Deposit your money at a bank in northern Japan and you could get more than interest payments. You might end up getting married.
This weekend, 184 depositors at Tsuruoka Shinkin Bank — single men and women with an average age of 32 — are invited to mingle in front of a tank of glowing jellyfish at a local aquarium for the lender’s first “konkatsu” (marriage-hunting) party.
The bank in Yamagata Prefecture, 500 km north of Tokyo, is facing a decline in population afflicting rural communities across Japan. The challenge is acute for “shinkin” banks — cooperatives whose members are local residents and small businesses.
“The aquarium at night sounds romantic, doesn’t it?” said bank employee Hitoki Sato, who is helping run the party and said staff will be on hand to introduce single customers to one another.
“The ultimate contribution we can make to our region is to give singles the opportunity to meet so they can get married and have many children. Because a shinkin bank like us can only operate in a limited area, we can’t survive without a revival of the regional economy,” Sato said.
Marriage is seen as key to boosting pregnancies in Japan, where the fertility rate was 1.43 per woman last year, below the replacement rate, according to data compiled by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.
Tsuruoka Shinkin Bank started offering “cupid” accounts in June for single men and women, ages 20 to 50. In exchange for making regular deposits, cupid customers earn 0.15 percent annual interest — more than the 0.02 percent earned on ordinary deposits — a typical rate in deflation-plagued Japan.
More than 180 singles qualified by the end of September and are eligible to attend the marriage-hunting, Sato said.
The bank expects about 60 people to attend Sunday’s event at the city of Tsuruoka’s Kamo Aquarium, which boasts a Guinness World Record for the most species among its 2,000 gelatinous marine animals on display. Sato said 26 people have confirmed their attendance.
After introductions and mingling, cupid customers are scheduled to play games and chat next to the sea lion pool before dinner. They will be served spring rolls, sashimi and shakes — all made from jellyfish, Sato said.
“This is a great idea to use a financial product to spur the marriage-hunting movement,” said Yasuhide Yajima, chief economist in Tokyo at NLI Research Institute.
“The falling population could be fatal for local financial institutions, so this is an example of how they can tackle the issue by themselves,” Yajima said.
About 45 percent of Japan’s towns and villages face worsening living standards from the decline in inhabitants, according to an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry report. In Tsuruoka, the population declined 25 percent to 134,240 as of October 2012 from a peak of 178,500 in 1957, according to census data, as residents migrated to bigger cities.
For rural banks such as Tsuruoka Shinkin, the problem has been less about attracting deposits than finding enough businesses and people to borrow money.
Deposits at Japan’s shinkin lenders climbed 33 percent to ¥131 trillion in August, the highest since Shinkin Central Bank Research Institute started collecting data in 1998. Lending slid more than 8 percent in the same period, its data showed.
In five to 10 years, there is a risk that deposits will dry up, hurting regional lenders’ earnings, Nozomi Kokubun, a Tokyo-based banking analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., wrote in a report in September.
Japan’s birth rate is the fourth-lowest among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which in April urged the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to take steps to increase it and to make more effective use of women to boost the national labor force.
Abe has pledged to cut waiting lists for daycare and extend maternity leave to three years to make conditions easier for working mothers. His administration assigned ¥3 billion for birthrate-boosting programs last fiscal year, including consultations and marriage information for singles.
The Kamo Aquarium’s jellyfish started glowing in 2008 after it consulted Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese chemist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on bioluminescence, according to the institution’s director, Tatsuo Murakami.
The scientist advised feeding the creatures light-emitting molecules, Murakami explained.
The facility hosted its first marriage-hunting party on behalf of the city of Tsuruoka in mid-October, so the bank’s will be its second such event, he said.
“The aquarium after closing definitely creates a romantic atmosphere,” said Murakami.
According to Murakami, the location is also suitable because it houses a shrine to the Shinto god of good fortune associated with fishing, practiced for centuries by surf-casters off the area’s rocky coast.
“Don’t you see a link with marriage-hunting? Fishing for men and women, that is,” he added.