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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Matchmaker looks to cash in on population woes


Staff writer

For the government, the declining birthrate and delayed marriages are its biggest headaches as the graying of Japan accelerates.

News photo
Jim Safka

But for Jim Safka, chief executive officer of Match.com, that pain is his gain because it gives his U.S.-based matchmaking firm an opportunity to expand business in Japan.

"We are in the business of creating couples and creating babies. Solutions we provide are a perfect fit with the social changes we are trying to counteract in Japan," said Safka, who was in Japan for four-day visit through Saturday.

Match.com is the world's biggest Internet dating service, with 15 million members from 240 countries. In 2002, it entered Japan, where it claims about 710,000 members.

Safka said that although the falling birthrate and late marriages are trends in many countries, it is more pronounced in Japan than anywhere else in the world.

The total fertility rate, an indicator of the number of children a woman is expected to bear in her lifetime, hit a record low of 1.25 in 2005. In 2004, the average age at which men and women first marry hit record highs of 29.6 for men and 27.8 for women.

"In hindsight, we might have started better in Japan first," he said with a laugh.

But the saturated matchmaking market in the U.S. may be the main reason Match.com is making forays into other countries.

According to JupiterResearch, a marketing research arm of Jupitermedia Corp., the Internet matchmaking industry in the U.S. grew 77 percent from $224 million to $396 million in 2003. But growth has slowed and is expected to be only 7 percent in 2006.

Safka pointed out that the online matchmaking industry is still underdeveloped in Japan, where people, in general, are considered more cautious about acquainting themselves with strangers via the Internet.

Member profiles and photos uploaded to Match.com are reviewed to make sure inappropriate or sensitive information, such as illicit photos or the member's phone numbers and e-mail addresses, do not appear.

In the future, members will be able to show their driver's license or other identification to the matchmaking company, which then will place an icon on the person's top page to certify that his or her information is trustworthy, Safka said.

He said he also plans to start a new personal consultation service in early 2007 in which members looking for serious relationships are assisted by personal consultants who can introduce them to handpicked candidates selected from other members.

"Privacy, security and safety is our number one concern," Safka said.

But the question for Match.com is how to build that reputation.

Safka said he went to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and asked that consideration be given to certifying online dating companies.

As part of the government's attempts to stop the falling birthrate, METI is considering certifying matchmaking companies as a way to help develop the industry.

Although Safka admitted that Japanese are still cautious about forming relationships over the Net, he said the younger generation has fewer qualms about doing so.

"With so much time spent on the Internet, it's a very natural place to meet someone," he said.



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