Big Talk

Working to Share Japan’s Superb Beauty With the World

Yumi Katsura, Japan’s first bridal fashion designer, has done business in Japan and across the globe for the past 55 years. Recently, she is also focusing on projects such as Lover’s Sanctuary, Local Wedding, and Anniversary Wedding. Toshio Motoya spoke with Katsura about important efforts to share the splendor of marriage as a way to cope with Japan’s falling birthrate.

Only 3% of Japanese people used to have Western-style wedding ceremonies

(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You always attend my parties, but I think your only appearance in Apple Town was at my Wine Tasting and Discussion About Japan. You were Japan’s first bridal fashion designer, and you’ve since done many things around the world. Did you want to become a fashion designer when you were young?

(K) I majored in Apparel Science Studies at Kyoritsu Women’s University, but I had no clear future vision at that time. My mother operated a dressmaking school in Koiwa, Edogawa City with 2,000 students. However, I was unskilled from a young age and couldn’t sew straight. I’m the oldest of two sisters, so people assumed I would inherit my mother’s school. However, I thought one of my mother’s many pupils should take over.

(M) What was your focus in school?

(K) Kaoru Hatoyama, wife of Ichiro Hatoyama, was president of Kyoritsu Women’s Educational Institution at that time. Although the ideologies behind the French Revolution were liberty, equality, and fraternity, Ichiro believed people in Japan advocated only for liberty and equality – such the campus protests and strikes – while lacking a spirit of fraternity. He reached out to universities and formed the Youth Association of Fraternity in an effort to share this spirit with later generations. It drew many male students from famous schools like Waseda University and Nihon University, but there were no female students and no one to head the women’s group. He talked to his wife and they decided to send one student from Kyoritsu Women’s University, which is how I was chosen. I attended association meetings at the Hatoyama home after school for about three years. During that time, Ichiro returned to the political world when he ran in the House of Representatives election, and I even served as an announcer in his campaign activities. Kaoru thought about having me teach at Kyoritsu Women’s University, but I decided in the end to help out at my mother’s school.

(M) Later, you became a fashion designer and opened a bridal shop in 1964. I heard you also studied abroad in France before that and did research on the global wedding market. How did you end up in the wedding business?

(K) During the 1950s, there were more women of marriageable age than men. My mother’s dressmaking school had 2,000 students not because all of them wanted to work in that field – many were learning to sew as a way to become a good bride. The regular curriculum was two years, but we started a new three-year course because many students requested an additional year. However, most topics are covered in the first two years, so I came up with the idea of having students sew wedding dresses in year three. These dresses require more fabric than regular garments, meaning the material fees are higher. I didn’t want the students’ guardians to object, so I visited fabric stores in the Kanda neighborhood and asked the store owners to sell slightly damaged material to our students at low prices, since it could be skillfully cut to be usable. That’s when I realized there were absolutely no shops selling accessories, shoes, or gloves to wear with these dresses.

(M) Most Japanese people didn’t wear wedding dresses back then.

(K) That’s right. Western fashion was fairly well known after Hanae Mori opened her Ginza store in 1954, but most people had traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies and wore kimono. Only 3% of the population wore Western-style dresses: those who were marrying non-Japanese spouses or actual Christians. Sadly, those women had to order their wedding dresses and the necessary accessories at high prices, since there was nowhere to buy them.

(M) Women want to look their best on their wedding day, and there must have been women who would choose to wear dresses, which are more fashionable than kimono.

(K) Yes. I did a research at women’s universities before opening my store, and 40% of the respondents said they wanted to wear wedding dresses. But the actual number that did so was just 3%.

(M) Perhaps that was because of their tradition-bound parents.

(K) Yes, first they had to persuade their parents. As I mentioned before, there were more men than women, and the opinions of mothers-in-law held the most weight back then. If the grooms’ mother wanted kimono, that’s what her new daughter-in-law would wear.

(M) That makes sense.

Today’s marriage rate is roughly half the rate in the 1970s

(K) It would have been better if brides could wear multiple outfits at the ceremony, like they do today, but that custom didn’t yet exist. But there were latent needs and some people were actually struggling to buy dresses. That’s why I opened a bridal shop and started working as a wedding fashion designer. I only sold 30 dresses in the first year, but the business steadily grew and all of my college professors told me I had chosen a good line of work. I was suited to the bridal industry, and definitely wouldn’t have succeeded in casual or sports fashion.

(M) It’s like the saying, “If you master one art, you can excel in all fields.” I think your designs in other genres are recognized because of your top status in the bridal realm.

(K) Thank you. The fashion capitals of the world are Paris, London, New York, and Milan. I worked hard because, even if it would be difficult for Tokyo to overtake these cities, at least I could try to put Tokyo on the same level in the field of bridal fashion. Right when I thought I had finally achieved this, fewer Japanese people were getting married. There were 1.1 million marriages each year in Japan during the 1970s, but the number has now been halved to 580,000.

