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Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

WEEK 3

True love blooms eternal whatever life's obstacles

A nonprofit marriage agency makes dreams come true for many who had given up hope


Staff writer

"Finding a life partner was like finding a light in a dark cave," writes Satoko Yoshida, describing that joy by the only means she can — a keyboard — due to the fact she was born with hearing problems and suffers paralysis on the right side of her body.

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Bridge-builder: Mitsuyo Shimizu, the former nurse and carer who founded Yokohama Bridal Center in 2007.

In a recent interview, the 32-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture went on to explain via her computer how she had never dreamed of a wedding for herself until she signed up at Yokohama Bridal Center.

Before doing that, Yoshida had been registered with several well-known marriage-consultant companies for five years, and she'd met about 40 men seeking wives — but none of those contacts lasted long.

Despite the high fees she had paid, she said the services simply failed to meet her needs. Either the meeting places set up by the company did not accommodate her physical difficulties, or no services were provided to accommodate her inability to communicate verbally.

Omiai, the traditional system of formal introductions through family connections or third parties with a view to arranged marriage, is still deeply rooted in Japanese society. Nowadays, though, a boom in konkatsu (marriage hunting) — which is being undertaken with the same endeavor as shukatsu (job hunting), from where the expression derives — parties and other social events organized for marriage-minded singles can be found all over the country.

However, Yokohama Bridal Center adopts a quite different approach, being a nonprofit organization specifically set up to help people who suffer from physical or mental disadvantages find the right partner.

The center welcomes people suffering from illnesses or disabilities that would tend to keep them away from mainstream konkatsu events, as well as older members, and is likely unique in its dedication to making the omiai process easier for disabled people.

Since the first branch was opened in Yokohama in 2007 by longtime nurse and carer Mitsuyo Shimizu, 63, Yokohama Bridal Center has expanded across Japan from Hokkaido to Kyushu and now has more than 100 people on its books, including a wide spectrum of society from freelance social workers to teachers, doctors and politicians. To date, as it were, Yokohama Bridal Center has seen about 35 couples get married through its efforts, and amid the present konkatsu boom, it is getting busier all the time and now arranges around eight omiai appointments every week.

When a couple sets a date for an omiai through Yokohama Bridal Center, the staff seek out an appropriate meeting place to suit their particular needs. Although almost all omiai first dates are traditionally in hotel restaurants or cafes, the center takes great pains to find a venue with wheelchair lifts, if required, smooth floors for people who use crutches or even somewhere that welcomes guide dogs.

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Love is the key: Satoko Yoshida and her fiance, Takashi Ooki, who met through Yokohama Bridal Center after Ooki, an engineer who suffers from an incurable illness that results in collapsing bones and joints, typed "disabled, marriage" into an Internet search engine. The couple are now planning their June wedding.

Yokohama Bridal Center also holds parties for its members and their friends, and its latest one in Yokohama attracted around 100 people, including ones who were disabled and nondisabled, and many non-Japanese. As well as providing opportunities to mingle, this and the center's other events also aim to encourage disabled people to be more comfortable in such a social setting.

With their far more even balance of men and women, too, the center's parties trump typical omiai events for disabled people. These — according to Ibaraki Prefecture's Social Welfare Office, for example — normally attract five times more men than women, due to disabled women's greater reluctance to mix socially.

Moreover, according to a Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey in 2006, about 5.6 percent of the adult population in Japan are disabled, and 35 percent of them are unmarried. That compares with a 2005 survey that found 31 percent of non-disabled adult men nationwide were unmarried, and just 22.7 percent of women.

With her long experience as a nurse in schools and seniors' carehomes, though, the center's founder, Shimizu, says she became convinced that many disabled or elderly people were simply ruling themselves out of the search for a life partner because of their condition or age. It was this realization, and her sympathy for the loneliness it brought, that motivated her to start Yokohama Bridal Center.

"I always enjoyed being an omiai organizer while I was working as a nurse," Shimizu explained. "I myself fought with hepatitis for 35 years, and when I finally got my health back and retired as a nurse, it was only natural that I should start a business like this. I know how it feels to be ill, but whether they are disabled or non-disabled, everybody wants to love somebody."

Just such a person was Takashi Ooki, a 44-year-old engineer from Tokyo, who found Yokohama Bridal Center by typing "disabled, marriage" into an Internet search engine. Ooki suffers from a condition known as idiopathic osteonecrosis of the femoral head — an almost incurable illness that results in collapsing bones and joints.

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All together: A recent party staged by Yokohama Bridal Center for its members and their friends included performances on a stage hung with a banner whose inscription translates as something along the lines of: "Enjoy yourselves and meet here."

During the 1990s, when his IT-related career was going full tilt, Ooki simply had to ignore the pain he was suffering every day. Then, two years ago, he decided he couldn't carry on like that and agreed to undergo surgery. When that succeeded in reducing his pain to a more tolerable level, he says that made him think "maybe it's about time I started a family of my own."

After paying about ¥200,000 to the Yokohama Bridal Center for its omiai service and its role in leading to him becoming engaged — a rate far below that of most such agencies — Ooki says he now couldn't be happier than with Satoko Yoshida, the fiancee he's found.

For that happy couple, it took only about 10 dates before Ooki proposed to Yoshida in a handwritten love letter last August — finally ending her five-year-long konkatsu. Now, they are both delightedly planning their June wedding.

As Ooki observed, "Everyone wants to have a lifelong partner, but people with disability tend to shy away from even thinking about finding one. I hope more and more people will support such people and let them know that it is just a matter of taking one step outside of the world categorized as 'disabled.' " Information from Kyodo added



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