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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Thoughts on "I am a Fake-Priest in Japan."

(Apologies in advance to Mike Big Island. I have extra time on my hands at work this morning, and I've been using it to pick apart his blog. My reactions to it quickly became too long to fit into comments without becoming "that guy" in the thread, and trying to post them on twitter was an even sadder state of affairs. So they got moved here where, hopefully, they won't bother anyone who isn't interested in hearing them.)

"On The Virgin Road: I am a Fake-Priest in Japan"
is a brand new blog from author Mike Big Island and I think it might get very popular, very quickly.

NOT Mike in the picture above. Probably. I just Google-imaged that shit...

He writes from behind the scenes of the wedding industry in Japan, which is a fascinating field, drawing from his experience as a foreign "pastor." That experience is extensive: "many years" and over 700 weddings to date.
Here's what I like about Mike Big Island. 
Just check out the "About" page of his blog:
I am not a priest. I am not a pastor. I am an actor. I go to Japanese weddings and play the part of a Christian preacher. I am paid handsomely for this service. The couples are happy. I am happy. Everyone is happy.
This is a blog with stories from this world. The wedding industry in Japan has often been profiled  in the international media, but in a rather superficial way. I hope this blog will reveal a bit more.
Simple, to the point, and most importantly, positive. Each blog post is infused with an attitude, not of resignation, but acceptance and appreciation. "This is the way Japan is, and hey, I'm doing pretty well because of it." I love that. I wish I could be more like that. So many foreigners in Japan start out feeling entitled and end up resentful. I find myself drifting too close to that path more often than I care to admit. But as Mike says, more than once, "Japan is no place for a cynic."

And I imagine he's right about the treatment of the industry in the international media. I can see the western media focusing in on things like the insane cost of rental clothing, the super-sparkly brightly colored wedding dresses, and the "gorgeous" (read: "gaudy") western-style chapels as elements of "wacky Japan." To us, priests like Mike stand out as an especially bizarre aspect of the whole affair.

But... shouldn't they? I mean, it is bizarre, isn't it?

In a Christian wedding ceremony, the pastor, or priest, or minister  (being Jewish, I'm not really sure of the nomenclature) who officiates the ceremony is acting with religious authority. He is invested with the power of God to affirm the wedding vows, and to validate the marriage.

Tell a westerner that a Japanese bride and groom place no stock in Christianity, have never been to church or come across a bible, and yet they're so enamored with the appearance of the Christian ceremony that they're willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to replicate it... and we will think that's odd. Add to that the fact that the officiant can just be any white foreigner off the street, and yeah, you've officially made it to "wacky Japan" level.

Mike points out though, that in Japan that when it comes to ceremony, surface is often as far as it goes. The superficial appearance is all that's really expected, and all that they really want. To judge that from a western standpoint might be unfair. Yes, it is an appropriation of western culture. But just like "curry" it's an import that becomes/has become Japanese. When you view it as Japanese culture instead, maybe there's more to be said for it. I'm glad to have the chance to see it from his point of view, and the opportunity to re-evaluate some of my ethnocentric judgements.

I'm even happier that there's no sense that he feels like he's "putting one over on the Japs." I've met a few fake priests who've joked about how dumb the people who pay their wages are, or how they could say whatever they wanted during the "reading" and no one would know the difference. It's Mike's sense of responsibility to the job (he's being paid well to perform a service) and gratitude (he couldn't get a job like this anywhere else) that keep the blog from becoming the standard gaijin bitch and brag fest.

For the most part, it's refreshingly open and honest... which makes me feel like I can be open and honest too. As much as I enjoy this blog, I'm also wary of it. I'm interested to see where it goes, but here are my causes for concern.

In the "About" section, quoted above, Mike says "he plays the part of a Christian preacher." True. But he also calls himself an "actor." He stresses the word "actor" multiple times throughout his other posts as well. He even has a post up about "method acting," in which he writes:
I found myself running through the script with a bit of extra emotion, as I thought about my own children and their wedding days down the line. I wonder if this happens with stage or film “actors”, are they affected by something in the moment, altering their performance? It’s not exactly “method acting” (as I have said repeatedly, I am no priest or pastor, merely an actor) but there ARE times in the job where you do begin to feel it a bit more.
Let's set aside the fact that "extra emotion," "feeling it more," or letting something in the moment affect or alter your performance... does not constitute method acting. His comparison of himself to stage or film actors betrays how seriously he takes his "role." I don't mean to criticize him for this. The couples who hire him probably get a better wedding because of it. But there's something that feels off about it. In a post entitled "So what skills do you need for this job anyway?" the author himself states that his skills were as follows: being "white, tall, young, clean-looking." Having good Japanese pronunciation also helped. Before he started doing weddings, he was given 90 minutes of training. I doubt it was an acting workshop.

