Photo/IllutrationQu Zhixin, left, and Li Jiawei, both from Hong Kong, pose for a ceremonial photo during their legal wedding in Shizuoka city on the morning of June 29. (Kaho Matsuda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

SHIZUOKA—An increasing number of foreign couples are coming to Japan for “legal weddings,” providing municipal governments with a new lure for tourism but raising potential legal problems and the possibility of scams.

Under the system, couples who get married abroad under local laws are issued marriage certificates that are recognized in their own countries.

The reasons for getting wed overseas vary, but many from Hong Kong say they come to Japan to avoid the meddlesome and time-consuming procedures they would face at home.

Qu Zhixin, 26, and his same-age partner, Li Jiawei, traveled from Hong Kong to Japan to tie the knot.

At the Aoi Ward Office in Shizuoka city, the couple, accompanied by staff members of the Shizuoka prefectural tourism association, made their union official on a weekday morning in June.

They were the first foreign couple to use the legal-wedding system in Shizuoka.

“It is good for us that things went smoothly,” Li said after receiving a certificate verifying the signed marriage notification.

The notification will be stored at the Shizuoka city government’s office. Notifications for Japanese couples are kept at the regional legal affairs bureau.

Okinawa Prefecture has been an increasingly popular wedding spot for people from Hong Kong since around 2007, when word started spreading about wedding ceremonies on the island prefecture, according to the Okinawa prefectural government’s department of tourism promotion.

Around 400 couples were married in Okinawa Prefecture under the system in 2017.

But Qu and Li were looking for a cooler climate.

They said they fell in love with Japan after watching “Long Vacation,” a popular Japanese serial drama.

The couple held their wedding ceremony at a church covered with snow in Hokkaido in December 2017.

With snow an extreme rarity in Hong Kong, they said they wanted to hold a ceremony “that is different from everybody else’s.”

The marriage documents were later signed in Shizuoka.

“We wanted to get married at the foot of Mount Fuji, which is Japan’s No. 1 mountain and a symbol of peace,” Qu said.

Couples who get married overseas under the legal wedding system usually need to translate the local government-issued certificate into the language of their home countries before it is submitted for registration.

In Hong Kong, couples must be accompanied by a qualified observer or witness in marriage procedures. In some cases, couples have to wait for months to hold a ritual to be recognized as married.

To avoid that hassle, more couples from Hong Kong are signing marriage notifications in Japan.

“Many people in Hong Kong have a sense of closeness with Japan, and Japan is probably popular as a place where they can hold a legal wedding,” said an official of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s Economic and Trade Office in Tokyo.

The Shizuoka tourism association plans to accept more legal weddings at the foot of Mount Fuji to increase the number of sightseers to the prefecture. The association also hopes the married couples will return for milestone events, including wedding anniversaries.

Qu and Li showed the potential for increased tourism by visiting a number of popular spots in the prefecture, including the Port of Shimizu and the Nihondaira hilly terrain, on their four-night trip.

The association recently participated in an event in Hong Kong to promote a package deal that includes a legal wedding, commemorative photos and sightseeing in Shizuoka Prefecture.

The city of Otaru in Hokkaido also promotes legal weddings under its tourism strategy.

Business opportunities could open up in Japan’s travel industry if more foreign couples come to Japan to bypass complicated marriage procedures like those in Hong Kong or difficulties due to race or religion.

Association officials have called on other city and town governments to accept foreign couples seeking legal weddings.

From a legal standpoint, any government office can accept legal wedding couples. However, very few municipalities in Japan are willing to do so.

In Shizuoka Prefecture, only two cities--Shizuoka and Fujinomiya--have set up a system to accept such foreign couples in collaboration with the association.

A number of challenges must be overcome to make the system work.

For example, municipal governments might be unable to confirm the authenticity of documents required for legal weddings, including certificates proving the parties involved are not already married.

The system might also be abused to arrange fake marriages.

Officials at the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry told The Asahi Shimbun that they do not keep statistics on legal weddings in the country.

The fact is, the legal wedding system is entirely entrusted to municipal governments.

Shuichi Miura, a travel consultant who is knowledgeable about marriage systems around the world, said: “In Japan, the matrimonial law has received hardly any amendments since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Laws on legal weddings are practically nonexistent.”

Miura said that in many overseas countries, a religious figure or an assembly member attends when a couple declares their marriage at a city office. But in Japan, a city worker often simply receives the notification from the couple and issues the certificate.

He said such simplified procedures could result in a lack of the emotional feelings of getting married.

“It is possible that foreign couples will not be satisfied with the service (of legal weddings in Japan) without a sufficient explanation,” Miura said. “The Japanese government needs to firmly understand the differences over systems and the recognition of a ‘marriage’ between overseas countries and Japan.”