Bad faith

Stephen Phelan

Stephen Phelan

My girlfriend and I moved to Japan in the autumn of 2008. We had our reasons, and they boiled down to boredom. I’m Irish, she’s Scottish, we were both sick of living in the UK – the sort of middle-class Westerners who suspect that their lives might be more meaningful as foreigners in a faraway place. Japan seemed so distant and different as to make us feel brave, but also secretly appealed to us as one of the safest, cleanest nations on Earth.

My girlfriend had a job to go to – a well-paid teaching position that also provided us with a subsidized apartment in rainy, rural Ishikawa Prefecture, near the north-west coast, on the Sea of Japan. But I was at a bit of a loss, having quit my staff post at a Glasgow newspaper. The global financial meltdown had begun in earnest that September, and the British pound was in freefall against the Japanese yen. In the weeks before we flew, the yen value of my savings collapsed by about a third. By the time we landed in Japan, at the end of October, my plan to freelance as a foreign correspondent for UK publications was looking that much more financially risky.

I spent the next couple of years struggling to sell my half-formed observations of a country in which I could barely order coffee (or afford it). The fistfuls of sterling that I earned for these pieces were paid into my UK account, to emerge as a thin pinch of Japanese banknotes on the other side of the world. Every ATM transaction left me shaken in the vestibule.

At some point during this period, I heard that foreigners were earning extra cash by posing as priests and performing Western-style weddings at custom-built chapels across the country. These men did not need to be ordained. It was effectively an acting job, which required them only to look the part and learn their lines. This initially struck me as something else I might write about. As a general rule, editors are inclined to commission articles that confirm their view of modern Japan as an inexhaustible mine of quirks and fetishes.

I did a little cursory research, and learned that ersatz Christian weddings had been popular in this country since the end of the Second World War. In terms of actual worship, Christianity itself hadn’t gained much ground since the first missionaries arrived here from Portugal and Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many of those Jesuits were burned to death by order of the Tokugawa shogunate, or boiled alive in the volcanic springs at Unzen, or starved and tortured until they apostasized. A rebellion of their native converts was crushed at Shimbara in 1638. Their religion never really took root. Less than 1 per cent of the current population are practising Christians, while so-called ‘Christian’ ceremonies have come to account for more than half of all weddings in Japan. For the tiny minority of true believers, there is a scattering of qualified ministers and consecrated churches to perform the sacred rites of holy matrimony. For the wider paying public who don’t know or care much about Jesus, there are private companies that simulate the romantic spectacle of a Western church wedding, as seen in magazines and Hollywood endings.

It’s a lucrative and competitive business, even in our provincial backwater. I asked around about local chapels, looking for a ‘wedding pastor’ I could interview. A Frenchman I knew told me a certain company was hiring. ‘How much do they pay?’ I asked him, now thinking I could go undercover, and maybe supplement my income on the side.

He told me he’d heard that it was ‘a lot’.

Ishikawa’s expat community, made up mostly of English-language teachers, formed its own closed loop of gossip and ambivalence. Operating on that circuit was a busy, chatty, middle-aged woman named Yoko, who cultivated foreign friends and acted as a kind of recruitment agent. I arranged to meet Yoko at a Starbucks in Kanazawa, the nearest big city to our small town.

‘Ooh, you are handsome,’ she said, rubbing her hands together in a way that struck me as pimp-like. Handsome or not – I think not, but I didn’t protest – my face could make us both some money. Any Western adult male would do in a pinch, she explained, but many Japanese clients preferred their pastors youngish, fair-haired and blue-eyed, like myself.

‘They like a big smile too,’ said Yoko, and I duly beamed at her. I do have an unusually broad grin; my mean old Ulster grandmother once remarked to my father, ‘That boy has a mouth like a torn pocket.’ A good memory was also a plus, she told me, in the absence of good Japanese. Any pastor who did not speak the language fluently would have to learn the whole service phonetically, with all the standard prayers, blessings and readings from Corinthians translated and transcribed in ‘romanji’ – Japanese rendered into the Roman alphabet.

According to Yoko, the last guy they hired was an Englishman who kept fluffing his cues. He instructed the guests to sit down when he meant to say stand up. He mixed up ‘shinro’ and ‘shinpu’, the words for ‘bride’ and ‘groom’. His firing had created this vacancy, and Yoko thought I could fill it. ‘But you can’t make any mistakes,’ she said. ‘It has to be perfect, OK?’

