Matchmakers’ ‘marriage hunts’ beating out fate to secure mate

by Mariko Kato

Many singles may prefer to leave it up to fate to find their significant other, but experts are saying those who elect to wait for “the one” may never make it to the altar.

Two sociologists recently coined the phrase “kon-katsu” (marriage hunting) in a bid to encourage singles to pursue marriage strategically. They hope this results in more marriages, and, ultimately, a reversal in Japan’s declining birthrate.

The media spread the phrase last year and it soon became popular, resulting in a nomination for the 2008 “U-Can shingo ryukogo taisho” award for new popular words.

“Kon-katsu” is short for “kekkon-katsudo,” a spinoff from the term “shushoku-katsudo” (job hunting), according to journalist Toko Shirakawa, who coined the word in the book “Kon-Katsu Jidai” (“Marriage Hunting Era”), published in March with coauthor Masahiro Yamada, a sociology scholar.

“We wanted to popularize the term to emphasize that you can no longer get married by simply wanting to. You have to search strategically for a partner, as you would a career,” said Shirakawa, who writes on marriage, relationships and the declining birthrate in various publications, including AERA magazine.

Among the 20-to-34 age group in Japan, 69 percent of men and 57 percent of women are unmarried, according to a report by the internal affairs ministry.

Yet marriage remains high on the agenda for many. Among singles in the 18-to-34 age bracket, about 90 percent of both males and females want to tie the knot some day, according to a survey by National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.

One major kekkon-katsudo tactic is to sign up with a professional marriage broker.

There are about 3,800 companies in the matchmaking industry nationwide, with 600,000 registered members, according to a survey by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. This includes online partner-search services on Web sites and offline agencies that offer data matching.

Last month, an effort to link the online and offline services was launched by the matchmaking service Web site Yahoo Enmusubi, run by Yahoo Japan Corp.

It joined forces with offline firms Zwei Co., Sunmarie and Partner Agent Inc., so that members can also request information from those firms.

“We wanted to encourage those who are hesitant about using online services,” said Mana Yasuda, PR spokeswoman for Yahoo Japan. “They can create their profiles online, and sort out their priorities in looking for a partner. After they have perfected their self-appeal, they can go to the other companies to expand their search if they want to,” she explained.

Membership in Yahoo Enmusubi costs ¥4,800 for men and ¥3,500 for women, and proof of identity is required. Once kon-katsu gained notoriety, the service has seen membership rise to 11,186 at present, Yasuda said.

Some marriage consultancies aim for successful matches by limiting membership to candidates with specific careers or academic records.

One such agency is Bridal Station Ginza in Chuo Ward, Tokyo.

Among the courses the agency has on offer is Doctor’s Stage, where women are introduced to single doctors and dentists.

“Doctors are popular with Japanese women because they want someone they can respect, someone they feel they cannot surpass,” explained Rumi Sato, PR spokeswoman for Bridal Station. “Even though doctors are busy and may not earn as much as business executives, they provide stability.”

Female members are given counseling and introduced to two potential partners a month. They attend parties and seminars on such topics as manners or communications, and get subsidized access to a beauty-treatment clinic, a fashion stylist, hair and makeup salons, and a photography studio.

The cost for women to join Doctor’s Stage is ¥400,000, which includes the one-year membership fee. For men who are considered highly sought-after because they have elite careers, membership is free. Of the 1,000 Bridal Station members, 40 percent are men.

Members treat the service as a school, according to Etsuko Satake, manager of Bridal Station.

“If you want to go to a university, you go to a preparatory school. If you want to marry a doctor, you come here. Some clients even call me ‘tutor,’ ” she said. “I give suggestions for makeup or conversation suitable for dating a doctor. Fixing faults leads to a successful marriage, and for that you need someone to think objectively.”

The matchmaking process in Japan began to grow complex in the 1980s, when attitudes toward career and marriage started to diversify, Shirakawa said.

The recession adds another layer of difficulty to the process.

“With full-time jobs no longer easily available or secure for life in recent times, some men are disinclined to marry because it would put them under financial pressure. They want their wives to work, too. But in Japan, it is still difficult for women to sustain a family and a career.” she said.

“Some women meanwhile still pursue the old marriage model of their parents, with the husband being the main breadwinner,” she said. “They look for men who can sustain the lifestyle they have enjoyed as single women.”

Speaking recently in Tokyo, Kuniko Inoguchi, former state minister in charge of dealing with the declining birthrate, said marriage-minded women need help looking.

“Many regions in Japan cite the lack of opportunity for people to meet potential partners as a reason for their declining birthrate,” she said.

The average fertility rate has been falling since the mid-1970s and hit an all-time low of 1.26 children per woman in 2005, according to a survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Even though the term kon-katsu is new, the concept is old, according to Shirakawa. “People started entering arranged marriages a long time ago, more so than now,” she said.

“The difference we wanted to make by coining the term now was to make people conscious of marriage hunting as a necessary activity. It is an effective way to find a suitable partner in life, and we wanted to encourage people not to be embarrassed.”