It’s a steamy summer afternoon in the Japanese city of Osaka, as a group of about 60 men and women have gathered for a session of “omiyae,” or matchmaking, to find true love.
They shuffle away, hopping from one end of the Sakai Chamber of Commerce building’s conference room to the other while evaluating potential matches — and the competition.
But this is no ordinary speed dating event.
Few participants talk about their hobbies, favorite movies or restaurants, or even themselves. They are talking about their adult children who are still single and hoping to reconcile and marry them.
A woman in her 60s speaks proudly of her 34-year-old son, who is a public elementary school teacher. A man in his 80s speaks affectionately of his career-oriented son, 49, who works as a superintendent for an electric company.
Each parent paid 14,000 yen ($96) to attend the event, which was hosted by matchmaking agency Marriage Proposal Information Parents’ Association. They all hope to meet someone just like them; A parent whose daughter or only son may be the ideal partner for their only child.
Not that Japan, a work-obsessed country where time is at a premium, hasn’t tried the more direct approach to speed dating, with young men doing it themselves. What’s more, leaving the young ones for that doesn’t seem to work.
And with a high cost of living, poor economic prospects, and a tough work culture conspiring against them, fewer Japanese today are choosing to marry and have children. Their parents, worried about their dwindling chances of having grandchildren, step in.
“The idea that it is acceptable for parents to help their children marry in this way is becoming more prevalent,” said company director Noriko Miyaguchi, which has been organizing matchmaking events for nearly two decades.
In the past, she added, people might have shy away from attending these events.
“But times have changed.”
The same forces that drove those fathers into the Osaka conference room 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 trajectory, and in the year to January, according to government data, it suffered a record drop of 800,523, to 125.4 million.
Behind this population decline lies the continuing decline in the number of marriages and births.
In 2021, the number of newly registered marriages decreased to 501,116, the lowest number since the end of World War II in 1945, and only half the number recorded in the 1970s. And when people get married, they do so later in life, which leaves less time for having children. The average age of marriage in 2021 was 34 for men, up from 29 in 1990, and 31, up from 27 for women.
Along with the decline in marriages has been a drop in the fertility rate, which last year reached a record high of 1.3, well below the 2.1 needed to keep the population stable.
All of this has left a growing headache for the government, which must somehow fund health care and pensions for a rapidly aging population with an ever-shrinking number of young taxpayers.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida disclosed an amount of several trillion yen The plan aims to increase the birth rate, which they warn is a “now or never” situation.
Among the incentives for parents is a monthly allowance of 15,000 yen ($100) for each child they have up to two years of age and 10,000 yen for those three and over.
But James Remo, an East Asian studies expert at Princeton University, said trying to increase the birth rate is unlikely to succeed without first increasing the marriage rate.
“It’s not really a question of couples having fewer children. It’s about whether people are going to get married in the first place,” Raimo said.
Sociologist Shigeki Matsuda of Chukyo University in Aichi, Japan, said failure to address this issue would have dire consequences.
“The main concerns include the decline of the country’s overall economic strength and national wealth, the difficulty of maintaining social security, and the loss of social capital in local communities,” he said.
So what turns people off?
Matsuda said that it does not mean that people no longer have the desire to marry per se, about 80% of them still want to marry. According to a survey conducted by the National Institute of Population and Social Security last year.
More importantly, they believe that the obstacles in the way are insurmountable.
He noted that Japanese youth have been facing poor job opportunities and fixed wages since the 1990s. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the average annual salary in Japan increased by just 5% from 1991 to 2021 – compared to a rise of 34% in other G7 economies such as France and Germany.
“This has weakened their economic ability to start a marriage,” Matsuda said.
Raimo had a similar view, saying that Japan’s high cost of living and notoriously long working hours made things worse.
“If you work 70 hours a week, of course you won’t have a suitable partner, because you don’t have time to meet him,” he said.
Remo added that the depth of the crisis can be glimpsed in the aisles of supermarkets and grocery stories, where shelves are filled with pre-packaged meals that cater to one person, or in streets filled with tiny apartments designed specifically for bachelor life.
“This country is designed to make single life as easy as possible,” he said.
For women, economic costs are not the only disincentive. Japanese society remains highly patriarchal, with married women often expected to assume the role of caregivers, despite efforts by the government to involve husbands more.
“Although Japan is legally equal to men and women, in reality there is a deep belief between men and women that women should bear and raise children, while men should work outside the home,” said Miyaguchi, the matchmaker.
Back at Sakai’s Chamber of Commerce, light music plays to calm the mood in what might otherwise seem an unexpected place for Cupid to draw his bow.
CNN attended the gathering on condition of anonymity to protect their privacy.
Some parents have already attended some sessions, others are attending for the first time, and the stakes are high. Each of them came armed with a full questionnaire about their offspring, which asked about things like whether they’d be willing to move on if things worked out. The parents also upload selfies, many of them professionally taken, some of which show young women in impressive traditional kimonos.
Most of the photos are of spinsters and bachelors in their 30s and 40s; The youngest is 28 and the oldest is 51, and they have a range of professions, from doctors and nurses to civil servants and secretaries.
A couple, in their 80s, say their 49-year-old son spends too much time at work to take an interest in his love life.
They have always wanted grandchildren so they decide to attend the matchmaking ceremony after reading about it in a newspaper.
Another couple, in their 70s, say their 42-year-old daughter is not dating because she wants to be free to spend time with her college friends whenever she wants. They want someone who can take care of their daughter, and they say she’s glad they did the research.
Their children have asked others to attend the event. One mother, in her 60s, says her 37-year-old daughter became anxious seeing friends her age get married and have children. She says she regrets not pushing her daughter to find a partner when she was younger.
The agency estimates that around 10% of the people it interviews marry, although it says the true figure may be higher because parents don’t necessarily tell them how their children’s relationships are progressing.
One mother, whose daughter was married through a matchmaking service, recalls lining up to meet the father of a popular candidate and being surprised when she received a phone call asking if her sons could meet.
“At first glance, my daughter stared at him, and that’s when I knew she had found the right partner,” she said.
The couple is married now.
She says there are advantages to only involving the parents at first; They can be more vocal about what their children want and don’t want.
“(The kids) don’t have the awkward conversations that may sometimes be remembered for years into the relationship,” she said.
Find a match, I hope you have a grandson
For many parents, it is the allure of grandchildren that draws them to matchmaking events, says Miyaguchi.
You will often come across PA men in their 40s who are looking for women in their late 20s and early 30s.
She said one father had complained that he could not establish his 40-year-old son despite sharing his profile with 10 other fathers.
Taking a closer look, I discovered that the father rejected all women in their mid-thirties and those more educated than his son. He also rejected a candidate who did not have male siblings – women in this case being seen as a burden in the eyes of traditional Japanese parents who believed they would be distracted by having to take care of their in-laws when they were older.
But despite her longing for grandchildren, Miyaguchi says she always assures parents that their children should come first.
“No matter how much parents feel about each other, their children must be on board. No matter how much parents want to have grandchildren, children must be willing to have children.
This might seem an unlikely thing for a professional matchmaker to say, but Miyaguchi believes in “go-en,” a Japanese concept that refers to the romance that springs from meeting the right person at the right time.
“No matter how hard you try, sometimes it won’t work. This is what marriage is,” she said.