It was around the middle of February when the first scintilla of doubt began to form in Yu Okada’s mind that his April 4 wedding might not proceed as planned.
“I had a bad feeling about it,” the 32-year-old company worker says. “I started thinking, ‘What if?’ It was something I just didn’t want to think about, but I knew there was at least a possibility.”
Okada and his wife, Ami, had legally married in August last year, but they were planning to hold a lavish celebration at a Tokyo wedding venue for around 90 guests this spring. Like most wedding ceremonies in Japan, it was not going to be cheap. The couple expected a bill of around ¥5 million.
When news of Japan’s first cases of COVID-19 began to hit the headlines in February, Okada checked the contract he had signed with the wedding venue. He discovered that he would still have to pay a fee if the wedding was canceled unilaterally, rising in increments as the day approached. He looked into taking out wedding insurance, only to find that he was two days too late.
As news of the virus’ spread worsened in March, Okada slumped further into despair. Then, on March 25, when Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike addressed residents in the capital and urged them to stay home that weekend, Okada and his wife finally decided to call off their wedding.
Okada ended up paying ¥1 million for a celebration that never took place, and when he opened the curtains on the morning of April 4 and saw nothing but clear, blue skies, he allowed himself a rueful smile at what might have been.
Later that day, Okada received a message from a friend, asking if he and his wife would like to join an online party. When they accepted and clicked on the link, they found six of their closest friends, all dressed in wedding outfits. The friends told the couple they were going to hold the wedding celebration online instead, and the group spent the rest of the day giving speeches and toasts and making the most of an extraordinary situation.
“It was a great experience,” Okada says. “I like big events, but doing it online with just six good friends made me realize what’s really important.”
Okada and his wife would still like to hold a real-life ceremony at a later date, but their plans are on hold indefinitely.
With the future so uncertain, who can blame them? Japan’s state of emergency is set to fully expire at the end of the month, but the government has warned that citizens will need to adopt a “new lifestyle” to prevent further outbreaks in the weeks, months and maybe even years to come.
In practical terms, that will mean modifying the way we work, shop, relax, eat, travel and exercise. People will be expected to work from home wherever possible, sit side-by-side in restaurants, avoid talking on public transport and take various other measures to avoid excessive contact with other people.
What that means in human terms, however, remains to be seen. If social distancing measures are to stay in place in one form or other, what impact will they have on the way we interact with each other? How will they affect relationships? What will become of love in the time of coronavirus?
For the time being, at least, grand weddings such as the one Okada and his wife had planned are likely to remain in limbo.
The wedding industry is big business in Japan, with couples typically spending around ¥4 million for an all-day event that includes venue hire, outfit rental, food and drinks, flowers and all the other dramatic flourishes that make the make the occasion a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The pandemic has, unsurprisingly, hit the industry hard. Media reports say five wedding companies in Japan had gone bust by the end of last month and, by April 27, consumer rights centers across the country had reported 1,373 inquiries from couples whose weddings had been canceled or postponed.
With large gatherings now out of the question, wedding companies like Maricuru are looking online for a solution.
Maricuru operates a consulting service app for brides and organizes bespoke wedding after-parties. As of April 7, the firm now also offers a free service organizing weddings held via popular video conferencing application Zoom.
The service, called Zoompa, is run by Maricuru’s professional wedding planners and aimed at couples who have been forced to cancel or postpone their weddings. The planners ask the couple for a guest list and discuss the details of their online wedding, then guide the bride and groom and their family and friends through the occasion as they all sit in front of their computers at their respective homes, dressed in their finery.
“Our customers were saying they were having to cancel their weddings and they didn’t know what to do,” says Maricuru wedding planner Ayaka Fujii. “We basically work from home anyway and we regularly do consultations online. We wanted to use those skills to do something to help people, so we launched this service free of charge.
“We take on the role of master of ceremonies and work with the clients to produce the event. An event runs much more smoothly if you have a third party helping you along. It doesn’t make it feel like a real wedding, but it does help people have a good time.”
Fujii says the fact that not all guests are familiar with using Zoom can complicate things, and she concedes that consulting with clients online can make it difficult to sense their likes and dislikes through their expressions and body language.
Maricuru had not begun actively holding Zoompa weddings by the end of April, but Fujii says the company has had interest from around 30 clients and she expects the service to remain a viable option for the next year or so.
Maricuru CEO Norikazu Takagi believes the shock waves from the pandemic will fundamentally change people’s attitudes toward wedding celebrations.
“People will think more carefully about what it means to invite lots of guests,” Takagi says. “I think the actual ceremony will be something for family and close friends, and the reception will be a much more casual affair for friends. In a lot of countries, people have a garden party with a barbecue for friends, and the ceremony is separate. I think we might see something similar.
“It might be difficult for some guests to attend, maybe some who live overseas. I think you might start to get more of a mix of guests who are actually there and guests who join in online.”
For people to hold a wedding and get married, however, normal practice dictates that they must be in a relationship first. For single people looking to find a partner in the middle of a global pandemic, that could pose a problem.
Government data shows that roughly a quarter of people in Japan aged between 20 and 49 are single. The percentage of people aged 50 or over who are not married — until last year described as “lifelong singles” in official documents — stands at 23.37 percent for men and 14.06 percent for women. Both are record numbers.
