Ibaraki turns matchmaker to curb population decline

by David Mcneill and Chie Matsumoto

NAMEGATA, Ibaraki Pref. — With fat black clouds hanging ominously overhead, a sludgy field of sweet potatoes in rural Japan might not seem the best place for a date with the woman of your dreams.

Still, bachelor Naoki Nakai, 33, hopes luck will strike before the rain comes.

“Yes, there could be someone for me here,” he nods, glancing at a longhaired beauty in knee-high boots. “There are some nice people here.”

But then his face darkens. “I think some of them are from the city.”

In this remote corner of Ibaraki Prefecture, men and women tug at yams while engaging in a courtship ritual as old as time. Jokes fly and shy looks are exchanged across muddy buckets, but today’s good-natured flirting disguises a serious purpose.

Japan has been hit hard by a demographic tsunami so severe it threatens to overwhelm the economy in the long run.

As millions shun marriage and delay parenthood, local governments are turning matchmaker to the nation’s lonely hearts.

“It’s harder than ever for people to find a partner they want to have a family with,” explains Nobuki Manome, head of the Ibaraki Meeting Support Center, a matchmaking service that operates out of City Hall in Mito, the prefectural capital.

“We have decided to step in and give them a little help.”

Manome hovers near today’s group of hopefuls: 40 men and women, some who traveled two hours from Tokyo.

“There’s a purposeful atmosphere here today. At least the city women aren’t wearing high-heel shoes.”

The deal is straightforward.

For ¥10,000, Ibaraki offers a three-year membership to its marriage club, which boasts about 2,800 people over 25.

Singles fill in a confidential application listing vital details: age, height and weight, health and wealth status, and preference for children.

A staff of 20 matches the hopefuls up during weekend camping and cycling outings, barbecues and cake parties.

Today’s spud-themed expedition targets one of Ibaraki’s most stubbornly single demographics: the rural eldest son.

“It’s difficult,” sighs Nakai, a heavyset, brooding man with a farmer’s tan beneath his baseball cap.

“You can’t tell a woman straight away that she will have to live with my mother and father at home. They won’t understand.”

In an effort to bridge the yawning rural-urban gap, the local agricultural union works with Ibaraki to run these unusual dates — in a few minutes everyone will jump back on a bus bound for a tomato greenhouse.

“Farmers have an especially hard time getting hitched,” explains Fumio Nohara, a local government official. “They must stay at home so they don’t have the time or chance to look for a wife.”

Japan’s dire fertility rate and shortage of children has rippled through every layer of society, but in rural areas like this one, where many young people leave for the cities, the impact is especially hard.

Last year, the national population fell by a record 51,317, but so far the government has shunned mass immigration as a solution.

Like most parts of the country, the ranks of the unmarried in Ibaraki are swelling: Since the 1970s, the percentage of women still single in their late 20s has more than tripled. Meanwhile the number of pensioners is expected to double by 2025.

For local authorities, the incentive to be marriage broker could hardly be stronger: without more children, already creaking welfare and pension systems will collapse under the weight of the elderly.

“This is such a huge problem, involving care of the old, social security and insurance, as the population decline lowers productivity,” warns marriage counselor and researcher Yoko Itamoto.

She says that until recently local authorities subcontracted matchmaking out to private businesses, but as the problem worsens Ibaraki is part of a growing trend toward a bigger official role. “Governments at the prefectural level now need to get a move on.”

Nohara agrees, adding: “Once people get to their 40s, it becomes much harder to match them up.”

As the singles — aged 25 to 40 — at the Ibaraki event head back to the buses, he says he’s pleased. “The atmosphere is good,” he beams. “Do you see how people relax and talk when they’re out in the open?”

But on the bus, there are worrying grumbles. “Honestly? The men are a bit lacking,” moans Maki Sato, 35, who says she works as a fashion coordinator in Tokyo. “They’re not really my type.”

Her friend, 33-year-old Sanai Kumagai, is also unimpressed, but can’t say why.

“I’m really not that fussy — the only thing I hate is stingy guys. But somehow it’s not happening for me.”

More than half a million Japanese are now registered with one of about 3,800 private matchmaking firms across the country, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. With most of the unmarried living at home, moms and dads, too, have become matchmakers.

According to sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who coined the buzzwords “kon-katsu” (marriage hunting) and “parasite single,” 60 percent of single men and 80 percent of women are still stuck in the family nest and unmarried into their early 30s.

Some parents have begun attending large lonely hearts conventions, where they look for love and happiness for their offspring. The strategy sometimes backfires when children find out their lives are being planned for them.

“The children often know absolutely nothing about these meetings,” explains Yasuko Kasai, president of the matchmaking firm Marriage Club Wish Yokoyama.

Even the Self-Defense Forces are doing their bit for the national crisis, cooperating with Ibaraki and other prefectures on single’s parties targeting unmarried women.

“They’re the most popular with women and are always very oversubscribed,” says Manome. “The SDF is a secure job, and the men are considered masculine and attractive.”

Husband-hunting Kumagai, however, has her doubts. “Aren’t a lot of them gay, living with each other like that?”

The Hatoyama administration has launched perhaps the most concerted government-level bids to end the baby drought, proposing a monthly child allowance of ¥26,000 and appointing Mizuho Fukushima, one of the country’s best-known feminists, state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the declining birthrate.

Fukushima wants more money for child care and fertility treatment, and laws protecting pregnant women from workplace discrimination.

Ibaraki’s Manome wonders if she’ll succeed.

“There have been so many social changes,” he sighs. “Women are often financially independent now, so they don’t need to get married.”

And Japanese men, he says, need a revolution of the mind.

“Traditionally, they’ve been king of the roost, quite old-fashioned. They need to be kinder and more supportive.”

As the singles wander around a greenhouse picking plump tomatoes, Keiko Ozaki nods in agreement.

Recently divorced and with two young children, she gives few points to her ex-husband for his homemaking skills. “Men don’t do any housework and they hardly help at all with the kids.”

Is she encouraged by today’s outing?

“I don’t see anyone here for me,” she says, glancing around. “I just want to find some company, and maybe someone to help with the children. But most men are not interested in women with a family.”

Still, for disbelievers in the aphrodisiacal power of country air, Manome pulls out his statistical trump card: In the three years since it was set up, the Ibaraki office has matched 350 couples — a success rate of better than one in 10.

And the number of club members has tripled since 2006.

Surveys conducted by Ibaraki show that 90 percent of locals want to get married — if they can find the right partner.

“I think we’re doing something right,” he says, adding that local governments in other parts of the country have come to his office on fact-finding trips.

Back on the bus, droplets of rain finally begin splashing against the windshield as it drives through darkening fields to the final leg of the collective date: a barbecue.

Farmer Nakai has struck out so far, but even if sparks don’t fly over roasted yams and pork, he knows there will be other days. “If there’s one thing we have in the countryside, its time.”