to Christianity takes on a sensual character. Visual cues—minister’s race, architectural style, musical talent, etc.—have become the primary way not only to generate a connection to Christian tradition but to verify that a connection does exist (LeFebvre 2015). The bridal industry relies on sensory experience in almost every conceivable manner with the result that venues of commercial institutions now play a crucial role in the success and continued popularity of Christian weddings as new Protestant churches.

Mentioning Notre Dame and Christian relics undoubtedly conjures images of Notre Dame de Paris, which houses some of Catholicism’s most famous relics—the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. One is less likely to imagine the Notre Dame Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture, which houses and displays relics of Saint Valentine (Igarashi 2007, 120). The Notre Dame Shimonoseki claims to be one of Japan’s largest great cathedrals, but there are no parishioners or church members who regularly attend services—at least not in the ordinary sense. Despite the rich Christian environment, Notre Dame Shimonoseki is not a “church” in the legal sense. It is a commercial entity devoted to meeting consumer demand for wedding ceremonies; a space—borrowing the Japanese architect Igarashi Tarō’s (2007) terminology—referred to as a “wedding church (kekkonshiki kyōkai).”

According to a 2003-2004 survey conducted by Kekkon Pia, when asked what aspect of the wedding they felt was most important, the most common response of couples was venue (kaijō) followed by ceremonial style (kyoshiki no sutairu), indicating the importance of sensory experience (Igarashi 2007, 27). Industry response to this demand manifested itself in a number of ways—the most visible including the creation of more than 1,228 locations for the performance of Christian weddings (Igarashi 2007, 49). Nearly half of these locations are freestanding wedding churches designed to meet expectations for aesthetic beauty and religious authenticity.

The vast majority of wedding churches are built in one of two Western architectural styles—Classical or Gothic. Stained glass, pulpits and pipe organs are common fixtures in both wedding churches and hotel chapels (Igarashi 2007, 53). Wedding churches are typically designed to boast a large-scale vaulted-arch ceiling, extended virgin road, steeples, a rose window, and flying buttress. Some wedding churches are actually built from the ground up using traditional materials and, even in some cases, materials taken from Gothic churches that were torn down in Europe, imported and reconstructed in Japan (Igarashi 2007, 52). The bridal industry is building Gothic-style churches at scales and in numbers that Catholic and Protestant Churches in Japan could never afford or justify. Japanese demand for Christian ritual spaces is fueling a boom in this architectural style that cannot be witnessed anywhere else in the world.

In Japan, nonreligiousness is considered normal, non-exclusive religious belief and helps to explain the wealth of diversity in the Japanese religious market and recent acceptance of Christian weddings (LeFebvre 2015). Under this paradigm and beginning with Shinto weddings, wedding ceremonies in modern Japan have become more, not less, religious in the postwar era. More recently, nonreligious attitudes are responsible for significant transformations in Japanese Christian churches and the bridal industry. Currently, Protestant and Catholic Churches offer services to meet the demand of the nonreligious in unprecedented ways. But this “commercialization” of Christianity and growth of new Christian organizations can only be properly understood in tandem with the “religionization” of the bridal industry—which now coordinates thousands of wedding churches and cooperates with thousands of ministers. In predominantly nonreligious Japan, religion not only retains its value—its scarcity ensures that the demand will continue to create lucrative opportunities for those who meet the needs of the nonreligious.


References

Agency for Cultural Affairs. (2006). Shūkyō nenkan. Tokyo, Japan: Agency for Cultural Affairs.

Igarashi, Tarō. (2007). Kekkonshiki kyōkai no tanjō. Tokyo: Shunjusha.

Ishii, Kenji. (2005). Kekkonshiki: Shiawase wo tsukuru gishiki. Tokyo: Nihon hōsō shuppan kyōkai.

Ishii, Kenji. (2007). Gendai nihonjin no shukyō. Tokyo: Shin’yosha.

Japanese Catholic Pastoral and Evangelization Committee. (1992). Nihon no katorikku kyōkai ni okeru hikirisutosha dōshi no kekkon ni tsuite. Tokyo, Japan: Catholic Bishop’s Conference.

LeFebvre, Jesse. (2015). “Christian wedding ceremonies: ‘Nonreligiousness’ in contemporary Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 42(2), 185-203.

Mullins, Mark. (1998). Christianity Made In Japan: A Study of Indigenous Movements. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Reader, Ian. (1991). Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Reader, Ian (2012). “Secularisation, R.I.P.? Nonsense! The ‘Rush Hour Away from the Gods’ and the Decline of Religion in Contemporary Japan.” Journal of Religion in Japan, 1(2012) 7-36.

Saitō, Zenkyū. (2005). “Jūnengo Nihon no kirisutokyō wa sonzai shiuru ka.” Hanashiai (November).


Jesse Robert LeFebvre is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. His research interests focus on contemporary and medieval manifestations of religion in Japan.

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