A Marriage Maestro Wed to Innovation

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

A Marriage Maestro Wed to Innovation Masahiro Hirose has successfully customized nuptials to revive the wedding industry

by John Dodd

So far his ambitions have been frustrated by his success in business, but, ironically, his search for the competitive edge is now bringing him closer to politics in local government. His present goal is to introduce a radical new trend in Japanese weddings--involving public park space and lots and lots of guests.

Hirose has always been interested in politics and the mass communication of ideas and concepts. As a high school student he learned from history books that the charismatic individuals who were the forerunners of today's politicians have brought about great changes. Then later as a junior at Hosei University he joined the Shinjiyu Club, a politics study group, and got to hear such speakers as Kakuei Tanaka expound on financial issues. He also got involved in the debating club and did a lot of speechmaking. In fact he enjoyed university so much that it took him 6 years to complete a 4-year course. His father finally had enough after the fourth year and warned him that he'd better graduate then find something useful to do.

Hirose's answer to Dad's threat was typically independent. He took charge of his own finances, continued his studies, and put himself through the last two years of school by holding down a variety of part-time jobs as well as studying. He worked on an evening railroad gang in the Tokyo subways, delivered newspapers on-campus, and later was employed as a short-order cook at a beef bowl (gyudon-ya) chain. If nothing else, he learned from slaving in a hot kitchen that there had to be a better way in life. He also learned that hard work is the way out of poverty.

After graduation from college, Hirose was preparing to take the next step in fulfilling his dream to be a politician by becoming an assistant for a Diet member. Then a friend pointed out that in order to represent the people, he first had to experience the life of the people. Hirose recalls later, "Maybe this friend realized that I didn't have the brain power to think on my feet!" In any case, the logic struck a chord in the young Hirose and he promptly joined a small securities company. His rationale was that his new employer, Tokyo Securities Ltd., would allow him to study the inner workings of capitalism and just how finance helped Japan stay strong.

While learning about the mechanics of finance, Hirose kept his hopes of being a politician alive by honing his public speaking skills. He chose an unusual way to do it, by moonlighting on weekends, acting as a Master of Ceremonies at the weddings of friends, then later MC-ing on a professional basis. Again, Hirose's choice of the high road meant he worked 365 days a year. But the financial and professional rewards kept him at it.

As Hirose gained experience, he outgrew the small firm he originally joined, and entered Merrill Lynch. This was his first experience with an international finance firm and he embarked on an intensive period of learning just how finance and political events are tied together. Thanks to his outgoing personality and can-do attitude, he also got roped into some of Merrill's more difficult real estate negotiations, and had some experiences with Japan's underworld that he would rather forget. Hirose laughs, "Merrill Lynch was a good experience for me, but I never did learn to speak English well. Luckily I was a pretty good negotiator, so even in the depth of the recession in the mid-nineties, I was still of value to the company."

However, after 12 stressful years in the securities industry, and specifically after a particular run-in with a Yakuza-related company, Hirose started to question his choice of career and his earlier dreams were rekindled. He knew that he would need time of his own to further any political ambitions, and decided the best way to do this was to run a company of his own. He established his company, Bridal Hirose, in December 1993 at the age of 36.

It was only natural that he would pick the industry that he'd been moonlighting in all these years, but in true maverick fashion, he wanted to shake up the conservative players. His radical idea was to give customers the freedom of choice to decide programs for their own weddings.

To understand why Hirose's concept was radical, we need to consider conditions back in 1994, when the burst of the bubble wreaked financial and psychological havoc in Japan. Back then, most weddings were held according to a set formula in downtown city hotels. Weddings were less a celebration of union and more a rite of passage--especially for the bride's father, who was being saddled with an average wedding cost of 3 million yen.

At the time the standard wedding consisted of a series of mini "rites" developed by the hotel industry over the previous 30 years. The couple would be offered a basic program, then some add-on services to boost revenue. Needless to say, the hotels in particular would prey on the bride-to-be's concern about getting everything just right, and slip in extra services to make her feel that her wedding was more complete. Couples who wanted the flexibility to add dancing or music played by friends were turned away by the hotels.

But what Hirose could see, if only because his financial background had taught him to observe trends, was that the wedding industry was in decline. He realized that weddings of second generation baby boomers would peak in number in 1996 and 1997. There were on average 800,000 weddings a year in that period, and in 2003 just 740,000 couples wed in Japan. If the trend continues, then in twenty years time there will be just 450,000 marriages in Japan. This has been tough on the hotels. For example, a typical hotel, which once managed an average of two weddings a day, now manages just one. Clearly this is a major challenge for the industry.

Some hotels tried to combat the downturn in the wedding trade by hosting up-market funerals--naturally following the nation's demographics. But, as Hirose explains, "a hotel that goes into the funeral reception business is nailing its own coffin for one simple reason: the reception room starts to reek of incense, and odor-sensitive female guests realize what it was used for. "No one wants to celebrate a happy occasion in a room previously used for a sad one," says Hirose.

Hirose also predicted that as the financial and personal independence of young women increased, so too would the desire to marry on their own terms. Or, not get married at all. As Hirose says, "If you're a professional working woman in your mid- to late-20's and you're making 6 to 8 million yen a year, why would you want to tie up with a salaried worker making just 5 million yen a year, get married, stop working, and have a family? It just doesn't make financial sense." So a lot of women put off getting married.

