TOKYO -- The Rev. Wes Calvery came to Japan 44 years ago during a wave of missionary work that washed over a proud, broken land.
It was almost impossible to get wary Japanese -- steeped in centuries of Shinto and Buddhist traditions -- to go anywhere near foreign churches and foreign clergy.
Today, young people flock to his Sharon Gospel Church west of Tokyo for one reason: to get married. They want a wedding that looks and sounds like the ones in movies and on television. They want flowers, candles and white lace. They want to take vows that talk about love, more than duty, and their future, more than their ancestors' pasts.
"They tell me that they want to be able to understand what they're saying in their own wedding, instead of just repeating a lot of old language that they think is gloomy and intimidating and has nothing to do with their lives," he said. "In other words, they think traditional Japanese weddings are old- fashioned. ... They don't want to just go through the motions."
But there's the rub. While missionaries say Christian ministers conduct 40 percent or more of Japan's weddings, few of the brides and grooms are Christians. Only 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian, a statistic that has changed little in recent years. Thus, many missionaries debate whether it truly helps their cause for so many brides and grooms to go through a new set of motions, speaking vows that they may only think that they understand.
The bottom line is that it's easy to get cynical about the role of religious rites and symbols in Japanese life, said reporter Junko Tanaka, who covers America and American trends for NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). A ceremony may only be a ceremony.
"I don't think the wedding trend has any profound meaning," she said. "It is a very superficial and commercialized trend. ... Young people think it is 'cooler' or 'more fashionable' to have a wedding in church, in a wedding dress, rather than having one in a shrine or a temple in a kimono."
Yet religious rites, centering on religious vows, have meaning even if they take place in chapels attached to luxury hotels. The ministers at the altars are real. The brides and grooms are real. The parents in the pews are real. These are real weddings, even if the participants think of them as mere fashion statements.
Then again, this may not be as big a change as it appears at first glance. It is perfectly normal in Japan for people to embrace different, even conflicting, religious practices at different times in their lives. As the saying goes, the Japanese are born Shinto and die Buddhist. They may practice one faith, neither or both. Today they may blend in elements of Christianity.
The big news is that this cafeteria approach is becoming more popular worldwide. In the United States, millions of nominal Christians now dabble in Buddhist meditation, read books by self- help gurus, devour entertainment created by Hindu wannabes and wonder, from time to time, about reincarnation. And note this irony: a growing number of American pastors are beginning to decline to do weddings for people they believe are not practicing Christians. We are the world.
Yet Calvery remains convinced that it makes sense for missionaries -- in the context of Japan -- to risk performing weddings for non-Christians. After 10 years in this line of work, his "wedding chapel" has evolved into a full-fledged church complete with worship services, education programs and other ministries. He also noted that he now requires a counseling session with parents before each wedding, as well as with the bride and groom.
"The whole area now accepts our chapel as a regular church - - one that just happens to do 400 weddings a year," he said. "I don't have to push my Christianity on people. Now they are coming to me. And in each and every one of those 30-minute weddings, I get 10 minutes to preach to people I would have never seen in my church, otherwise."