Tokyo CNN –
It’s a hot summer afternoon in the Japanese city of Osaka, where a group of around 60 men and women have gathered for an “omiai” session, or matchmaking, to find true love.
They mingle and hop from one end of the conference room in the Sakai Chamber of Commerce building to the other as they evaluate potential games – and the competition.
But this is no ordinary speed dating event.
Only a few of the participants talk about their favorite hobbies, movies or restaurants or even about themselves. They talk about their adult, still single children, whom they would like to get together and marry.
A woman in her 60s speaks proudly of her 34-year-old son, a primary school teacher. A man in his eighties talks fondly about his career-oriented son, 49, who works as a controller at an electricity company.
Each parent spent 14,000 yen ($96) to attend the event, hosted by matchmaking agency Association of Parents of Marriage Proposal Information. And they all hope to meet someone like them; a parent whose still-single daughter or son may be a perfect match for their own lonely child.
It’s not as if Japan, a notoriously work-obsessed country where time is at a premium, hasn’t tried the more direct approach of speed dating, where youngsters do it themselves. Rather, it doesn’t seem to be working to leave young people to their own devices.
Faced with rising costs of living, poor economic prospects and a demanding work culture, fewer and fewer Japanese today are choosing to marry and have children. Her parents, concerned that their chances of having grandchildren are dwindling, intervene.
“The idea that it’s OK for parents to help their children get married in this way has become more and more widespread,” said the company’s chief executive, Noriko Miyagoshi, who has been organizing matchmaking events for nearly two decades.
Previously, people might have been embarrassed to come to these events, she added.
“But the times have changed.”
The same forces that drive these parents into the conference room in Osaka have wreaked havoc on the demographics of the world’s third-largest economy.
In Japan today there are fewer marriages, fewer births and fewer people. The population has long been on a downward trend, posting a record decline from 800,523 to 125.4 million in the year to January, according to government data.
Behind this population decline is the constantly declining number of marriages and births.
In 2021, the number of newly registered marriages fell to 501,116, the lowest number since the end of World War II in 1945 and only half the number in the 1970s. And when people marry, they do so later in life, leaving less time to have children. The median age at marriage in 2021 was 34 for men (up from 29 in 1990) and 31 for women (down from 27).
Along with the decline in marriages has been a decline in the birth rate, which hit a record low of 1.3 last year, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population.
All of this is a growing headache for a government that must somehow finance health care and pensions for a rapidly aging population with a shrinking number of young taxpayers.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiled a multi-trillion yen dollar plan The plan aimed to increase the birth rate and warned that it was now or never.
Incentives offered to parents included a monthly subsidy of 15,000 yen ($100) for each child they had up to the age of two and 10,000 yen for children aged three and over.
But James Raymo, an expert in East Asian studies at Princeton University, said trying to increase the birth rate probably won’t work without first increasing the marriage rate.
“It’s not really about married couples having fewer children. It’s about whether people get married at all,” Raymo said.
Failing to address the problem would have serious consequences, said sociologist Shigeki Matsuda of Chukyo University in Aichi, Japan.
“The main concerns include a decline in the country’s overall economic strength and national prosperity, difficulties in maintaining social security and a loss of social capital in local communities,” he said.
So what puts people off?
Matsuda said it’s not that people no longer have a desire to get married per se – about 80% still have a desire to get married. according to a survey last year by the National Institute of Population and Social Security.
Rather, they believe that the obstacles in the way are insurmountable.
He pointed out that young Japanese have faced poor employment prospects and flat wages since the 1990s. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average annual paycheck in Japan rose just 5% from 1991 to 2021 – compared to a 34% increase in other G7 economies such as France and Germany.
“This has weakened their economic ability to enter into marriages,” Matsuda said.
Raymo took a similar view, saying that the high cost of living and notoriously long working hours in Japan made things worse.
“If you work 70 hours a week, of course you don’t have a suitable partner because you don’t have time to get to know one,” he said.
The scale of the crisis can be seen in the aisles of supermarkets and convenience stores, where shelves are full of prepackaged meals for one person, or in the streets full of tiny apartments tailor-made for single life, Raymo added.
“This is a country designed to make single life as easy as possible,” he said.
It’s not just economic costs that are a barrier for women. Japan remains a strongly patriarchal society in which married women are often expected to take on the role of caregivers, although the government is trying to get husbands more involved.
“Although there is legal equality between men and women in Japan, in reality there is a deep-rooted belief among men and women that women should continue to bear and raise children while men should work outside the home,” said Miyagoshi, the matchmaker.
Back at the Sakai Chamber of Commerce, light music plays to calm the mood, in a setting where Cupid would draw his bow in what would otherwise seem unlikely.
CNN attended the meeting on the condition that participants be quoted anonymously to protect their privacy.
Some of the parents have already attended a few sessions, others are newbies and the stakes are high. Each of them brought a completed questionnaire about their offspring, which asked, among other things, whether they would be willing to move if everything worked out. The parents also carry profile pictures, many professionally taken, some showing young women dressed to impress in traditional kimonos.
Most of the photos show spinsters and bachelors in their thirties and forties; the youngest is 28 and the oldest is 51, and they have a range of jobs, from doctors and nurses to civil servants and secretaries.
A couple in their 80s say their 49-year-old son spent too much time at work to focus on his love life.
They always wanted grandchildren and decided to join the matchmaking service after reading about it in a newspaper.
Another couple, in their 70s, says their 42-year-old daughter doesn’t date because she wants the freedom to hang out with her college friends whenever she wants. They want someone who can look after their daughter and say she is happy for them to take over the search.
Others were asked by their children to attend the event. A mother in her 60s says her 37-year-old daughter is afraid of seeing friends her age getting married and having children. She says she regrets not pushing her daughter to find a partner when she was younger.
The agency estimates that about 10% of those placed go on to marry. However, the actual number could be higher because parents do not necessarily inform them about how their children’s relationships are developing.
A mother whose daughter married through the matchmaking service recalled standing in line to meet the parent of a popular candidate and being surprised when she received a call back asking if her offspring could meet.
At first glance, she said, “my daughter just started staring at him, and that’s when I knew she had met her match.”
The couple is now married.
She says there are benefits to just involving parents in the beginning; They can express more openly what their children want and don’t want.
“[The children] Don’t have the awkward conversations that would sometimes be remembered for years in a relationship,” she said.
Looking for a partner, hoping for a grandchild
For many parents, it’s the lure of their grandchildren that draws them to matchmaking events, Miyagoshi says.
She often meets parents of men in their 40s who are looking for women in their late 20s and early 30s.
One father complained that he had not been able to get to know his 40-year-old son despite sharing his profile with 10 other parents, she said.
Upon closer inspection, she discovered that the father had rejected all women in their mid-30s and those with more education than his son. He also rejected a candidate who had no male siblings – women in this situation are viewed as a burden in the eyes of traditional Japanese parents, who believe they will be distracted by having to care for their in-laws in old age.
But no matter how great the longing for grandchildren is, Miyagoshi always emphasizes to parents that their children should come first.
“No matter how much the parents feel for each other, their children have to be on board. No matter how much parents want grandchildren, children must be willing to have children,” she said.
This may sound unlikely to a professional matchmaker, but Miyagoshi believes in “go-en,” a Japanese concept that refers to romance that comes from meeting the right person at the right time.
“No matter how much effort you put in, sometimes it doesn’t work out. This is marriage,” she said.