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.