February 19, 2008

Gwailo get Paid to be Fake Priests and Best Men at Weddings

Easy money for just being a foreigner in Japan.

(Telegraph) As with any Westerner working in Japan, it helps to be smart and presentable and to have a grasp of the local language.

But for Kevin Charles, a suave and friendly American living in Tokyo, being "just the man for the job" has involved exactly that. The 32-year-old's regular job is as a translator - but every weekend, he also becomes best man to Japanese bridegrooms.

750,000 weddings performed in Japan last year were "Christian-style"
Japanese couples like Western style

Mr Charles, from Missouri, is part of a bizarre and growing craze among Japanese couples for Western-style wedding ceremonies, widely seen as a fun alternative to their staid, traditional Shinto counterparts.

In the name of authenticity, foreigners stand in as fake reverends and best men, and while the vows over which they officiate are legally worthless, it is providing a lucrative source of income for growing numbers of Westerners.

"I am basically a surrogate best man, and am at the groom's side during the ceremony to make sure it all goes smoothly," said Mr Charles, who has now stood in at more than 350 weddings.

"Working at a wedding is good money. It's common to receive about 10,000 yen (£48) for a single wedding which takes an hour. If you do six a day, you earn double what you'd expect from teaching English."

Such weddings recreate every ritual of the Western ceremony in detail. The bride typically walks down a petal-strewn aisle, accompanied by a singing choir and smiling "priest" clutching a Bible, while the groom often sweats, fluffs his lines and loses the ring. In fact, the only traditions Mr Charles doesn't take part in are the drunken stag-do and the post-wedding dalliance with a bridesmaid.

"People embrace these weddings because they are very romantic and match images from Hollywood movies," he said.

Figures show that numbers of young Japanese couples are shunning Shinto ceremonies, which normally involve only family members and are sealed with sips from a sake cup rather than a romantic kiss.

More than 70 per cent of the 750,000 weddings performed in Japan last year were "Christian-style", despite the fact that only one per cent of the population is Christian.

While a number of those who conduct the Western-style ceremonies are legitimately ordained priests, religious qualifications are not regarded as essential because the service is not binding. As a result, a growing number of academics, actors and teachers boost their incomes by dressing up as vicars.

"Father" James, 52, who is a professor of American culture and history at a Tokyo University, "marries" up to a dozen couples across Tokyo every weekend.

"It doesn't really matter if I'm not a real priest, people don't care, as long as I look the part and read my lines correctly," said James, who asked that his full name be kept secret. "It is also one of the few working environments where everyone is happy and enjoying themselves."