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Divorce ceremonies give Japanese couples a new way to untie the knot

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Inside a Japan divorce ceremony
  • Divorce is still considered a cultural taboo in Japan
  • A planner says the ceremonies allow the start of a new life in front of family and friends
  • They are becoming increasingly popular as a symbolic way for couples to find closure

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) -- One by one, Michiko walked through the legal steps of finalizing her divorce: dividing property, determining child custody and arranging her daughter's college fund. But when it came to settling the heartache over the end of her eight-year marriage to Taka, the legal system had no formal process.

That's when she decided to go through a divorce ceremony.

One in four marriages in Japan now ends in divorce, yet it's still considered a cultural taboo. Increasingly popular ceremonies help some Japanese cope with the country's changing social norms, according to divorce ceremony planner Hiroki Terai.

Michiko's soon-to-be ex-husband, Taka, says the idea was surprising to him. He had never heard of a divorce ceremony when Michiko brought it up.

But when he looked at the brochures on-line -- which explained that the divorce ceremony was like a wedding ceremony, with a different outcome -- he decided some sort of formal closure to their marriage might provide him with emotional closure as well.

Wearing her summer yukata, Michiko meets Taka outside a temple in Tokyo.

"It marks the end of this phase of our lives," says Taka, clad in a simple business suit.

They ask that their last names not be used, but allow CNN to attend the ceremony.

It begins with the couple stepping into separate rickshaws. It's a quiet and solemn walk through the streets.

Walking behind the couple are friends, brought as witnesses.

"I like that you have a lot of time to contemplate this," says Michiko's friend, Isao Yokoyama. "Isn't it better this way than to just split up?"

The rickshaw ride ends at a purposely shabby storefront, marked with the words "Refresh" and "Divorce" outside.

"Thank you very much for coming," says ceremony planner Terai. In a short speech, he explains how Taka and Michiko have grown apart since their marriage in 2002. It is time to say farewell, Terai says.

Then holding a heavy hammer painted green like a frog, Michiko and Taka smash Michiko's diamond and platinum wedding ring. The strong ring doesn't crack, despite the direct hit.

The couple hits the ring six times until finally it is bent beyond repair, and the diamonds have cracked off the ring.

"I feel free," Michiko says, relaxed and smiling for the first time this day. "After I smashed the ring, I feel free."

The feeling's mutual, Taka says. "I feel better than before we did this," he says. "It's over."

This is not just one couple's eccentric move to cope with their divorce. Terai claims his business is booming. He's received thousands of calls and has ceremonies booked for weeks in Japan and Korea.

"There's no mistaking that divorce is a sad process," Terai says. "But I believe that by declaring your new start in life in front of your friends, relatives and family, you draw a clear line. It helps emotionally."

A short reception follows Michiko and Taka's ceremony. Symbolizing their now separate lives, they sit back to back at separate tables. Their party favors are chopsticks, because they are two sticks that are easily pulled apart.

At the end of the day, Taka and Michiko say their thanks to their friends and their farewells to each other.

With a polite bow, they walk off their separate ways.