So, with these two trends in mind, Hirose pioneered customized weddings, helping couples share their joy with friends and family in a way that would be remembered for the rest of their lives. In creating a memorable experience, he frequently clashed with hotel rules and regulations and in frustration turned to clubs and restaurants for venues and flexibility. He found that the recession was causing restaurateurs a lot of hardship, and his approaches were well received. Now not only could he offer customers their own program, but in some cases a lot better food as well--and all at a reasonable price.

Hirose was able to provide a range of production services to help out first-timers. To the fastidious Japanese, these services range from the obvious tasks of venue and food through to choice of politically correct seating arrangements, wording and format of invitations, and even printing parking maps for guests in space-challenged Tokyo. For a while the new trend helped Bridal Hirose grow by more than 30% a year, but in 1999-2000, the market for restaurant weddings peaked, and Hirose was busy planning the next big thing.

The next big thing was the "teitaku wedding," a casual wedding in a gracious private home rented for the occasion. The concept arose in Europe and America, from where more and more young Japanese women were returning after overseas study. One problem in Japan, however, is that there are few spacious private homes, let alone those for rent, and thus the concept was pulled back to Wedding Planning Co., and right now these casual events are enjoying a mini boom. The teitaku wedding is, of course, for wealthier couples, and there are only three hotels in Tokyo competing for this business: the Okura, the Imperial, and the New Otani.

The quintessential teitaku wedding involves a garden ceremony, dinner inside, then a return to the garden for dessert and drinks--all, of course, in the middle of downtown Tokyo. Hirose says that about 70 percent of these weddings have between 80 and 90 guests, with some of the more extravagant ones running to 250 people. A typical teitaku wedding runs the bride's father around 3 to 4 million yen, but since it is tradition for guests to give gifts of money the overall cost is halved.

Business being what it is, Hirose needs to keep innovating, and his latest spin is a concept called "park weddings." Again, looking to the West for inspiration, Hirose reckons that in Western Europe and the U.S. up to 40 percent of weddings are now being held in parks and other open spaces. He was especially inspired by weddings in Central Park in New York City. Certainly this is the case in areas with clement weather, including California, Hawaii, and the U.S. southwest. Now Hirose wants to bring park weddings to Japan--but not just any park. Given that he has been moving up the value chain, with the teitaku productions at brand-name hotels, his plan is to focus on downtown parks and public spaces. What especially caught his eye was the Tokyo City government's decision to rent out Hibiya Park for events. Hirose was the first to approach the government with a wedding concept. They liked it, and awarded him the rights to conduct weddings during FY2004, beginning April 2003.

Anniversary Weddings..................................................................
However, the contract is both a blessing and burden. To start with, he only has six months to create a new trend. While he is confident that his recent marketing and PR efforts will generate business leads, he is hedging his bets with another concept-- the "anniversary wedding." The idea is for Japanese older couples to have a Western-style wedding decades after their first one, which may have been cut price.

The great thing about these re-weddings is that they can be a lot more casual and are more for the re-bride to enjoy wearing white and getting together with her friends in a festive atmosphere; thus they are ideally suited for a pavilion in a park. Furthermore, it is acceptable for two or three couples to re-tie the knot at the same wedding, thus reducing costs and adding to the festive atmosphere. Hirose is trying to get multiple generations of families to re-wed all together: that is, the grandparents, the parents, and the first-time groom and bride.

Actually, Hirose is making good progress in marketing the "anniversary wedding" concept. "What, with all the divorce and difficulties married couples have these days," he says, "it's really tough on the kids. I want to promote the anniversary weddings as a means for couples to renew their marriage vows in front of their families and friends, and to renew their relationships. I think people will start to realize that as a social institution, marriage needs to be reaffirmed in a social setting. These events will help stressed married couples to remind themselves what their real values should be." That's a good pitch. "And considering that there could be silver, gold, and diamond anniversary celebrations, he may have just tripled the size of the Japanese wedding market.

Already, Hirose has organized an anniversary wedding at the Hibiya Park location, with the blessing of the Tokyo-to Government. The event was a great success--with three unrelated couples in their 40's, 50's, and 60's reaffirming their vows during the course of a summer's afternoon, and with over 1,000 friends and family members in attendance. Many in the industry have been amazed to see just how many people turned out--and the atmosphere was more like a music concert than a private party. Needless to say, the event received wide media coverage. His next event was at Ark Hills on November 22, 2004--an important date, as 1-1-2-2 can be read as "Ii fufu", meaning "a nice couple." As they say, never underestimate the power of a driven entrepreneur to create concepts and change.

At 48 years of age, Hirose has become known as the father of wedding planners. This is because after several years of doing business he realized that the only way to break the hold of the hotels was to create market momentum through education. So in 1996, he started a training school for planners and producers. It was a hit, and in the last 8 years he has had hundreds of people graduate from the course. Naturally, education is a two-edged sword, and while his pupils have indeed gone on to change the industry, a number of them have been sufficiently successful to become competitors. Hirose takes it all in stride and says that providing the industry keeps moving weddings up market--something that is likely to continue so long as women keep putting off the marriage date--then there is enough for all the players.

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