Japan's lady in white

TOKYO -- She smiles down from rows of advertisements that frame the ceilings of Japan's crowded commuter trains and from giant posters in shopping malls.

She is the woman in white and she is everywhere in Japanese media. In these glowing images, it is her wedding day and she is joyful, lovely, passionate and modern. She wants a Christian wedding.

"Everyone wants the white dress. It's America and Cinderella and all the movies we grew up with. It's what a Japanese girl yearns for," said Kumiko Ishii, a Tokyo native who spent her high school and college years in California. "That white dress makes her feel like a princess. ... So she wants a wedding in a Christian church and they say the Christian vows and there's a Christian minister. There's a cross on the wall, but for most Japanese girls that doesn't mean anything. It's just a design."

There is a saying here that people are born Shinto and buried Buddhist and, in between, their true religion is Japan. Now, another custom is being added to that timeline -- the Christian wedding. Only 1 percent of the Japanese population is Christian, but at least 40 percent of the weddings use Christian rites. Some say the figure is much higher.

Ishii is a rarity -- a young Japanese woman who was married in a white dress because she is a Christian. She grew up in a highly secular home and converted as a young teen-ager. Today, she is married to a Japanese rock musician who is the pastor of Committed Japan, a church that operates out of a coffeehouse and appeals to Tokyo's version of Generation X.

Getting married in an elaborate white dress, surrounded by candles and flowers, appeals to young Japanese women more than being bound into the up to 12 layers of a Japanese wedding kimono. The traditional ceremony also symbolizes centuries of arranged marriages, silent, subservient wives and husbands who do not even take vows to be faithful.

"For Japanese girls, the Christian wedding is so romantic. It's like a dream," said Ishii. "But it's like Christmas in Japan. It doesn't mean anything."

The trend began with Japanese movie stars and spread into chapels attached to hotels. At first, missionaries refused to marry non-Christians in real churches, so entrepreneurs stepped in. Today, one major wedding company goes so far as to buy the altars, pews, windows, pulpits, pipe organs and other furnishings in old Anglican churches and move them from England to Japan. The package of wedding, reception, photographs and the participation of a legitimate minister costs the Japanese equivalent of $10,000 to $20,000, or much more. The minister is paid between $100 and $200, for about an hour's work.

Japanese pastors often refuse to do these rites. That's fine, since most customers prefer a Caucasian minister in their wedding pictures. Some observers predict Western funerals will be the next growth industry.

Few missionaries are totally comfortable with all of this. Many will only marry two Christians. Others will also marry two non-Christians, since they are at least members of the same faith. Others will marry a Christian and a non-Christian, hoping the non-Christian will convert. Some will marry non-Christians if they consent to a full series of counseling sessions about the meaning of Christian marriage. Others will marry those who agree to a single 30-minute session. Some missionaries do these weddings -- period -- since this allows them chances to preach to a captive non-Christian audience.

"There is a thin line between doing these weddings to pay the bills and doing them as a means of outreach," said the Rev. Michael Hohn, a German Lutheran who leads the Christ of All Nations Church just north of Osaka. "It is a good business. This helps many missionaries stay in Japan. You can put away a lot of money for retirement or to put your children through college. ... I, myself, want to do everything I can to make sure that the people I marry understand the vows they are taking. Otherwise, I don't know what we are doing."