(M) Japan has a falling birthrate and ageing population. The numbers of students entering elementary school are two thirds to half of what they used to be. There were previously more than 50 students in each class, but today there are 40 students and fewer classes as well. There also aren’t many households with three children – I think most have one or two. I believe Japan must figure out how to build a society in which people can have three children.

(K) I agree.

(M) We will have to depend on immigration if we don’t put a stop to the population decline. For instance, Germany took in many immigrants from Turkey, and France from its former colonies including Algeria, but they are experiencing many problems. Markets shrink when the population drops, and national power weakens as well. A pressing issue for Japan is how to avoid a sudden population decline. I believe the American occupation policy after World War II caused the falling birthrate. Japanese society used to be founded on the extended family, in which three generations lived together and helped each other. Grandparents who no longer worked looked after their grandchildren and passed down their wisdom. Both parents could feel safe leaving their children while working and supporting the entire family. This is why they could have so many children. However, the American occupation forces brought a doctrine of individuality that thrived as Japan gained affluence, resulting in a divided society. Today one third of all households are single people, and dying alone is the biggest tragedy in Japanese society. There are no statistics or news reports on this, but I am sure skeletal remains of people who died alone are discovered in Tokyo nearly every day. Some of these people might still be alive if they lived with their family.

(K) That may be true. This demonstrates the importance of family.

(M) Yes. Japan should provide tax incentives to revive the extended family, for example cutting property taxes on homes with two generations to one half and those with three generations to one third. I think more people would decide to have three children, and no one would have to die alone. Today there are households in which the father is transferred by himself to another region for work, the son goes to college in Tokyo, the daughter goes to college in Kyoto, and the mother lives by herself at home. It’s inefficient to have four family members living apart, and no matter how much they earn, they won’t be able to enjoy an affluent lifestyle. Also, larger families are livelier and more fun. I also think we should give gift money, funded by taxes, whenever a child is born. Children grow into taxpayers, so it shouldn’t be an issue to provide a bit of this up front. Fewer people wanting to get married is also a major issue. There are many single men and women in their 40s and 50s, which is particularly striking in big cities like Tokyo. In the past, people were set up with spouses by helpful old women, but that’s not the case anymore. I think your business, in which you use fashion to make people long to wed, is extremely important today.

Unique, locally-rooted ceremonies inspire people to dream of marriage

(K) As you say, I think the national government should provide assistance with child-rearing, but I believe the private sector should work to make people think positively of marriage. That’s why we started the Lover’s Sanctuary project 11 years ago. I am a member of the selection committee to choose spots that are perfect for proposals. There are roughly 140 “Lover’s Sanctuaries” across Japan and about 80 “Lover’s Sanctuary Satellites.”

(M) APA Resort Joetsu-Myoko’s observation deck was recognized as a Lover’s Sanctuary Satellite.

(K) That was my first connection with APA Group. I have also been chairman of the All Japan Bridal Association’s Local Wedding Contest for the past eight years. Brides used to change into their costume at home and then be sent off to the ceremony by their neighbors. I am sure these sights inspired many young girls to dream of becoming brides. Today women get dressed at hotels or other venues, so children have fewer chances to see newlywed couples out and about. The Local Wedding Contest calls for examples of wedding ceremonies leveraging the unique characteristics of their regions, in which the bride gets ready at her parents’ home, and awards the best ones with prizes, including from the Japan Tourism Agency commissioner and minister of internal affairs and communications.

(M) On the day of my wedding, my wife got out of the car about 500 meters away from me and walked to my house wearing her wedding outfit. This wasn’t common in my hometown of Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture, but it was the customary practice in Fukui Prefecture, the home region of my wife (the president of APA Hotel). I think this is a great custom because neighbors can celebrate the bride, and the children watching it will want to get married someday. It is of course important to increase the number of people who want to be married, as you are working to do. We also need policies that allow people to live stable lives so they can wed and have children with peace of mind, which Japan is lacking today.

(K) That’s true.

(M) Human relationships in Japanese society have grown steadily weaker due to the individualism implanted by the United States in the postwar era. There are fewer murders, but the cases of a relative killing a parent or child are actually increasing to account for half of all murders today. Last year, a hikkikomori (person who has withdrawn from society) in his 40s was stabbed and killed by his father, a former vice-minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. There are apparently around 600,000 middle-aged and elderly hikkikomori of this type, who live in their parents’ homes without getting married or working. Encouraging them to rejoin society is a difficult challenge. Our educational system is the reason contemporary Japanese society has become so strange. Schools used to have classes in moral training to teach children about ethics. I also think another reason is the breakdown of regional communities. Village festivals and other events used to take place at shrines, which were places where regional ties were formed. Today nobody wants to carry the mikoshi (portable shrines), and some areas no longer put on festivals.

(K) That’s very sad.

