In Japan, women are traditionally subservient to men and — like children in the West — have long been schooled to be “seen and not heard.” But in matters of the heart and homemaking, and in these times of increasing sexual equality, Japan’s females — who were formerly hunted romantically — are increasingly doing the hunting themselves.

For the proof of this pudding, I went one recent evening to a meeting room in Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district where a company named Exeo Japan had arranged chairs and small tables for 30 men and 30 women in two lines facing each other. By the time I turned up, most of the participants had already arrived, and a tense air of expectation filled the air as they eyed each other up.

In fact, the atmosphere and the prevailing silence reminded me of a job interview, and actually that wasn’t far from the reality. Except, of course, that this event was an omiai pati (coupling party), and the potential “jobs” were as husbands or wives.

While similar to speed-dating overseas, the gathering here had something unique that is proving increasingly popular among singles — and especially women who are “marriage hunting.”

The party was founded, consciously or not, on the laws of probability, which mathematicians use to calculate the odds of things happening given a certain number of alternatives. In this case, the odds that counted were of a man selecting a woman for a date — and the woman selecting that man, too, after each of the participants had briefly chatted to all the members of the opposite sex in the room.

“Before the party starts, would you fill in the ‘profile card’?” the emcee asked those present.

The card looked like a resume, as it asked for everyone’s name, age, address and occupation. But the form also gave each person the number of the card to pin on their clothes, and asked for their blood type, characteristics of the opposite sex they liked, whether they smoked or not, where they would like to go on a date, and more besides.

On the men’s cards only, there were boxes in which to write their income and educational background. These are key things that many women want to know about any potential husband, the party organizer explained.

When the event started, the silence changed to excitement. I exchanged my card with the man sitting across from me and we began to talk.

“Hi, my name is Tanaka,” the man in a dark suit said shyly as he read my resume. “Are you a reporter?” he asked, sounding surprised. “That’s great. . . . Do you work until late?” he inquired. “Not every day,” I answered, then asked, “What do you do?”

The 30-year-old resident of Kawasaki, told me he is public servant in a city in Kanagawa Prefecture. But then our conversation was cut short when the emcee declared our two minutes of verbal intimacy had ended and all the men should move to the next chair on their left and repeat the process with someone else.

“How did you hear about this event?” I asked a guy named Yoshida. “I found it on the Internet. I decided to come because I don’t have the chance to meet women at my workplace,” said Yoshida, 34, who worked at a mobile phone-maker’s call-service center in Tokyo.

“Your hobby is snowboarding,” I said after reading his card. “Did you go snowboarding last winter?”

“Yes, but only a couple of times. My friends, who used to snowboard with me have married and could not go,” he said.

Then that call came again: “Gentlemen, please move to the next table!”

After talking in this brief way with each member of the opposite sex, everybody was told to write down the numbers of those they wanted to date and hand their “votes” to the event staff.

While waiting for the result, I asked around and found out that most participants were in their late 20s or 30s. About half the men were wearing jackets, the rest were in an assortment of T-shirts or open-necked shirts; many of the women — in contrast — were dressed to kill in feminine skirts and pastel-colored tops.

Finally, the emcee said in cheerful voice: “I can tell you that 10 couples matched! Now I will read out the numbers of the couples.”

After that romantically tinged confirmation of the law of probability, the matched pairs were to depart the party for a date.

Though I didn’t match with anyone, Fumiko Nishizawa, spokesperson for Exeo Japan, had already told me that most participants don’t meet their future partner at the first party they join.

“Marriage-hunting is like job-hunting,” she said. “If you join the parties several times, you get used to projecting yourself, and then you will meet the right one,” she added.

Exeo Japan holds about 950 parties a month across Japan, Nishizawa said, boasting that the company is the only one organizing events of this kind nationwide. I also learned that the number of Exeo party participants is rising, to some 300,000 in fiscal 2008 — a 10 percent jump from fiscal 2007. It costs from ¥500 to ¥7,500 to join a party, depending on what kind it is. Some, for example, include “only men with a high income (women without conditions),” “30s only” and “people with divorce experience and those who understand it.”

Interestingly, Nishizawa said, the percentage of male and female participants had always been roughly the same until January, since when more women than men have been joining the parties. This she explained, saying: “As the economy has got worse, more women seem to be seeking economic stability by marrying” — adding that parties open only to men earning upward of ¥5 million a year are now particularly popular with women.

And — confirming that upending of sex-role stereotypes in Japan — she noted with interest that the women attending these “high-end” parties tend to have even more gorgeous makeup and clothes than those who go to the regular parties.

To hunt well, it seems, women who join coupling parties are shrugging off the shy, demure image of Japanese femininity and instead are flaunting it aggressively in pursuit of a choice member of the country’s increasingly unmasculine eligible males.

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