Saturday, November 12, 2005

marrying people

"So, have you ever been a priest before?" the gnome asked me over a cup of coffee. Miwa-san and I had met in Shinjuku to go over the details of the job the next day. "I would have liked to have you come down and see Terry do a service yesterday, but we'll just have to do with this." He pulled a videocassette out of the pocket of his Zippo windbreaker. "The order is a little different, but words are all the same."

My Japanese is apparently now at the point where I am qualified to conduct wedding ceremonies.

I'd been hearing about the faux-Christian wedding industry for years, but it wasn't until this morning that I actually took the plunge. The set-up is simple: put on a priest's outfit, read a mixed Japanese and English script for twenty minutes with appropriate gestures to throw around the power of God, walk out with $130. Miracle on earth.

One of his Miwa-san's regular priests had cancelled at the last minute and he'd had to scour his phone book for Japanese speaking foreigners. A friend of a friend came up with my name and I got a call on Tuesday night. Meeting him Friday afternoon I had expected a sweaty little man in a suit, but was surprised to find that Miwa-san was actually a gnome: hunchy and twinkly, grey hairs bristling out from a shiny dome, gold spectacles, wisp of a beard and a smile like a five year old. After we'd gone over my scipt I asked how he'd gotten into the business of managing clergy.

"Oh, I've been doing this for ages, maybe eight, nine years now? I have a lot of other stuff going on: setting up sound systems, managing nuns. (just kidding, ed.) I'm also a musician: sax, piano, you know. Would do a lot of wedding gigs, and met a guy through that to see if I knew any foreigners who would be willing to do a wedding service. Originally I worked with Americans and Australians who were involved in the Tokyo music scene, now this has ended up becoming the main thing. As long as there's people, there'll be work in weddings," which is when he flashed the twinkly little smile that got him into gnome college. We waved our goodbyes and trotted off in opposite directions.

There is a scene in Lost In Translation where Scarlett Johannsen, wandering Kyoto, stumbles upon a traditional wedding procession. A dozen ethereal figures in Edo-era dress move slowly through the temple grounds, a white cloth headdress perched on the bride’s head like the wings of a bird, her face serene, wise, eternal. They drift out of the frame, a stunning wordless image, complete of itself. It is a lovely moment, signifying nothing other than its own radiant calm. Most Westerners have probably never seen anything like it. And I would be one of them.

Japanese, on the other hand, have seen hundreds of marriage scenes in Hollywood films. Beaming brides layered in white lace, bright soaring churches, hurled corsages, bells pealing celebration: the Christian wedding is glimmering, giddy, and most of all romantic. To this end Japanese weddings, while remaining secular at heart, have taken on more and more Christian trappings. Trains are lined with posters selling the romance of a wedding abroad in a real chapel. Canada's Prince Edward Island is a particularly popular location; Anne of Green Gables took place there. For those without quite enough cash for the foreign wedding, local churches, hotels and massive wedding service halls lure in engaged couples with photos of gleaming pews and stained glass windows. The Anglican church as brought to you by Walt Disney.

While a lot of people out there may be screaming that this is a total perversion of a Christian wedding ceremony, in my mind the Japanese have pretty much hit to the core of the Christian wedding, which is in their elaborate trappings: the dress and tuxedo, the rings and the tossed bouquet.

Given the poverty of ordained and native English speaking clergy in Japan, wedding planners filled in with the next best thing: throwing a minister’s robe on any old schmuck with a smattering of Japanese and tell him to smile. Besides, you think God has anything to do with this? Miwa-san put it pretty succinctly. “So I guess you’re familiar with how weddings are in America. Forget that, this has nothing to do with it. Make gestures, be animated, think of a scene from a movie. It’s a performance.”

Despite hailing from a country where 90% of the population believes in a higher power, I was raised in a staunchly agnostic family in suburban Connecticut, where Jesus coughs on the SUV fumes and outlet shopping. Our local churches were peeled off the pages of Martha Stewart Living, white New England chapels that accessorize the local neighborhoods. A church was once a source of pride to the local residents, but a proposal to build a new one down the road from my grandparents’ house was stopped dead by squeals from local residents: what about all the traffic? He may have made the world in seven days, but in Connecticut the Lord is just another prospective buyer in the homeowner’s market.

I only stepped into churches for weddings and funerals, where calm voiced men in robes earnestly spoke of death, marriage and God’s love to a family of agnostics who had better things to do with their Sunday mornings than sleep through Bible readings and gargle their way through a few stale hymns. For funerals we would stand up one by one to memorialize the deceased in anecdotes and recounting of family lore, but only after the minister had gotten in some biblical passages. My family wasn’t hippy enough to scrap the Christ garble altogether, it was just part of the show, a word from our sponsor, (God).

Which didn’t leave me with too many scruples about imitating a man of the cloth for an hour or so.

