Over coffee and cake in a rural cafe in Kochi Prefecture, Hideyuki Tanaka, 40, plucked up the courage to speak with Eri, 14 years his junior.
A pianist provided the ambience for the afternoon gathering of 18 singles, arranged by local government cupids, which eventually led to wedding bells last June for Tanaka, who’d “almost given up hope of getting married.”
For the first time, the central government is giving financial aid to local matchmaking programs as part of steps to lift a birthrate that is half of what it was six decades ago. Failure to turn around that trend would see the number of workers supporting each senior fall from 2.6 to 1.3 by 2050, reducing revenue as a swelling welfare bill adds to the nation’s debt burden.
“Now is the last chance to take action on this problem,” said Masanao Ozaki, the governor of Kochi. “I’m deeply concerned as to whether young workers in the future will be able to take on such a huge burden.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration assigned ¥3 billion for birthrate-boosting programs in this fiscal year’s extra budget, which include consultations and marriage information for singles.
Policymakers, including Yuriko Koike of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, say more sustained efforts are needed to lift the fertility rate, which was 1.41 per woman in 2012. Supporting marriage is an effective way to raise the birthrate, said Koike, who has served as defense and environment minister.
Social security costs are projected to rise to 24.4 percent of gross domestic product by the fiscal year ending March 2026, up from 22.8 percent in fiscal 2012, according to welfare ministry estimates.
“The falling birthrate will probably have a very severe impact on the economy,” said Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo who coined the term “konkatsu,” or spouse-hunting. “Japan’s social security system will probably collapse.”
The benchmark Topix stock index is down 11 percent this year, after a 51 percent gain in 2013, as investors assess the challenges for sustaining growth under “Abenomics,” which range from demographics to a debt burden more than twice the size of the economy and a sales tax increase that will likely dampen consumption.
With the budget allocation only set for one year, policymakers at the national and local level are looking for a longer-term approach to boosting the marriage rate.
Kochi Prefecture’s Ozaki said the government should take more serious action, while Koike said she hopes the program will pave the way for further support from Tokyo.
The number of births fell to 1.03 million in 2013, the lowest number dating back to 1899. The nation may lose a third of its 127 million population by 2060, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
People marrying later and a lack of nursery schools in urban areas for women who want to pursue careers are among reasons for the sliding birthrate.
Japan should aim to boost the fertility rate to two or more children per woman and at least double the number of marriages to turn around its demographic fortunes, according to an LDP panel headed by Koike that promotes konkatsu and “machikon,” or singles parties attended by hundreds of people.
The birthrate last topped two in 1974, falling to 1.41 in 2012 — in that period the number of marriages per 1,000 people dropped to 5.3 from 9.1. The fertility level compares with 1.99 in France, 1.88 in the United States and 1.19 in Singapore.
France’s efforts to boost births through welfare policies such as grants to mothers and paid maternity leave have helped boost the ratio to the second highest in Europe.
Only about 2 percent of children are born out of wedlock in Japan, according to a welfare ministry report. This compares with 56 percent in France, and 41 percent in the United States.
Societal ethics make it harder to be a single mother in Japan than in European countries such as France, said Koike.
The konkatsu parties that are arranged by local governments specifically target people searching for marriage partners.
Machikon events can be wilder as they cater to singles just looking to meet people. Participants buy a ticket for a few thousand yen that allows them to eat and drink — as much as they want at no extra cost — with other singles at multiple bars and restaurants across a city.
Tomoharu Kakuta found conventional channels worked better for him than machikon.
Kakuta, 36, went to about 10 of these events over the past two or three years in a city north of Tokyo. While he got some dates through machikon, he found his current girlfriend through an old friend.
“You only get to know people on a shallow level at these machikon,” Kakuta said. “They’re very ineffective if you really want to find a significant other.”
Under the central government’s program, prefectural governments can apply for grants of up to ¥40 million for new projects to support marriage, pregnancy, birth and child-rearing. Party expenses are excluded from this allocation with participants paying their own way.
The Kochi Prefectural Government plans to apply for help to set up a consultation booth for people seeking spouses. Ibaraki Prefecture intends to use funds for projects such as improving existing marriage-support centers.
The Ibaraki Deai Support Center offers a registration system for singles and uses volunteers to match people up. The facility has more than 3,000 members, and has helped 1,144 couples marry since its establishment in 2006.
Sayaka Inoue, a 28-year-old office worker in Tokyo, wants to marry before she reaches 30 because she aspires to motherhood. With this aim, she’s been to three machikon in the past two years.
One event had 200 men and 200 women, who went on a crawl to five different restaurants where the beer was flowing and participants chowed down on cheap bar food such as fried chicken and edamame.
“I feel that I need to go out and find opportunities to meet people,” Inoue said. “It’s really hard to find someone when you get to be my age.”
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