Break up vows, destroyed rings and a cream pie in the face for good measure. Welcome to Japan's hot new 'celebration': the divorce party. Fascinator, optional
An official-looking man holds a bouquet of yellow flowers as he welcomes Sunao, 38, and Risa Kumura, 30, husband and wife for just a few more hours. The chrysanthemum flowers are sacred in Japan, while yellow symbolises nobility and success.
The man who greets the couple – Mr Terai – has no formal title, but could be described as a ‘divorcer’. The ex-corporate office worker found his new vocation eight years ago and explains that he helps unhappily married couples emotionally distance themselves from their former spouses. It all started when two of his friends decided to divorce. To support them, he devised a ritual: the ‘rikonshiki’, or divorce ceremony, and has since ‘divorced’ more than 350 couples, mostly in Tokyo.
In Japan, one in three marriages end in divorce, which is less than the UK’s estimated 42 per cent, but more than double the rate of 70s Japan. And yet divorce is still frowned upon. Divorce ceremonies, despite having no legal value, provide an acceptable way for family and friends to formalise a separation.
As Sunao and Risa’s loved ones gather at an ornate office building in the city, Risa buries her face in her hands. She isn’t crying – it would be shameful to be so emotional in public in Japan – but it’s clear that she is reluctant to part ways.
The couple met ten years ago at the tech firm where they both worked. Risa was just 20 and in her first job. ‘It was love at first sight,’ she says. ‘Our bond was very strong.’
They married four years later and had three children, with Risa leaving the firm to become a full-time mother. But after six years, the couple began drifting apart. Sunao wanted time to himself to travel the world, while Risa wanted a quiet family life. Eventually, Sunao asked his wife for a divorce, suggesting they have a ceremony ‘to give the story a clean ending and have a fresh start, to be free to create new relationships’.
The Japanese believe that it is just as important to celebrate the end of something as it is the beginning, meaning that many couples are prepared to fork out for a typical divorce ceremony, which can cost between £300 and £1,200.
Terai begins by explaining the reasons behind the separation. Sunao and Risa then affirm their intention for a new start. They join hands one last time to destroy the wedding bands with a hammer decorated with a frog. ‘Frogs undergo incredible transformations before reaching maturity,’ says Terai. ‘In Japanese, kaeru means both “frog” and “change”. When a frog leaps into your life it is a chance to seize the occasion and evolve.’
Sunao intends to sell what remains of his wedding ring, while Risa has already sold hers. Later, videos from their wedding day are shown, and a few speeches send ripples of laughter around the room. After that, the bouquet is thrown: whoever catches it will be the first to divorce.
Occasionally, there’s a positive outcome. Thanks to his ritual, Terai has seen 14 couples reconnect. They spoke, understood all the things that united them and were encouraged by friends not to split.
Sadly, this isn’t the case for Sunao and Risa. During the divorce meal, they sit next to each other, but hardly speak. Finally, it’s time for the one who instigated divorce proceedings to be punished. Risa stands up, takes a plate covered in whipped cream and throws it repeatedly in Sunao’s face. Only then does she break into a smile that eventually turns to laughter: her ex has to stay ten long minutes in this ridiculous pose, cream dripping on to his clothes.
Risa’s face suddenly brightens, ‘Now I feel relieved, a little happier and ready to start the next chapter of my life,’ she says.