‘OK,’ I said. This seemed to be good enough for Yoko.

She referred me to a dreary concrete office building across town, where a woman named Kayako had me read the script aloud. The first line was written in English, with an exclamation point: ‘Welcome to a Christian wedding!’ The rest was in romanji, and I didn’t know what I was saying, except for the simplest Japanese words: ‘dansay’ (man), ‘josay’ (woman), ‘kami’ (god). At the end there was one last phrase to be spoken, or shouted, in my own language: ‘You may kiss the bride!’

Kayako complimented me on my English. ‘Thank you,’ I said. She asked if I could learn the Japanese text by heart, and reminded me that it had to be perfect. ‘No problem,’ I told her, and she gave me the job.

She did not ask why I wanted it, and I don’t know what I would have said if she had. ‘For the story’ would have been an honest answer – not just the exposé of this odd industry that I vaguely planned to write, but the anecdote I hoped to dine out on long after I left Japan.

‘For the money’ would have been no less true. Yoko was to pay me 15,000 yen per service (over £100 at the prevailing exchange rate), and take an undisclosed cut for herself. My new employers were effectively sub-contractors for various regional chapels, but there was never any mention of a contract. This suited me fine.

Within a month I was doing multiple weddings every weekend at a chapel on the outskirts of Fukui City, and making double or triple what I did in my faltering day job. I wore a zip-up robe made from some unbreatheable synthetic fabric, with ballooning white sleeves and a strip of black faux-velvet running down the front. I carried a bible that I’d borrowed from an American friend of mine. Inside, I taped a crib sheet just in case. Privately, I christened myself Father Johnny Hellzapoppin’, a little joke I stole from an episode of Father Ted. Between May 2010 and June 2011 I married more than 150 Japanese couples. If this work was not the very definition of bad faith, then it was at least a live demonstration.

Which is to say, I don’t believe in God, or in marriage for that matter. But no one ever asked about that either.

On appointed Saturdays and Sundays, I took a local train to Fukui, along a belt of light industry and agriculture. A colleague picked me up at the station – usually the organ-player, harpist or soprano who accompanied the services. These musicians were always women, and addressed me as ‘sensei’ (meaning ‘teacher’) without perceptible irony. We drove out to the La Chance Belle Amie chapel, a sharp-angled edifice of plaster and glass at the edge of a suburban rice field. It appeared grand from a distance, but up close it looked as if it had been assembled from a kit and lowered from a crane. You could put your fist through it, or blow it in with a huff and a puff.

There were rival chapels running up and down the block. One was modelled on a fairytale castle, another on a German cathedral. Ours was comparatively tasteful. The interior was scrupulously non-denominational – white pews and fake marble floor-tiles, bare walls, and a plain black cross standing in a pool of water just outside the rear window.

The Belle Amie had its own all-female house staff of humourless martinets in matching black suits and white gloves. They were each kitted out with a walkie-talkie and a microphone headset, and I could not decide whether they looked more like a mime troupe, a secret-service detail or Madonna’s backing dancers. They were in fact the real priests of the chapel – the arbiters and custodians of how things were done. They treated me as their puppet. ‘More smile,’ they kept telling me in my early rehearsals, poking their fingers into my dimples. ‘More pride,’ they said, forcibly lifting my arms into the correct pose of heavenly benevolence.

‘More … ganbatte,’ they instructed, struggling to find an English equivalent for a Japanese word that can mean anything from ‘work hard’ to ‘call upon your fighting spirit’. But they were obliged to conceal their contempt or impatience in the presence of the bride and groom, and to pretend that I was empowered to speak for God Himself.

Contrary to Western tradition, the couples would arrive together, just a few minutes before the ceremony was due to begin. They were always young and invariably seemed nervous, bowing deeply in deference to my purported authority. I never had time to get to know them personally. I thought it safe to assume that none of these jittery customers were any more Christian than I was, but I couldn’t be sure to what extent I was deceiving them. They seemed to take me at face value, having pre-selected me from the pastors photographed in the chapel brochure – along with the flowers, the music, and their outfits.

For him, perhaps a silvery three-piece. For her, some storybook exaggeration of the textbook white wedding gown. She would ride up the aisle like a snow queen on a hovercraft of lace and satin, to the tune of ‘Ave Maria’. Some brides picked the theme song from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast instead, which often made me wonder if the meaning of that title had ever been explained to the groom.

