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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

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Chance of a lifetime: Men and women mingle at a "gokon" get-together in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in September. The event was held to help unwed fishermen meet prospective partners. KYODO PHOTO

FYI

'KONKATSU'

Matchmakers in wings as singles rise


Staff writer

How can you meet the spouse of your dreams? To find that special someone to spend the rest of your life with, to have children and grow old together? Who can fit the bill?

For what it's worth, Japan at least deserves an A for effort in helping singles find "the one." The matchmaking industry for those wishing to get married is growing and the term "konkatsu" (spouse-hunting) can be seen everywhere.

But at the same time, however, the number of unmarried people is on the rise and Japan continues to be troubled by a low birthrate and an aging society.

What is "konkatsu?"

Konkatsu is short for "kekkon katsudo" (spouse-hunting) coined by Masahiro Yamada, a professor of family sociology at Chuo University in Tokyo. It first appeared in an article in the weekly magazine AERA in November 2007.

Since then, the word has become a social phenomenon, having been nominated twice, in 2008 and 2009, as a candidate for the annual most popular word award. Yamada is also the creator of the term "parasite singles" describing single men and women who live comfortably in their parents' homes.

"What I wanted to say was that if single people sit around and wait (for that perfect partner), they will not be able to get married," Yamada said. "Prince Charming or Princess Charming are not going to show up, no matter how long they wait. They need to be proactive."

But at the same time, being "proactive" does not just mean go out and spend a lot of money and time participating in various dating events, the professor said. Single men must try harder to enhance their appeal if they really want to find someone to marry, while women must not adhere too much to nuptial preconditions, he added.

Is the number of singles increasing?

Yes. According to the internal affairs ministry's 2010 data, 71.1 percent of men aged between 25 and 29 were single. Also, in 2010, 46.5 percent of those between 30 and 34 and 34.6 percent aged between 35 and 39 were also unmarried. The number of single men has steadily increased compared with 10 years ago, when the percentage was 65.1, 32.8 and 19.1, respectively.

Meanwhile, single women are also on the increase — 59.9 percent of those between 25 and 29 years old, 33.3 percent for those between 30 and 34, and 22.4 percent between 35 and 39 in 2010. For women, the numbers shot up from a decade earlier — 40.4 percent, 13.9 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively.

Experts and those in the matchmaking industry agree there is a mismatch between what single women want and what single men can provide, as salaries for men are steadily declining while women continue to seek financial security and higher education.

"By seeking various conditions, the women are placing obstacles in the way and making it harder for themselves to find the right person. Their choices would expand if they compromised just a little," said Fumie Shiga, a matchmaker at Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai (National Association of Go-Betweens), a Tokyo-based marriage consultancy.

Does the rise in singles mean more people don't want to wed?

No. According to 2005 data by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research on singles, it shows that about 90 percent of all men and women want to marry at some point.

Shiga also noted that since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, the number of young women expressing an interest in marriage increased.

"I think that women felt a strong sense of insecurity after the disaster, that there was no guarantee that their life would remain stable," Shiga said.

How big is the "konkatsu" industry?

According to a 2006 survey taken by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the estimated market size was ¥50 billion-¥60 billion with 600,000 single male and female clients.

Aside from introducing singles, many marriage consultation agencies also hold various parties and "gokon," a type of event held specifically to provide an opportunity for men and women to meet and socialize. The events include parties on cruise boats or at famous restaurants and hotels, golf competitions, cooking parties, firefly watching, apple-picking and so on. There are also parties targeting people, in most cases men, who have high-paying jobs or specific backgrounds, such as doctors, lawyers, company presidents, foreigners or even monks.

There are also konkatsu "fukubukuro" (New Year's luck bags) filled with dresses and accessories and how-to books on relationships, titles of TV dramas and manga, and tickets for baseball games.

What happened to the "omiai" tradition of arranged marriages?

The practice, in which a single man and woman and their families are introduced to each other by a professional "nakodo" (go-between), was widespread up until around the war. According to IPSS, arranged marriages peaked in the early 1940s, when about 70 percent of all nuptials were the result of omiai.

Since the mid-1960s, more marriages have resulted from a couple falling in love, not via an arranged partnership that may or may not include true-love romance.

The most recent data, from 2010, show almost 90 percent of all relationships began when couples met at the workplace or school, or via an introduction by family or friends. Only 5.2 percent of marriages were the result of omiai.

Yamada of Chuo University attributed the omiai decline to the fact that fewer men can meet women's requirements, including a college degree from a prestigious school or a high income.

"There just aren't any men who can be introduced through that type of matchmaking," Yamada said. "Men can attract women with good looks and personalities at singles get-together events. But the first thing people see in the traditional matchmaking is the person's occupation, education and income."

Meanwhile, more business-oriented omiai agencies have emerged, including Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai, which was set up in 1970 and currently has 1,000 matchmakers like Shiga nationwide. At this agency, the client profiles are amassed and a matchmaker goes through them with the singles, helping them select a future spouse.

Shiga, a 20-year veteran matchmaker, said her job is not only about helping people to get to know each other but also includes tips on dating, manners and even life, family and job counseling.

"Being a go-between is like being a mother in many ways, at times scolding clients or fighting with them," Shiga said.

Are government authorities taking steps to deal with the increase in singles?

Various local-level authorities have started their own matchmaking services, aiming to reverse the low birthrate, including the prefectures of Hyogo, Ibaraki, Nara and Shimane.

Yamada recently headed a government panel on marriage and family, whose survey data, released in March, show local governments have been holding omiai parties, farm-experience tours, and even lessons to improve communications skills.

Have matchmaking services run into trouble?

Yes. Various surveys show many clients have complained of the hefty penalties levied for severing their relationship with such services or the inability to meet a partner they deemed appropriate. Many wanted their money back.

To alleviate these problems, the marriage agency industry became categorized as "specified continuous services" along with beauty salons, foreign language, computer and other types of schools under the law on specified commercial transactions in 2004. The law aims to protect consumers from having to pay big penalties if they decide to cancel their contracts with matchmaking companies.

But according to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, an independent administrative agency, the number of complaints filed against matchmaking companies has been mainly on the rise since 2006. Over 15,000 cases have been filed in five years.

To deal with the growing number of complaints, the industry introduced the Certified Matchmaking Service mark system, the guidelines of which were set by METI. Each company is evaluated by the third-party nonprofit Japan Lifedesign Counselors' Association and is issued the CMS mark if it passes the inspection.

Is konkatsu international?

It seems not. According to the 2006 report by the trade ministry, there were similar matchmaking services in the United States, but they did not necessarily have marriage-focused objectives.

Yamada said there is a fundamental difference in the way Japanese think about relationships — they have marriage somewhere in the back of their minds when they date, whereas in Western countries, dating is a much more casual affair.

"Japanese women are willing to pay to meet (high-salaried) men because for them, marriage is financial stability," he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp


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