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The art of getting to "yes": Marriage proposals become big business in Japan

Tokyo — It seemed like an ordinary date; Dinner at a plush restaurant followed by a romantic stroll around the restaurant grounds. But suddenly, a smiling staff member appeared out of nowhere, guiding the couple through a fairytale-like gate to the steps of an English-style chapel.

As his date stood awkwardly the man went into action, dropping to one knee and brandishing a tiny engagement ring box. The startled young woman scarcely had time to mumble her assent before his parents stepped into view to offer their congratulations, and then, from a jumbo-sized monitor, her family joined in on the fun via video link, shouting greetings from their home in Taiwan.

A man, a client of Tokyo-based weddings, events and marriage proposal consulting company Anniversaire, proposes to his girlfriend in front of the firm's Western-style "chapel" in the Japanese capital. Handout/Anniversaire

Another mission accomplished for Anniversaire, a Tokyo-based weddings and events company that in recent years has leapt into the thriving business of marriage proposal consulting, a field that cropped up overseas but has started to gain traction here. In Japan, it generally involves steering men in their late 20s and early 30s through the finer points of getting to "yes."

Anniversaire began fielding inquiries from anxious would-be grooms starting in 2014. The trend was fueled by the rise of social media, said Fumika Nishimura, a "proposal planner" who also arranges weddings for the firm in Tokyo.

"When guys go online to research 'where to propose,' they find tons of posts by women showing off their engagements in (fancy) locations," she told CBS News.

In the Instagram-era, a simple declaration of devotion in the privacy of one's home just doesn't cut it.

"We get a lot of women asking for re-dos," Nishimura said. One couple — who had already scheduled their wedding — forked over extra fees to schedule a luxurious reenactment of their engagement at the company's lavish wedding hall.

"When women get proposed to, they want to tell their friends," she said, adding that a plain old selfie snapped in someone's living room is a definite no-no. Young men, too, appear fixated on the idea that when it comes to getting engaged, it's location, location, location — preferably with a dramatic night sky.

Maybe money can't buy love, but it sure helps when it comes to securing the services of a proposal planner. The barebones price of about $200 buys just an hour with a proposal consultant, plus a 30-minute location rental fee. At the company's fashionable site in Tokyo, the romantic backdrop of choice is the chapel, a recently renovated "church" featuring 140-year-old stained glass and royal blue carpeting. (Christian-style weddings, often officiated by foreign actors performing the role of minister and held in buildings meant to resemble Western houses of worship, comprise the bulk of such ceremonies in Japan, which is a non-Christian country.)

A client of Tokyo-based weddings, events and marriage proposal consulting company Anniversaire proposes to his girlfriend inside the firm's Western-style "chapel" in the Japanese capital. Handout/Anniversaire

Nishimura helps jittery suitors compose their pitches. Unless it's short and to the point, like "Marry me!" she advises reading from carefully composed notes. Some men also fret about which leg to kneel on (either one works, but the best camera angle is on the man's "open" side.) With one particularly tongue-tied customer, Nishimura ended up writing the whole proposal herself.

But the client needn't have sweated. More than 2,000 proposals later, Nishimura said not a single suitor has been turned down. "If the client is putting down cash for a proposal, the couple is more or less already on the same page about settling down," she reckons.

Most clients are willing to shell out for extras, like renting formal wear or having the soon-to-be fiancée transported via stretch limo, bringing the average price in 2022 to almost $1,000. That fee doesn't include the purchase of an engagement ring, nor the contemporary custom of presenting fiancées with an enormous bouquet of 108 roses, a number that in Japanese also means "forever." In this case, floral eternity weighs more than ten pounds, and costs close to $400.

Clients can opt to have the moment immortalized in a cinematic-style film. The company's online examples — from actual customers — aren't exactly "Notting Hill," but they seem perfectly calibrated to activate the tear glands.

The rise of proposal consulting offers a small ray of hope to Japan's struggling wedding industry, which includes hotels, restaurants, wedding halls, and upscale "guest houses" like Anniversaire.

During the 1980s, when celebrity weddings received wall-to-wall media coverage, Japanese often indulged in garish spectacles — couples descending in gondolas accompanied by dry-ice clouds, loud music and light displays. But a 2021 report on the restructuring of the domestic bridal industry by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry found that the number of couples tying the knot was already in decline by 2013, falling by over 12% in 2020 to just over half a million.

Those who do marry generally spurn the circus-like weddings of the 1980s, the report said. Average spending on weddings plunged to about $20,000 in 2021.

With fewer and fewer domestic customers, wedding businesses are starting to look to foreign tourists to help make up the difference. Destination proposal, anyone? 

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