The organist and the choir ladies were a bit nervous during our rehearsal the next day, as I unknowingly slipped in conversational interjections into the stately formalized flow of the Japanese script. “Alrighty, would you mind stepping over here to sign the marriage certificate?” Miwa-san himself hovered around the empty pews in a thin gray suit that rumpled onto his body in the same shape as the windbreaker from the day before. “That was good, but try to speak a bit more slowly, dramatically.” The entire ceremony was give or take twenty minutes, the bulk of which was on me, intoning Bible passages in English and Japanese, raising hands and bestowing rings, and projecting a benign and stately presence.

Ten minutes before the ceremony I donned the robe, smoothed out my hair, finished off my thermos ginger tea and stepped out to meet the bride and groom. The chit-chat was kept to a quick exchange of names before we launched into a run through. The bride’s father had a sweet little pinched face behind a pair of spectacles large as a set of biscuits, and the lead choir lady rushed them through the basics of stepping in synch down the aisle while the bridegroom fidgeted next to the pulpit. I kept my face as bemused and stately as possible with my flock. I examined their faces and tried to imagine which one had decided to shell out the extra money to have me as part of the little show, but the image didn’t come to me, the bride and groom looked too terrified to mutter their “I do’s.”

We did a simple run through of the vows, “I do.” “Amen.” “I do.” “Amen.”, mimed the rings and then hurried to get ourselves ready before the curtain rose at 11:30. “Just don’t drop the rings!” the lead choir lady whispered before the doors opened and the guests filed in. Smile, nod, if you believe it they will.

Twenty minutes later vows, rings and saliva had been exchanged, and the guests were packed out into the rooftop garden for the reception. The doors closed and the singer, the organist, Miwa-san and I packed back into the locker room shedding robes and exchanging congratulations. This being my first time as a priest they’d all been a bit nervous but I’d even nailed the timing for the applause during the conjugal kiss. They did have a few comments for me though. “Just try not to be so… heavy the next time, okay? I dunno, more peppy or something.” I was about to hang my robe on a bar of choir outfits before Miwa-san stopped me, “That’s a different company, ours are over here. So who wants to get some lunch?” The four of us slipped through lobby and past the wedding reception just beginning to germinate in the courtyard. The newlyweds were too busy blushing their way through the guests to notice us leave, so we hunched by in our winter coats, leaving our audience to their cake, champagne and matrimony.


Anonymous said...

This sounds like major career potential combining your flair for theatre with the agnostic cynicism of your upbringing. Let's hope Miwa-san has other gigs for you.

Anonymous said...

Jamie gave up a brilliant acting career in the 8th grade. Glad to see you have found an outlet for your formidable talents Jamie.

rachel said...

hmm. I don't have much to say about your childhood theatricality or your god-dissing, but this is a pretty entertaining post. Next time you should wear a flowing Jesus wig.

Jamie said...

Well, this last Saturday I had the pleasure of wedding another couple, and while the script was the same, the actors were pretty different. The bride and groom seemed much more confident and comfortable, the father of the bride usually walks with a cane so he kind of hobbled her down the aisle, and by the time handed her over to the groom he was absolutely blubbering with emotion. This spread a chain reaction of weeping around the chapel, and caught my attention, distracting me from the script and causing me to mispronounce the grooms name (It's Mikihiko not Michihiko. FUCK!) I still got paid though.

Anonymous said...

If you are a priest or not its not the problem..the problem is you laughing in others people faith and hope..but who cares..they are just dont need respect for them no?,,,you just charge and run..I pray for you..

Jamie said...


I think you mistook the meaning of of this post. I didn't mean to mock or belittle Christians or Christianity, (well, maybe a little...) I simply don't share their beliefs. And neither do the people who pay for these weddings.

Real Japanese Christians have their weddings in the church they regularly attend, while people who get "Christian Style weddings" in hotels are simply interested in the appearance of a Christian wedding. Out of several dozen weddings I have done, not one bride or groom has been familiar with the hymns sung or the scripture read. Most of them have never stepped inside a church before, let alone been baptized. As I talked about above, what they are looking for is the appearance of Christian wedding.

Do I laugh at them? Hardly. Marraige ceremonies are lovely, and there is something really humbling about witnessing that moment in someone's life. When the father of the bride vigorously shakes the grooms hand, imploring him to treat his daughter well, when the bride and groom choke up during their vows, feeling the weight of the words "to have and to hold, for richer or for poorer" coming out of them... those moments are absolutely wonderful, and I love being there for that.

"they are just dont need respect for them no?,,,you just charge and run..I pray for you.."

I don't really think I have a response to this. Clearly you haven't been reading this blog. You can pray for me anytime you want though, just don't judge me, lest ye be judged. Oh yeah, and next time proofread your comment before you post. Your grammar and spelling are atrocious.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm looking for someone to perform a bilingual ceremony before my wedding party in Hiroo, Tokyo on Saturday, May 17th, 2008. Let me know if you, or anyone you know is interested.