In Vogue in Japan: All the Trappings Of Church Weddings

Consultant Masatoshi Kurosaki Puts Up Anglican Chapels; Will Christianity Follow?

TOKYO -- It's a perfect day for an old-fashioned wedding at St. Mary's Church, and the Wedding March is rising from the 19th-century pipe organ.

The assembled rise as the bride, Aya Tamaki, is escorted by her father to the 150-year-old lectern and to her groom, Takeshi Tsuru. Luke Villeneuve, the minister, officiates in gold-and-white vestments that shimmer in sunlight filtered through the old, two-story stained-glass window depicting the life of Christ. A robed choir wearing crucifixes sings "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

It is a pretty standard Anglican wedding service. It looks authentic. Masatoshi Kurosaki saw to that, though the chapel, antique as it appears, is just one day old, and there isn't an Anglican in the house.

Staging church weddings is Mr. Kurosaki's business. Like a film director standing off camera, he is quietly conducting the Tsuru-Tamaki nuptials through nods and gestures from behind one of the columns that support St. Mary's vaulted ceiling. He choreographed the service, trained the staff, designed the uniforms, procured the foreign pastor and auditioned the choir.

He also had the church shipped in from England.

Not the building -- an English church wouldn't meet Japan's rigid building code -- but the appointments. Mr. Kurosaki, a "Japan Bridal Church Consultant," bought just about everything in St. Mary's -- doors, lectern, pews, pipe organ, Bible stand, stained glass -- from the 150-year-old church of the same name in Bristol, England, paying about $620,000 for the lot. He transported it to Tokyo on a container ship and resurrected it in this new building, which is a replica of St. Mary's.

About the only thing missing is Christians. This is, after all, largely Buddhist and Shinto Japan, and the Tsuru-Tamaki ceremony is more a pop-culture fashion statement than a spiritual celebration. Japanese brides, many of whom long ago forsook wedding kimonos for gowns, are no longer satisfied with the Western-style ceremonies commonly available in luxury hotels. They want to exchange vows in something resembling a real church.

St. Mary's is the 17th Anglican chapel Mr. Kurosaki has reproduced in Japan. And he would like to see couples do more than pay lip service to religion. "Many Japanese have Christian-style weddings without understanding what Christianity is," Mr. Kurosaki says.

Mr. Kurosaki insists his motivations are more spiritual than pecuniary. He considers himself a modern-day Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan priest who studded the California coast with missions. But while Father Serra traveled by burro, Mr. Kurosaki gets around in a Mercedes-Benz 500SE, a saloon car the size of a small ark. Wedding consultants and brokers pay him to design his churches, oversee their construction and furnish them with artifacts from Britain. Last year, he earned a profit of about $890,000.

The 54-year-old Mr. Kurosaki had his epiphany during his daughter's Western-style wedding in the late 1980s, which he says was a crass copy of a Christian service. He ditched his previous enterprise -- importing sheep to Japan from New Zealand and Australia -- and since 1986 has been making pilgrimages to Britain in search of Victorian-era Christian iconography. It isn't hard to find. Every year, nearly 200 Anglican churches auction off centuries-old items, usually to raise money for renovations.

For people in England like Mark Groes, the president of Surrey-based Pew Corner, which restores church furniture, Mr. Kurosaki is a godsend. "No one buys a whole church at a time the way Mr. Kurosaki does," Mr. Groes says. A typical haul includes a pulpit, which can run as much as $1,700, a lectern for about $1,100, pipe organ for between $4,200 and $8,400, and main doors for anywhere between $1,300 and $3,400.

Mr. Kurosaki won't buy just any lectern or stained-glass window. Only articles from the Anglican church, the oldest of the English Protestant sects, will do. "He always has very specific requirements," says Robert Mills of Robert Mills Ltd., which specializes in stained-glass restoration. "He doesn't want pastiche."

Not every former congregant of an exported chapel is happy to see its antique trappings sold to a foreigner. (Mr. Kurosaki's British agents often don't volunteer where the stuff is destined to go.) "I didn't know about the Japan angle until now," says Rod Smith, a supervisor at St. Nicholas Church in Kent, who recently sold out to Pew Corner.

"Christianity spreads more from personal contacts than putting church furniture in a building," says the Rev. Bill Nash after he is told that the pews from his St. Phillips Church in Wolverhampton will be installed in a wedding hall in Japan. "How do you put a Christian message into a secular service?"

Subtly. Mr. Kurosaki hires only legitimate pastors to preside over legally sanctioned weddings and requires couples to sit for an hour-long briefing on Christianity before they wed. During the Tsuru-Tamaki ceremony, Mr. Villeneuve, a Canadian nondenominational Protestant minister, delivers the benediction, hands the newlyweds a Bible and encourages them to read it together at home. He presides over three other services at St. Mary's before calling it a day.

This all means real soul-saving opportunities in a country where just 1% of the population is Christian. "In pre-evangelism 101, you learn that what you want to do is address as many people as possible," says Kenny Joseph, a missionary in Japan since 1946 who is as busy marrying couples as a Las Vegas wedding chapel.

Every weekend, Mr. Joseph presides over at least a half-dozen 30-minute services at wedding halls and gets paid about $200 for each of them. Mr. Joseph gets a premium for appearing at a Kurosaki church, where the weddings usually run from 40 minutes to an hour -- more time, he says, to slip in some of God's word. "Mr. Kurosaki's services," he says "provide you with a captive audience of 80 people every hour."

Foreign pastors are generally careful not to thump the Bible too hard lest they antagonize those Japanese who believe Christian-style weddings should be for Christians. "Japanese have a gaijin complex," says the Rev. Masahiro Hiratsuka, using the word for foreigner. "They think their status is heightened if they get married by a gaijin."

Just how many of Mr. Kurosaki's clients end up becoming Christians is hard to gauge. Miho Takanashi who says she got married in one of Mr. Kurosaki's churches last year because she was "very impressed with the stained glass," has no plans to start going to church. Mr. Tsuru, now posing for photographers with his new wife outside the chapel, says the ceremony left him with "an appreciation of Christian beliefs."

But Mr. Kurosaki himself has yet to make a final leap of faith. "I'm not a Christian," he says, beaming with pride at the newlyweds. "Eventually I would like to become one and set up my own small church."