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Originally published Monday, December 27, 2010 at 12:29 PM

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'I don't' is booming in Japan

Ceremonies celebrate divorce.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOKYO — With married couples choosing to go their separate ways about every two minutes in Japan, divorce ceremonies celebrating the end of unhappy unions and demonstrating couples' determination to start over are gaining popularity in Tokyo.

About 15 people in their 20s and 30s attended one such ceremony earlier this year, some formally clothed and others bearing congratulatory money in envelopes with "goshugi" (end of marriage ceremony) written on them in large characters.

Held at a so-called divorce mansion converted from a garage in Tokyo's Asakusa area, the man and woman about to say "I don't" arrived in separate rickshaws.

A 28-year-old woman representing the couple's friends made a speech at the beginning of the ceremony. "Honestly speaking, I've had a difficult time knowing what to say (here at the ceremony)," she said. "I'd still like to be friends with both of you even after the divorce."

The atmosphere solemn, the soon-to-be ex-couple held a hammer together as their wedding rings were placed in front of them by divorce ceremony pioneer Hiroki Terai.

"The couple's last cooperative act will now take place," said Terai, 30.

The next moment, the couple brought the hammer down and smashed the rings, signifying the end of their partnership. The ceremony concluded when the smashed rings were placed in a frog-shaped monument.

Frogs symbolize change in Japanese culture and the word "kaeru" can mean either "frog" or "change" in Japanese.

The woman who had made a speech said in a somewhat bewildered tone, "(The ceremony) was sad in a different way than a funeral."

The couple married in October 2003 and has a 6-year-old son. However, different living hours became too much for the 34-year-old man, a company employee, and his 32-year-old wife, who worked at an izakaya pub. The wife found out her husband had an affair with another woman.

The couple said they talked about divorcing for nearly a year. After the ceremony, the husband said with a smile, "I felt a such a sense of relief smashing the rings."

Terai, who used to work at a temporary staffing agency, started the divorce ceremony service in April last year. Its reputation has spread and in March he began to organizing so-called divorce ceremony tours in cooperation with a travel agency. A total of 54 couples have participated so far and according to Terai, his schedule is booked up until the end of January.

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One satisfied customer was a 41-year-old woman from Tokyo who held a ceremony in December last year to mark the 10th year anniversary of her divorce.

"It marked a milestone for me as I've brought up two sons by myself. I think the ceremony was a steppingstone to start my life anew," she said.

The ceremonies sometimes have the opposite effect, however, with couples rethinking their decision.

"About 10 percent of divorce ceremony couples decided not to split up afterward, as they were encouraged by their friends (who attended the ceremony) to stay together," Terai said.

In March, Kokushikan University lecturer and business etiquette consultant Chiyoko Anju self-published a series of booklets titled "Rikon o Purasu ni Suru Rikon Mana" (divorce manners to make the divorce a good thing). When she introduced the booklet on a website, rikonmana.com, 100 copies sold out instantly.

The booklet covers such topics as things to be careful of when holding a divorce party and how to inform colleagues and friends of one's divorce in writing.

Anju was inspired to write the book after reading an article about divorce overseas on the Internet. The article mentioned that some ex-couples gave presents to colleagues and friends when they divorced.

This made Anju think that some people might worry about the proper etiquette concerning divorce.

"It may no longer be taboo, but I think guidance is still needed on how to proceed with a divorce," she said.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the number of divorces last year was 253,353, or one divorce occurring every two minutes and four seconds. A population survey report by the ministry shows the number of divorce cases in 2009 was about 3.5 times that of 50 years ago.

Chuo University professor Masahiro Yamada, an expert on family sociology, said an increasing number of people see divorce not as a failure but a step toward growth.

"The divorce business is beginning to be recognized overseas," he said. "Just like 'konkatsu' (activities to find a marriage partner) spread quickly and women became more open about finding a marriage partner, divorce might be considered more positively and create a certain kind of trend."

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