In recent years, online dating services have become a popular option for people looking for a partner. Pairs, an online matchmaking service run by Tokyo-based eureka, Inc., launched in Japan in 2012 before expanding into South Korea and Taiwan. The company claims that more than 250,000 of its users have found a partner.
Eureka CEO Junya Ishibashi believes online dating culture had been comparatively slow to take root in Japan because of negative publicity surrounding shady online services known as deai-kei in the 1990s and 2000s. Deai-kei websites were often used for criminal activity such as soliciting the prostitution of minors, and laws have since been passed to regulate them.
Ishibashi believes the public perception of online dating has changed significantly.
“In the past few years, the scale of the market has been growing in double digits each year,” Ishibashi says, citing data from an internal company survey. “Sixteen percent of single people in Japan have tried online dating. There’s still a lot of room to grow when you think that the corresponding figure in the United States is 62 percent, but if you compare it to how it was in the past, it feels like online dating in Japan has become much more established.”
On April 20, eureka added a video-date function to Pairs, allowing users to see and talk to each other rather than just exchange messages. The company was planning to introduce the service at some point this year anyway, but brought the release date forward because of the pandemic. Pairs’ sister service, Pairs Engage, which provides a concierge service for people looking for a marriage partner, also has new functions to make it easier to communicate online.
Ishibashi says his company has not experienced a noticeable spike in new users, but he thinks online dating can provide a model for relationships even after social distancing has been relaxed.
“When the request to stay home has ended, I think some people will feel that this way of meeting people is effective and safe and they will keep using it,” he says. “Meeting strangers can always make you anxious, because you don’t know if you’re going to hit it off or what kind of person they’re going to be. If you meet someone through an online video first, you can see what kind of person they are and what kind of things they like to talk about. That can put your mind at ease.”
Not everyone is looking for a long-term relationship, though. Some people just want to talk and have fun, and Japan’s sprawling nightlife scene provides ample opportunity to do that. Or, at least, it did until the pandemic came along, forcing entertainment businesses around the country to scramble to adapt.
Ryusei Kuwata, who owns five host clubs in Tokyo’s Kabukicho nightlife district through his New Generation Group, believes he has found the answer.
Host clubs are establishments where female patrons are entertained by young men who chat and flirt with them, light their cigarettes, pour champagne and generally cater to their desires and fantasies. Kuwata says the customers at his clubs, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, come for a variety of reasons, with some hoping to date the hosts and some just looking for a glamorous night out.
Since April 11, New Generation Group has been offering a virtual host club experience called Zumuhosu, where clients pay to chat with a host for a set amount of time using Zoom. The host participates from inside the actual club, backed by lights and lasers, and spends time beforehand sculpting his hair and getting dressed in full host regalia.
Kuwata says his five clubs had a total of 320 fully fledged Zumuhosu customers and 98 buying the introductory package in April alone, including many who have never set foot inside a real host club.
“We’ve had a lot of customers who live outside the city,” Kuwata says. “We’ve had people who are interested in going to a host club but they’re scared to, as well as people who don’t usually have enough time. We’ve had people doing it with their mothers and grandmothers. I get the impression it’s spreading pretty far outside our usual Kabukicho customer base.”
Kuwata intends to capitalize by keeping the service going after the state of emergency has been lifted. He acknowledges that something of the essence of the host club experience does not translate online, but, in a business where image is everything, he values the illusory sleight of hand that comes with being behind a screen.
“In host clubs, the hosts often end up blind drunk and it can give the customers a bad impression,” Kuwata says. “With Zumuhosu, there’s a set finish time so the hosts don’t end up really drunk. You can get away with not showing the bad side of it.
“It’s a bit like being an idol,” he says. “Only being able to meet someone through a screen adds value. Customers might think that when the club reopens, they really want to meet that host in person. It makes it easy to create an image.”
With more and more relationships taking place online, however, are images really what we want in our lives? Won’t the isolation of social distancing make us crave something a bit more real?
According to Masahiro Yamada, a professor of sociology at Chuo University, concerns over financial security will outweigh the desire for face-to-face communication.
“This is an internet society, so I don’t think people will feel really lonely just because they can’t meet each other in person,” says Yamada. “I think they’re more concerned about what their economic prospects will be like in the future if they get married. People will be thinking that even if they get married, something like this might happen again and their partner might lose their job or they might lose their own job. People will be more anxious about having less income and not being able to live their lives.”
Yamada coined the term “parasite singles” in the 1990s to describe the trend of single people living with their parents until marriage. Even today, he says, women in Japan generally do not enjoy the same kind of employment security that men do, so most women want to get married so they can live on their husband’s earnings. Living at home until then allows them to look for a partner who meets their financial expectations without the pressure to support themselves.
With bleak economic times looming, Yamada does not see the situation changing.
“I think this will strengthen trends that were already happening in society,” Yamada says. “Less and less people will get married as they look for financial stability. Japanese people were already averse to taking risks, but I think now they’ll be even less inclined to take risks in their personal lives. They’ll think more about what the future holds and consider things like a partner’s financial prospects. The trend of considering whether they’ll be able to live their lives as they thought they’d be able to will become even more entrenched.”