Acting? Really?
If a fake priest is an actor, then the Nigerian guys who hand out fliers promoting hip-hop venues are actors too, aren't they? I would argue that "fitting the profile" doesn't make you an actor. A model, maybe. In the end, Mike's work does require that he be able to put on a show, so as far as definitions go... I can't really say that he's not an actor. But for me, the dissonance is in his attitude. Coming from someone with such an "It is what it is," outlook on life, and from someone who subtitles his blog "I'm a fake priest," the "actor, actor, actor" stuff strikes a false chord. I'd prefer he were consistent, and call it what it is: getting paid to look the part. *
My other concerns about the blog are minor, but worth mentioning.

While promising to provide a more revealing look at the industry, some of his posts seem like they miss big opportunities for insight or information, in favor of the anecdotal.

In one post, he realizes that a couple he's officiating for are a having a shot-gun wedding (できちゃった結婚;dekichatta kekkon in Japanese). He frames the entire story as though it were a silly little faux-pas. "Oops, I should've known better than to bring up anything that might potentially threaten the seeming perfection of the day."

Maybe he could've taken a minute to mention the fact that these circumstances are actually extremely common? As of 2000, 25% of all weddings in Japan were shotgun weddings. In the case of people aged 20~25 marrying, it was HALF of all the weddings(Stats here). Mike's career spans years ("Since I was a young man," he often says). I'm sure he's noticed this, and has more to say about it than "I shouldn't have asked about it." Is it too much to expect to be able to read those kinds of posts? As of now, one could easily include that same "rather superficial" accusation in a comment on most of his posts.

And finally there's a post that stood out, more than any other, as cause to fear the future. I'll reproduce the relevant bits here:
By far the best thing about this job though was the women I met. It seemed that no matter what venue I was sent to, there would be three or four beautiful musicians and attendants at the ceremony. The wedding hall staff were also usually gorgeous.... I would be the one young, single foreign guy surrounded by a dozen beautiful Japanese women. It was a dream come true....
 One time I remember doing a “wedding fair”. This is a sample wedding for potential customers. The model bride was stunningly beautiful. I got the nerve up to ask her out after the fair and she said yes. We spent the next 16 hours eating, drinking and having incredible sex. She laughed when I asked her if she could get the wedding dress from the venue and wear it for me. Told me I would have to wear the pastor gown in return. Those were fun days.
I've taken out a few sentences. Otherwise, this is the ENTIRE POST. All of it. If there's a point here other than "I had sex with a model," I'm not seeing it. There are lots of Japanophile guys out there that will love this kind of stuff, of course. It will fan the already scorching flames of their "Japan: The Land of Easy Pussy" daydreams. But for me, this post is pointless, and what's worse, half-assed. If you're gonna write sex... write sex. It's what the whole post is leading up to, and yet in the end it all boils down to "We had sex. It was good." Your drinking buddies wouldn't even enjoy hearing you brag about it like that.

Mike's twitter feed ( @fakepriestinjap ) boasts "More salicious (sic) [posts] to come with time." If this is the case, here's my unsolicited two: Make sure you're writing about sex for a reason other than... to tell us you had sex. And even if you can't do that, make it interesting enough that we forgive you for it.

In any case, I'm subscribing to his site and following on Twitter. I'm very interested to see where he's going with this, and hope that in time, we'll get to see a little more substance, and a little less "I don't think ring bears are cute." After all, to my knowledge, there's no one else out there blogging about this. Here's hoping Mike Big Island capitalizes on it.

* Post Publication Edit:
A new post is up on "On the Virgin Road" partially in response to my criticism of the use of the term "actor" via Twitter...  He writes:
And as to being an “actor”: well, when filing out my tax papers last year I noticed it said “haiyu” (俳優)。So for legal purposes, I’m an “actor”. Fair enough, I can live with that."
I can live with that too.