By Amanda Pampuro
With a declining birthrate and a majority of couples postponing marriage until their 30s, Japan is a small and competitive market for wedding businesses. But even as traditional extravaganzas give way to smaller, private affairs, Katsuhiko Yoshida sees more doors opening than closing.
Yoshida, general manager of Watabe Wedding Guam, entered the industry nearly a decade ago, assisting with wedding operations at the Okinawa branch and working his way up. After working at branches in Sendai, Tokyo and Okinawa, Yoshida was transferred to Guam in January 2015.
Rather than mourn the changing of times, Yoshida finds opportunity in the changing market, saying, “Watabe targets clientele that might otherwise not get married.”
“[In the past] the wedding was more formal — you would invite your bosses — but now everything is smaller,” Yoshida says. Holding a resort wedding, however, gives young couples good reason to avoid the cost and formality of a traditional wedding. Instead of hosting 80 people at the reception, the wedding party has been paired down to the couple’s closest kin.
“Just like on Guam, Okinawa is a resort island, so few of the customers are local,” Yoshida said. He often invited members of his sales team to experience Okinawa, so they would be able to emulate the island’s beauty to potential travelers and “better sell the attractiveness.”
When Yoshida arrived at Watabe Wedding Okinawa, the resort was hosting 180 weddings each year, but when he left, Yoshida said that rate had more than doubled to 400 annual services. While he said it is too early to speak of success on Guam, the company currently hosts 3,000 weddings per year and just opened its third chapel last fall.
Worldwide, Watabe Wedding Group averages 30,000 weddings each year, and has provided services for more than 430,000 couples. Since it first opened its doors as a kimono rental shop in 1953, the Watabe Wedding group “has grown into one of the world’s leading bridal companies, offering a wide range of domestic and international wedding services and consultation” in 75 Japanese locations and 31 worldwide including Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bali, Honolulu and Saipan. Watabe Guam Inc. was founded in 1995, opening the San Vitores Bayside Chapel in 1999 and the Blue Aster in 2006.
Yoshida said the company’s strong customer service sets it apart from other wedding agencies.
While the company has a strong base in the young, heterosexual Japanese market, Yoshida said the future of the company is in branching out to meet the needs of more niche markets, including same-sex couples and foreigners. For happily wedded couples, Yoshida said they plan to offer anniversary services and packages for renewing vows.
Additionally, “Weddings are a part of tourism, and we want to accommodate others to help generate revenue because we don’t stand alone,” Yoshida said. They often encourage travelers to experience the island of Guam and take advantage of other tours.
“That’s a popular question,” Yoshida said when asked about his impression of Guam. “The prettiness of the ocean is incomparable to Okinawa or Hawaii, and Guam is in a great location.”
While Yoshida puts in the same hours on Guam as he would at the Tokyo branch, he said the division between work and play is more concrete here, and when he isn’t working he can enjoy it more. On days off, he likes to cross the bay on his standup paddleboard and experience the very vacation packages he helps bundle.