There was a time when the only social network that mattered in Japan was Mixi, but these days, after years of stagnation, it is hardly heard of in daily conversation — being replaced in popularity by rivals such as Gree, Mobage, Twitter, Facebook and most recently Line.

Now, however, Mixi is adding marriage/dating businesses to its basket. Is this simply a desperate move to regain relevance or a fightback challenge that could cure the nation’s low marriage/birth rate?

Since June, a new young president, 31-year-old Yusuke Asakura, has taken control of the company from its founder, Kenji Kasahara, and has set out to change Mixi’s declining popularity by starting several small in-house ventures not directly related to the main social-networking service.

With advertising sales declining, 2013 will be Mixi’s first year in the red since 2006 when it listed publicly. Asakura obviously senses the urgency in either reviving Mixi or finding the next big business.

Many have been waiting to see what direction Mixi will take.

On Oct. 1, it announced that it would purchase the marriage-support business divisions from its rival Line in December. The new business unit, Diverse, will become a 100-percent-owned subsidiary of Mixi and will take over the running of Line’s Youbride marriage-matchmaking service, which has 720,000 members.

Then, on Oct. 7, Mixi announced another acquisition, this time of a machikon company called Confianza. Machikon is a new catchphrase that refers to local, face-to-face dating events often taking place throughout a whole town and involving hundreds of singles. Local bars and restaurants also host random roulette-style gatherings of single young women and men. Some municipal governments even support the events in the hope they will raise the rate of marriage — and in turn the birth rate. Confianza organizes such machikon events and operates its business totally offline.

Mixi has emphasized that its two new subsidiaries would not be tied to Mixi’s social network.

The move into dating and matchmaking is, in a way, a back-to-basics step for Mixi, which was a popular online meeting place for singles back during the peak of its popularity around 2006.

After Mixi’s Youbride announcement, CNET Japan, among others, pointed out that Mixi neglected to mention something even bigger: Besides acquiring the marriage-matchmaking service, the package Mixi is buying also includes YYC, an online dating service with 5.8 million members.

Neither Mixi’s nor Line’s press releases mentioned the YYC handover. It was assumed by CNET Japan and several bloggers that Line might want to barter off YYC because it is aiming to go public and having YYC is not ideal. In fact, neither company seemed to suggest they were actually trading a dating site. Which, to business people outside Japan, may seem odd because online dating has the potential to be big business.

In Japan, online dating is not generally respected as a business. However, overseas there are several successful, trusted services such as Match and eHarmony. Also, people comfortably use singles ads on classifieds sites.

In Japan, though, online dating has always been criticized. Every time a new social service gets popular, the fact that someone can easily contact a person they don’t know becomes an issue. Media critics mainly single out adults seeking to meet children, but also report on incidents between adults as “the dark side of social networking.” And when the media turns against something, the public tends to follow.

In the past, many Japanese actually met their spouses through arranged marriages, a process called omiai. As such, people of older generations think dating is only OK when it leads to marriage — which is why marriage-matchmaking services may be seen as acceptable. Simply providing dating services, however, goes against such traditional thinking and is not considered an acceptable business for a publicly listed company to be involved in.

Because of this negative attitude to online dating, Mixi’s moves into this area may seem risky. However, the nation’s low rates of marriage and birth are reaching crisis levels and both the media and the general public are lamenting more frequently that young people are not interested in dating or marriage.

If Mixi can utilize these acquisitions and change society’s anti-dating attitude, it might not only save itself but also contribute to the nation’s future.

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English/Spanish blog on the Japanese web scene. Find him on Twitter at @akky.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.