Hunt is on for husbands as slump deepens

More single women looking for financial stability in matrimony

by Toru Fujioka

Bloomberg

When Yumiko Iwate’s pay was cut last year, she and her female colleagues all agreed there was only one thing to do: Find a husband.

“I want to get married soon, hopefully by the end of this year,” said Iwate, a 36-year-old employee at a mail-order retailer in Tokyo. “The recession made me realize I’m not going to make as much money as I expected, and I’d be more stable financially if I had double income to fall back on.”

Women the Japanese call “marriage-hunters” are looking to tie the knot as companies from Toyota Motor Corp. to Sony Corp. fire thousands of workers and the nation heads for its biggest annual economic contraction since 1945. Marriages surged to a five-year high of 731,000 in 2008 as wages stagnated and the unemployment rate rose for the first time in six years.

“Financial concerns are a major reason for the increase in marriage-hunting,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. “Women are motivated more than ever to find a financially sound partner.”

The trend marks a reversal for women who put careers over families after Japan implemented equal labor rights 23 years ago. The number of marriages in the following decade slid 4.5 percent to an annual average of 746,000 compared with the decade before. Despite equal rights, women still make 43 percent less than men, giving them more reason to seek a partner during recessions.

“I know women before my generation worked so hard and pursued their careers so they could prove they’re just as good as men,” said Reiko Kubo, 25, who bought a good-luck charm at Tokyo Daijingu Shrine. “They didn’t have to depend on men and that’s cool, but it’s not the path I want to follow.”

Tokyo Daijingu has come to be known as the marriage-hunters’ shrine, and the number of visitors has risen about 20 percent in the past year, said priest Yoshiyuki Karamatsu. For ¥5,000, he will conduct a ritual to ward off bad spirits; the purification ceremony includes drinking sacred sake.

Recessions have encouraged the Japanese to wed before. Marriages rose when an asset-price bubble burst in the late 1980s and again after the technology crash in 2001. Analysts say the trend is gaining traction because the current slump is expected to spur record-high unemployment.

Economists at Dai-ichi Life Research and JPMorgan Chase & Co. expect the jobless rate this year to surpass the postwar peak of 5.5 percent in 2003. Unemployment in January was 4.1 percent. Wages have slumped for three months, and the economy contracted an annualized 12.1 percent last quarter, the biggest drop since 1974.

Marriages are also increasing in other countries as recessions spread around the world. The number of civil weddings in London’s Westminster Register Office, the city’s most popular, rose 8.5 percent to 1,684 between April 2008 and February 2009 compared with a year earlier, according to Alison Cathcart, the superintendent registrar. “We certainly feel a lot busier,” she said.

Japan’s husband hunters are pursuing relationships the way they might search for jobs: They interview at agencies — dating agencies, in this case. They attend networking parties or just let friends know they are ready for commitment.

Iwate started her quest in December by writing New Year’s cards to 170 acquaintances from junior high school classmates to fellow dancers at salsa lessons, asking for help finding an eligible bachelor. Her five coworkers are in on the hunt, introducing each other to potential partners and putting sticky notes on the most useful pages of the “Complete Guide to Marriage Hunting” from an an magazine, a weekly publication for women in their 20s and 30s.

The issue included articles telling readers that, while it’s acceptable to choose a husband by occupation, “looks shouldn’t matter because they’re not essential to leading a married life. You need to consider men you normally wouldn’t date.”

It listed character traits by job type: “Traders tend to be adventurous and forward-looking; pharmacists conservative and stable; sushi chefs patient and creative.”

It also cautioned against playing hard to get: Being coy “is strictly forbidden; men want to seriously date women who act natural.”

Business is booming at Green, a marriage-hunting bar in Tokyo’s nightlife district of Roppongi. Men pay ¥11,340 per visit to have waiters set them up with women, who get in free. The bar is booked solid on weekends, and membership is up 26 percent this year, according to owner Yuta Honda.

Interest in O-Net, Japan’s largest dating agency, is also rising. The number of people requesting applications jumped 10 percent in the past year, according to spokesman Toshiaki Kato. Shares of Watabe Wedding Corp., a wedding-planning agency, are up 55 percent since September, while the broader Topix index has slumped 30 percent.

Marriage hunting has even attracted the attention of policymakers, who have been trying for years to increase Japan’s birthrate. Women give birth to only 1.34 children on average in their lifetimes, government data for 2007 show, well below the 2.07 required for a stable population.

A government panel charged with increasing the population met last month and invited academics to discuss the trend. Until now, efforts were focused on people with children, said Yuko Obuchi, 35, the minister in charge of the project, who is expecting her second child in September. “Marriage hunting underscores the importance of addressing unmarried people as well.”

Meanwhile, Natsuko Ono, 25, is sparing no expense to find a man. She said she’s spent ¥370,000 so far, mostly for a professional portrait and registration at a matchmaking agency.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but if you consider that it’s a way to find a husband, it’s a reasonable investment,” she said while scoping men at Green.