Attractive Russian women with blonde hair and green eyes smile invitingly from the computer screen.
A man can pick up to 20 of them and send his profile back via an Internet marriage agency. In a few weeks, he is off to Russia for about four days to meet up to eight of those who agree to see him.
If a match is made, he will be introduced to the woman’s parents, then invite her to visit Japan on a three-month visitor visa. Afterward, if all goes well, nuptials.
This is one typical scenario for finding a Russian bride through Internet marriage sites in Japan. The few months it takes from the initial contact to becoming newlyweds cost each man between 1 million yen and 4 million yen, according to insiders.
There can be a dark side, however, to such an approach, as expectations toward marriage differ on both sides of the equation. The short-term process may place greater emphasis on looks than the establishment of true long-term love and compatibility. And when things don’t click, there’s the potential for abuse.
Official figures on the number of Japanese men and Russian women who meet via such agencies and marry are nonexistent. But a search under keywords like “kokusai kekkon” (international marriage) at the Japanese Yahoo site yielded at least 70 such matchmaking sites. Most are geared toward introducing Chinese women to Japanese men, but there are at least 10 specializing in Russian women.
According to Immigration Bureau statistics, before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were fewer than 10 women newly arriving from the USSR to marry Japanese annually. The figure peaked at 24 in 1988.
In 2003, however, there were 112 future spouses arriving from Russia and other members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Ukraine, Uzbekistan and the Republic of Moldova.
Chinese meanwhile numbered 3,940, more than seven times the 1988 figure. They came in third after Brazilians and Filipinos. Statistics also show there were 502 U.S. nationals and 187 Britons coming to wed Japanese in 2003.
Yoshi Sakamoto runs the site Baikal through his company Netelite Japan. The site specializes in introducing women from Khabarovsk and Blagoveschensk in the Russian Far East.
He said most other agencies in Japan dealing with Russians also handle women from Far East cities, including Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, as women there are more willing to come to Japan due to the short distance between the two countries.
Women from more prosperous cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, prefer to marry Europeans or Americans if they elect to marry foreigners, Sakamoto said.
Kazushi Ueda, 36, of the city of Tanabe, Kyoto Prefecture, said he is very happy with his Russian bride, 26-year-old Elena Borchenko, whom he married last month.
“I was introduced to her in Khabarovsk in April by an agency,” he said. “She was striking, compared with the other 10 women I met there.”
Ueda, who lived in the United States for 14 years, was married to an American woman for a decade of that time. He said he feels more comfortable with Western women than Japanese because of their openness, but added that he felt his ex-wife was a bit too strong-willed.
“I think Russian women, on the other hand, are much more reserved and listen to their husbands,” he said. “I think they are more ready to sacrifice themselves for the family.”
Sakamoto, who introduced Ueda to Borchenko, said their marriage is an ideal case, as Ueda not only appreciates his wife’s modesty but also shows concern for her well-being. He encourages her to attend a Russian Orthodox church and meet people at Doshisha University’s Russian faculty near their home so she doesn’t feel isolated, he noted.
But Sakamoto admitted that not all of his clients are so obliging.
Many often do not know how to act toward women or even have a mistaken notion about mail-order brides, thinking they have just purchased a commodity, he said.
“There are men who come to us asking for a nice young girl to take care of their 80-year-old parents,” Sakamoto said. “I tell them that we are not an agency that provides nurses and that these are things the couple should discuss after developing a loving relationship.”
He also cited the case of a 50-year-old man who had never had a girlfriend but insisted on marrying a “19-year-old girl with model looks.” When his wish was not fulfilled, he complained fiercely to the agency, Sakamoto said.
Lyudmila Vyshinskaya, 31, who is married to a Japanese, agreed that Japanese men sometimes seem to want Russian women just for their looks and do not understand that they also need to make efforts to make them happy.
“My husband likes to take me out to show me (off) to his friends, like I’m a doll or a new car or something,” said Vyshinskaya, who is now filing for divorce. “But at home, both he and his mother tell me to shut up and make dinner, saying domestic chores are the only thing they expect me to do.”
Sakamoto said he believes his business helps both men and women, as it gives Japanese men the opportunity to meet young, pretty women who might have the virtues that Japanese women have lost, while Russian women can enjoy relative wealth.
But Vyshinskaya said foreign women who go through marriage agencies can be taking a big risk, because it is difficult to get to know the men well enough in advance and the agencies often provide virtually no followup support.
“One Russian woman who came to visit a man she met through an agency was locked up in his apartment throughout her three-month stay while he was at work, as he was afraid she would escape,” she said. “She spoke no Japanese or English, and the agency didn’t provide any tips as to what to do in such emergencies.
“She endured the horror by just thinking about the day she would go home,” Vyshinskaya added. “Of course, she refused to marry him.”
But there can be more serious pitfalls for these women.
According to staff at Amur, an international letter exchange agency that mediates between Japanese and Russians, there was an agency in Kyoto that brought Russian women to Japan on the pretext of introducing them to marriage partners, but instead made them work as prostitutes.
Yasufumi Kuwana of Marriage Noah, an introduction agency in Mie Prefecture, said he knows cases in which agency operators forced women to have sex with them, or made them marry men they didn’t like, in return for settling their debts to the agency.
Sakamoto acknowledged there is always the potential for serious trouble. But at the same time, he said the women can also be at fault, citing cases in which women who came to visit his clients bolted the minute they arrived in Japan, as their real intention was to find work here.
Yoko Yokoyama of the nonprofit organization HELP Women’s Shelter, which deals with many cases of foreign women abused by their Japanese husbands, said she believes the marriage agency system needs to be monitored by authorities.
HELP and other organizations are urging the government to enact a comprehensive law against human trafficking, which would be Japan’s first. The group said it considers any treatment different from what the women expected as a human rights violation and constitutes trafficking.
“As long as there are economic disparities between Japan and the women’s countries, and the women are unfamiliar with the Japanese language and culture, there is a very high chance that they will become victims of abuse,” she said.
“We will keep up our campaign to compel the government to look into the matter properly, including what is happening on the overseas side.”