TOKYO: The smartly dressed Japanese husband and wife stand side-by-side, surrounded by close friends, in front of a clergyman-like figure. He asks them to smash their wedding rings with a hammer.
Hiroki Terai is a self-styled “divorce planner” who conducts solemn ceremonies during which he invites couples to show their disaffection for one another before they – in most cases – walk away smiling.
“I don’t think the concept of divorce is a negative thing,” said Terai. “Instead of spending a lifetime bickering, it is much better to wrap up the relationship and restart separately.”
The nation’s divorce rate has steadily climbed since the 1960s, from an average of 70,000 couples terminating their marriage each year to nearly four times that amount with some 253,000 couples separating in 2009.
Terai said that with less pressure over marital status and family relations in Japanese society, more people are looking for the chance to reset their lives.
“Even since childhood, I was always curious why people don’t hold divorce ceremonies, even though they have wedding ceremonies,” said Terai, who remains a bachelor at 31.
“Amicable divorce is something I admire. If I divorce, I want to have a divorce ceremony.”
Terai last week held a divorce ceremony for his 79th couple – 38-year-old Kenji and his wife Keiko (not their real names) – to help them celebrate the beginning of a happier life apart.
“We’ve been married for seven years, and it’s not easy to end it just by signing a paper,” said Kenji before the divorce ceremony in Tokyo. “This is a chance to clarify our feelings and start again.”
In contrast, Keiko was less enthusiastic about the event.
“I am only doing this as a last favor for my soon-to-be ex-husband,” said the 36-year-old, fully dressed in black to represent the death of their marriage.
Terai arranged for the unhappy couple to ride separate rickshaws to the ceremony site, a humble but colorfully decorated garage. Several of their friends and guests followed them.
The divorce planner performed the master of ceremonies role and led the service, referring to the couple as “ex-groom” and “ex-bride.”
“Behind your decision to divorce, there are many complex things that only you understand,” he said to them. “We all pray that this day will mark a good restart for both of you.”
He then handed the pair a hammer and encouraged them to smash a wedding ring – their last collaboration as a married couple, which drew applause from the guests.
But the finality of the occasion was too much for the ex-bride, whose bitterness appeared to dissolve as she burst into tears.
“It just struck home that this was the end. It made me feel a bit sentimental,” she said with a tearful smile. “I’m glad that we went through with it.”
Terai, who is now expanding the service to South Korea where the divorce rate is the highest in Asia, said Keiko’s reaction was fairly common for couples at his ceremonies.
“But usually after smashing a ring, they seem to feel relieved, and you see their faces brighten up. Guests then truly celebrate their happy separation.”
Terai also said more husbands than wives are inclined to turn the end of marriage into a social event by throwing a divorce ceremony.
“When a relationship ends, women seem to be able to move on much more easily, but men find it harder to let go,” he said. “I think that they need a chance to draw a line in the sand.”
Nine couples that Terai helped ended up cancelling their plans to divorce, he said.
Keiko’s unexpected tears moved the ex-groom. “I never thought she would cry,” he said, looking at his soon-to-be ex-wife with an affectionatesmile.
“Maybe we can rethink this divorce one more time,” he said.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Keiko.