If I had to guess why our clients wanted to get married under the auspices of an alien faith, I would say that it was all about the dress. Marriage in Japan is a secular matter, made official only when a given couple signs the government register at their local city hall. How they celebrate outside this is their own affair, and it seems that more young women now opt for Western frills over the austere kimono of Shinto rituals. Few Japanese still follow that old religion either, and a sombre Shinto wedding ceremony is no less an aesthetic choice than a ‘Christian’ one, though not nearly so fashionable these days.

As for the guests, the oldest were the most resistant to modern costume. Many grandfathers turned out in their finest silk robes, like samurai before the Meiji Restoration. The younger ones went for cocktail dresses and flashy dinner jackets, their hair often dyed and styled into punkish arrangements. I recall a male guest whose bright orange ’do rose straight up into a cylindrical flat-top, as if he had spray-painted a bongo drum and fastened it to his head with a chin-strap. The children, of course, were subject to their parents’ whims. There were little boys in top hats and tails, and baby girls rigged up with dinky designer haloes.

From my perspective, there wasn’t much to differentiate one wedding from another. I simply recited the text that I had repeated at home until I could have married Japanese people in my sleep (and often did, according to my girlfriend). After my first few bookings, I barely needed to look down at my crib sheet, except to check the names of the bride and groom, which were written on a loose scrap of paper that I slid between the pages of my bible. When the service was over, I would crumple it and throw it in the bin, replacing the two names with the next two.

Our ceremonies were precisely timed and choreographed to last no longer than twenty minutes. On our busiest days, in the summer high season, we were filling and clearing the chapel at a rate of one wedding per hour. Like any job, it became a routine. As I grew into the role of Father Johnny Hellzapoppin’, I stopped worrying that I would make some almighty, show-stopping mistake. I started to entertain the real possibility of perfection, albeit within the admittedly narrow parameters of false priesthood. I remembered the real parish priests of my childhood in Dublin, and delivered my phonetic rhetoric with something of their manner and inflection.

There was perhaps an element of parody in my performance, and possibly a bit of blasphemy. My aforementioned mean old Ulster grandmother, a devout Roman Catholic and lifelong sectarian bigot, was now surely spinning like a flywheel in her grave. Every time I took my place on the altar, I imagined someone standing up to declaim against me, like the fearsome Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s great kill-crazy novel of the Wild West. Striding into a church tent in Nagadoches, East Texas, circa 1849, this gigantic Gnostic demon sows havoc by informing the congregation that their preacher is an impostor. ‘He holds no papers of divinity from any institution recognized or improvised,’ says Holden. ‘He is altogether devoid of the least qualification to the office he has usurped and has only committed to memory a few passages from the good book for the purpose of lending to his fraudulent sermons some faint flavor of the piety he despises.’

It later emerges that the Judge’s accusations were entirely false, invented on the spot for his own amusement. Any wedding-crasher who’d said the same about me would not have been lying. My position was absurd, and I won’t deny that the absurdity appealed to me. But the brides and grooms seemed to take me seriously, and I tried to treat them with the same respect.

Quivering with a sense of occasion and chronically under-rehearsed, they were much more likely than I was to be the cause of any snafu. Repeating their vows after me, for example, they might trip over the words ‘kawaranu teisetsu’, an awkwardly translated nuptial pledge of fidelity that apparently sounded downright archaic in Japanese. Or their fingers might tremble so badly that they couldn’t get the rings on each other. One or both of them might also start crying at any point in the service. And therein lay my real responsibility, more theatrical than pastoral – to gently guide bride and groom through their stage-fright, and kindly help them hit their marks and cues.

‘You may kiss the bride!’ was the last and most important of these. On that note, the organist would lean heavily on her keys, accompanied by the harpist to my left and the soprano to my right. The chosen song was usually ‘You Raise Me Up’, a modern pop standard made famous by the woeful Irish boy-band Westlife; it relies on the same old folk melody as ‘Danny Boy’. I despise the song, and if anything it made me glad to be so far from home; but as the musicians struck it up I duly lifted my arms toward the ceiling, where a storm of white feathers erupted from a vent to flutter down over the couple as they kissed.

