Have trouble finding a spouse? Matchmaking is timeless solution in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan’s birth rate over the years has declined while the number of people not getting married continues to rise. Amid these trends, The Yomiuri Shimbun published a story on March 21 about how local governments are wading into the matchmaking services field and using artificial intelligence in hopes of producing better results — and happy couples.

High-tech omiai, or matchmaking, may sound modern, but the idea of helping compatible men and women pair up is timeless. Meddling “uncles” and “aunts” in the community or workplace used to be the prime movers in such efforts. Many people have the impression that local governments have taken the matchmaking initiative only in recent years, but research reveals that similar efforts have been going on for quite some time.

War’s lingering impact

A Yomiuri Shimbun article published on May 6, 1948, less than three years after Japan’s defeat in World War II, reported that a group matchmaking event was held by the city government of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, in which the city played the role of matchmaker on the previous day in the precincts of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine.

According to the article, 80 men and 60 women participated in the event. Female participants included a 33-year-old who came all the way from Yamaguchi Prefecture, a kimono-clad daughter accompanied by her mother and a widow with her child. Among the men were a middle-aged operator of three factories in Tokyo, a company employee who was a war veteran and a university student. The article stated, “By 2 p.m., more than a dozen marriage proposals had been made during the event.”

At that time, women in certain age groups had great difficulty getting married. In 1950, there were about 500,000 more women than men in the 25-29 age group, about 500,000 more women in the 30-34 age group, and about 300,000 more women in the 35-39 age group. These statistics are strikingly different from other age groups because so many men in these age ranges died in the Pacific War, making it difficult for unmarried women and widows to find marriage partners on their own. Holding such matchmaking events was one of the measures taken by local governments.

Traditionally in Japan, there was a strong tendency to think of marriage as a connection between two families, and many people married a partner recommended by an influential person in their family, local community or workplace. However, as time went by, more and more young people wanted to choose their own marriage partners.

The Yomiuri Shimbun’s “Troubleshooter,” a long-running advice column, has received many questions about marriage over the years. Questions about arranged marriages became common after the 1960s. One young woman, who had a complex about her academic background and appearance, wrote, “I don’t want to have an arranged marriage that relies on others.” Another woman, who reluctantly agreed to an arranged marriage only to become fed up with her husband, wrote, “It was a mistake that I had an arranged marriage in a time like this.”

It seems that there already was widespread public sentiment that arranged marriages were old-fashioned.

Influential Imperial marriage

One event in particular back then may have influenced the Japanese people’s view of matrimony: the marriage of the then crown prince, who is now the Emperor Emeritus.

On Nov. 27, 1958, his engagement to the current Empress Emerita was announced and reported spectacularly. In the following day’s morning edition of The Yomiuri Shimbun, various people were quoted. A 22-year-old university student said the marriage “has a great significance for our young generation because the hopes of young men and women are often brutally dashed. When we want to marry a woman we like, our parents make selfish excuses, saying such things as the social standings of the families don’t match each other, so a good balance can’t be maintained.

“From now on, parents will no longer be able to say what they want to say to young people who want to marry for love,” he added.

Even though this Imperial marriage was not the same as ordinary love marriages, the crown prince’s engagement with a woman who was not of noble birth, which took a different path from the ancient Imperial custom, was welcomed by people as a positive news topic.

Fourteen years later, on Aug. 30, 1972, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported the results of a survey conducted by a life insurance company on 1,108 unmarried female employees. Asked about their preference — a love marriage or an arranged marriage — 50.9% of the respondents favored the former, while 4.7% of them picked the latter and 42.1% had no preference. From a contemporary point of view, the survey raises questions because only female employees were surveyed, but there is evidently no doubt that people became more inclined to marry for love.

The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research calculates the ratio of arranged marriages to love marriages in its basic survey on fertility trends, which is conducted every five years. Before the war, about 70% of marriages were arranged, but the number of love marriages increased in postwar society, outnumbering arranged marriages in the late 1960s. This trend has continued since then, with the latest 2010-2014 survey showing that 87.7% of marriages were for love and only 5.5% were arranged.

Social issue

After the war, many young people in rural regions moved to metropolitan areas where the manufacturing and service industries grew.

In the second half of the 1970s and in the 1980s, many men who did not relocate to metropolitan areas and remained in their home-towns, such as farmers, had difficulty finding marriage partners. This became a social issue.

A Yomiuri article published on Sept. 11, 1979, featured an “arranged marriage train” traveling along the now-defunct Biko Line in Hokkaido, which was known for being an unprofitable Japanese National Railway line. The photo with the article shows men and women inside the train sitting and chatting. According to the ar-ticle, about 80 men of a marriageable age lived in Bifuka, which is located along the railway line, and faced a serious shortage of brides. The mayor of the town came up with the idea of seeking participants in a matchmaking event from all over the country, and eight women took part. In this way, group matchmaking efforts set up by local governments spread to various areas where men were having difficulty getting married and populations were declining.

Originally, the previously mentioned “meddling uncles and aunts” played a lead role in matchmaking. However, there have been dating businesses in Tokyo at least since the Taisho era (1912-1926).

The Yomiuri Shimbun carried an article on Dec. 2, 1923, about a woman who ran a matrimonial agency.

“The number of working women proposing marriage has increased, but at the same time, the number of men seeking to marry working women has also risen,” the woman said.

This is rather surprising considering the era.

The reason for this, the woman explained, was that such men were generally paid salaries, and on the other hand, working women led independent lives and had relatively less demanding relatives. “It’s simply easier to get engaged with such women compared to the case involving a daughter of a wealthy or well-established family,” she said.

People in Tokyo were seeking partners without constraints caused by relationships with their local community or relatives even at that time, which is no different than today.

‘Marriage hunting’

There are now many services in both the public and private sectors to help people find marriage partners. In 2009, the word “konkatsu” (marriage hunting) was nominated for the grand prize in an annual event that picks the year’s top buzzword. Konkatsu was used in the March 21 story mentioned earlier about local governments utilizing AI to advance matchmaking services, proving that the word has staying power.

A Yomiuri Shimbun article on July 12, 2020, featured people who have been active in online konkatsu because it is difficult to meet new people amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Marriage is ultimately a personal choice. While there are pros and cons regarding the involvement of local governments, the reality is that many people seeking to get married cannot find a partner. Although there may no longer be much room for meddling aunts and uncles to play an active role, matchmaking services are likely to continue in various forms according to the times.