(M) Japan has wonderful traditions, symbolized by our faith in “eight million gods.” Most tragedies around the world have been conflicts and acts of terrorism committed by adherents of monotheistic religions like Christianity and Islam. The world used to belong to white Christians, but Japan proposed that racial equality be clearly specified in the League of Nations charter when the organization was founded in 1918. American President Woodrow Wilson, who believed in the superiority of white Christians, was the leader in striking down this proposal, but the world has been shifting to racial equality ever since. I think Japan’s philosophy of eight million gods helped make all people equal across the world.

Japanese people should do more to celebrate wedding anniversaries

(K) I’ve done various projects to help prevent a population decline caused by the falling marriage rate, and lately I am putting effort into wedding anniversaries. People in Japan make a big fuss about weddings, but they do not celebrate their anniversaries after the ceremony, which I think should be changed. The former emperor and his wife are a good example of a couple that celebrates these milestones. They held a concert on their 40th anniversary, the “ruby anniversary,” as well as a ceremony on their 50th anniversary (gold) and on their 60th anniversary last year (diamond).

(M) That’s certainly true.

(K) Modeled after the former imperial couple, I am currently producing wedding anniversary events under the name “Anniversary Wedding.” Last autumn we held an event for four couples, who were married at different times, at Ikutajinja shrine in Kobe. Nousaku Co., Ltd. is a company in Takaoka City, Toyama Prefecture that makes tin, brass, and bronze products. It offers “tin anniversary” ceremonies for couples celebrating their 10th anniversaries. At these parties, the couple wears rented clothing and once again pledges their love for each other. There is also a meal and even a chance to try metal casting, so children can have fun as well. Apparently 60 couples applied at first, a number greatly exceeding their expectations, and these ceremonies were covered on the NHK morning program Asaichi. I think the anniversary concept will catch on, and this example from Toyama will spread to other regions. For example, couples could have “crystal wedding” 15th-anniversary ceremonies in Yamanashi Prefecture, which is known for its crystals, and “pearl anniversary” ceremonies in Mie Prefecture, which is known for its pearls.

(M) That’s an interesting concept.

(K) I am holding a fashion show on February 18, on the theme of “Brilliant White Debut,” to celebrate the 55th anniversary of my design work. Wedding dresses are white because this color symbolizes the start of a new life, just like babies wear white clothes right after they are born. White signifies all sorts of new beginnings in this way. This show will propose wearing white at many different times, such as the Shichigosan festival, coming of age festival, or when launching a new business. We will also hold an “Anniversary Wedding” with Masahiro Takashima and his wife, who are celebrating their 15th anniversary, and Mariko Okada and her husband, who are celebrating their 55th anniversary. I looked for a couple who have been married for 30 years and ended up asking Satsuki Katayama and her husband – a successful businessman – to take part.

(M) I am also close with Katayama.

(K) Some people end up having children and putting off their ceremony, but they still want to celebrate. I think Anniversary Weddings will gain more popularity going forward.

(M) You are also a director in the Japan Women’s Association of the Japan Conference.

(K) Aiko Anzai, who took the world by storm on the old radio program Singing Aunt, taught music at Kyoritsu Women’s Educational Institution, and I studied music under her for a long time. She is chairperson of the Japan Women’s Association, and she invited me to become a director. There was some talk of making me the next chairperson, but I declined because my only expertise is in the fields of marriage and family as ways to resolve Japan’s declining birthrate.

(M) You seem to have a strong ideology. I know many members of the Japan Conference. I also have my own school, the Shoheijuku academy. We hold monthly meetings at three locations for ambassadors to Japan, National Diet members, university professors, and others, with 30,000 attendees so far. My goal is to inspire many people to feel pride in our wonderful nation of Japan, where people cherish living in harmony based on our belief in eight million gods. That’s why I started the “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest. Then-chief of staff of Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force Toshio Tamogami started a huge scandal in the media and among the people when he won the first Grand Prize, then he was dismissed from his post. But this outcry caused a growing trend of conservatism, and I am confident it helped Shinzo Abe regain his post as prime minister. I look forward to seeing what you will do in the Japan Women’s Association in the future. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”

(K) Just like my slogan says, I hope young people will work to share the beauty of Japan with the world.

(M) I’ve journeyed to 82 different countries and believe none of them are as fantastic as Japan. Our language is also wonderfully expressive because it uses both Chinese characters (ideograms) and phonetic symbols. We have four clearly distinct seasons and many delicious foods. People who have only lived in Japan mistakenly assume the whole world is like our country, but Japan is actually very unusual.

(K) That’s right.

(M) Thank you for speaking about so many interesting topics with me today.

(K) Thank you.

Date of dialogue: February 7, 2020


Yumi Katsura

Born in Tokyo. Majored in Apparel Science Studies at Kyoritsu Women’s University, then spent one year studying abroad in France. In 1964, she began working as Japan’s first bridal fashion designer, and opened Japan’s first bridal shop in Akasaka. Katsura is also active on the global stage, including shows at cities in over 30 different countries, and has shown her work at the Paris Fashion Week (haute couture) every year since 2003. She makes active efforts to help resolve Japan’s declining birthrate, and her other projects include the Lover’s Sanctuary certification and Local Wedding.