This final flourish was a major selling point of our Christian wedding package at the Belle Amie. The guests tended to gasp as if I had personally summoned the angels to beat their wings above this blessed union. Some of the mystery was lost if you knew that these same feathers would be scooped up after the wedding and pumped back though the same air ducts until they were too tatty to recycle. To me, it looked as though a flock of doves had just been shotgunned out of the rafters. The bride was protected by her headgear – a veil, a tiara, or both – but the groom generally wore so much styling product in his hair that the feathers stuck to it until he resembled some kind of bird-king in a rented human suit. This was always hilarious, and I could depend on every witness to laugh along with me. But when the music stopped, and I asked the young wife to pluck the feathers from her new husband’s head, the tenderness of that gesture would often bring a hush to the chapel.

These moments made think of something I read in a novel called Silence, by Shusaku Endo. First published in 1966, it describes the failure of Portuguese missionaries to convert the feudal Japanese to Christianity. ‘They never had the concept of God, and they never will,’ concludes the apostate Father Christavo Ferriera, whose faith has been shaken to pieces by this experience. ‘They cannot think of an existence that transcends the human.’

I wasn’t qualified to say if this was true, and the author himself was evidence to the contrary – a Japanese Catholic who struggled in his life and work to account for the ‘silence’ of God. But almost half a century after Endo’s book was published, it seemed to me that his modern countrymen and women were entirely reconciled to the material world. For all the shrines and temples in the cities and forests, all the customs and traditions that honoured the ghosts of ancestors, all the icons of Zen Buddhism and abundant Shinto spirits that were said to manifest in rocks, and winds, and waters, I had never known a place where religion was less of an issue, or had less of a hold on people.

Each of the Japanese divinities was an object of quite casual reverence, and addressed in the most abstract terms. From what I could tell, they were not credited with the slightest influence over life on Earth, nor blamed for the natural calamities that insurers call ‘acts of God’. But I did hear at least one Japanese person invoke a higher power on the day after the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011.

In our part of the country, on the opposite coast to the ravaged Tōhoku region, the quake had barely registered as a tremor. We did not seem to be in danger from aftershocks or monster waves, and did not yet have enough information to be unduly worried about nuclear clouds from Fukushima. We took our lead from our neighbours, who expressed their heartsick sympathies to the TV in our one local bar after work, then went about their business more or less as usual.

The disaster occurred on a Friday afternoon; I had a wedding to do the next morning. I thought it would be cancelled, but it went ahead. A soprano I knew as Ms Nakajou picked me up at Fukui station. She was crying when I opened the car door. ‘I am sorry,’ she said in English. ‘It’s such a terrible time for Japan.’ She continued to cry all the way to the chapel, and to apologize for crying.

‘Please don’t,’ I told her. Don’t apologize, I meant; I couldn’t tell her not to cry. ‘Oh my god,’ she kept saying, in my language and presumably for my benefit, ‘Oh my god.’ I had heard Japanese people use this phrase before – even children knew it, picked up from American movies and TV shows. They often used it jokingly, or mockingly, to imitate the common Western expression of surprise. I had never heard it whispered so literally, so close to a religious note of awe or supplication, though I knew from our previous conversations that Ms Nakajou was not a Christian.

When we pulled up to the Belle Amie, she said that she was going to sing for Tohoku today. This morning’s bride and groom, more discerning than most, had picked a section from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana to soundtrack their kiss. Ms Nakajou confided, as if confessing a sin, that she would sing it for the couple, of course, but also planned to inwardly dedicate her performance to the victims of the tsunami.

She asked me not to tell anyone about this, and I had no answer for her earnestness. The wedding went like clockwork, as always, if a little more subdued than usual. Our ceremonies were rarely as demonstrably joyous as those depicted in the photos in the brochure, and the guests were generally unaccustomed to big cheers and confetti. If they weren’t in the mood that day, nobody in the world could blame them. There were no gasps when the feathers came down, and no laughs when they stuck to the groom. By that time Ms Nakajou was already straining for the roof, lifted onto her tiptoes with the effort of conveying sadness out of the chapel and across the country. Everybody knew what she was singing about, never mind the Italian libretto. As far as I could see, the entire congregation was sobbing. When she finished the air was vibrating, the particles flying apart.

I opened my mouth to say the final blessing, and found that my throat was constricted. I could not pretend to feel the holy spirit speaking through me, but I thought I heard sincerity in my voice.

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