Japanese seek cheaper, more customized weddings

Sunday, September 29, 2002

TOKYO -- Back in the 1980s, a wedding reception in Japan was something to see. Brides would go through two or three changes of dress. The guests -- and there were often hundreds -- would be treated to expensive French meals and then sent home with bags of lavish gifts.

On average, even after Japan's economy started souring, couples were spending the equivalent of $60,000 for the whole package deal, from the ceremony to the honeymoon in an exotic locale.

But times have changed. And, analysts say, the marriage market presents an excellent synopsis of Japan's bigger economic picture.

Yumi Kito, 25, plans to marry her longtime beau Naoya Harada, a 30-year old computer programmer, in April. But like most Japanese these days, she's thinking harder about the cost, and looking for a package that's less expensive than what couples would have paid a decade ago. And she wants something more to her taste than a huge, traditional affair.

So instead of a big reception at a ritzy hotel, she's opting for a small chapel, and a private dinner at her fiance's favorite ski lodge.

"Just family and friends," she said happily.

Industry experts say Kito, although younger than the average bride-to-be, is fairly typical of the current trend in Japan, which represents a major departure from the pre-recession 1980s and early '90s. In those days, guest lists in the 300-to-400 range weren't unusual and couples raised in Japan's postwar economic boom were ready to unload hefty amounts of cash for their weddings.

Seeking stability

"My clients used to spend 50,000 to 60,000 yen ($400 to $500) per head for their weddings. Now it's down to about half that at 30,000 yen ($250)," said Chisako Ono, a bridal adviser at Happoen, one of Tokyo's ritziest wedding organizers.

Until the mid-'90s, couples were spending an average $60,000 on their weddings, according to a study by Japan Marriage System, a marriage advisory service.

Now, getting married at home is popular among couples wanting smaller, family oriented celebrations. And instead of flying off to Hawaii or Europe, couples are opting for cheaper trips to much closer Pacific islands.

Meanwhile, Tiffany & Co., long immune to Japan's economic doldrums, saw its total retail sales in Japan fall 6 percent in the second quarter. Company executives said sales of engagement rings declined at a greater rate than other items as many Japanese women no longer consider the traditional solitaire diamond a must-have.

The more cautious approach underscores consumers' lingering concern as Japan struggles to repair an economy that has been weak for more than a decade.

Throughout the downturn, officials have urged the public to buy, and cited a drop in consumer spending as a major obstacle to growth. But with unemployment at record highs of around 5 percent, bankruptcies growing and deflation eating away at real estate values and investment markets, couples feel they have good reason to be wary.

"As a woman, of course I want a ring and proper wedding. But I think many young people are worried about buying a house, worried about a stable job -- something has to go," said Tomoko Hanaizumi, a Tokyo preschool teacher.

Changing roles of women

Shifting demographics and the changing role of women are also affecting attitudes about weddings. Many women are putting off marriage, making their careers a bigger priority.

According to the Health Ministry, the average age of women getting married has risen from 25.9 to 27, while the age of grooms has remained stable at 28 for the past decade or so.

"The market is maturing and it's not as easy to hook consumers onto a trend," said Yukimasa Sugiyama, CEO of the bridal business Weddings.

But the wedding industry can take comfort from the fact that another major market is emerging: second marriages.

In about 15 percent of the 800,000 marriages in Japan last year, one of the partners was wed for the second time, the Health Ministry said. This percentage is expected to increase to 35 percent or roughly one-third of the market by 2020.

"The next big challenge is how to corner the second-marriage market," Sugiyama said.

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