Although traditionally seen as conductors of funerals or memorial services, some Buddhist monks in Japan are carving out a new niche as matchmakers for singles looking to marry.
In a country where an increasing number of people are marrying relatively late in life or not tying the knot at all, some are coming to temples after trying online dating or other avenues without success.
For one thing, in the traditional view, potential partners who consult monks for marriage advice are likely to be of good moral character, and the fact that monks tend to charge far less for their services than commercial matchmakers doesn’t hurt either.
Monks, in turn, are counting on the matchmaking business to provide a new stream of revenue at a time when religion is losing its appeal.
On a weekend in early October, around 60 men and women in their 20s to 40s gathered at Tenryuin, a temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism in Tokyo’s Taito Ward. Together they chanted lines from the Heart Sutra, one of the best-known Buddhist texts.
Later, chief priest Shinichi Kitaori, 46, addressed the group in the main hall: “Today will never return. I want you to form a strong connection with each other at this temple.”
The event was planned by a group called Kichienkai, which translates as auspicious bond society and was formed in 2010 by a group of young Rinzai priests.
Koshi Kimiya, a 38-year-old deputy chief priest of Ryuunji, a temple in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, founded the group after a friend asked him for advice on finding a spouse.
At the Tokyo temple, the average age of participants in what Japanese call konkatsu (marriage hunting) was 34. More women were keen on participating in the October event than men, with five female applicants per vacancy, compared with 3-to-1 for men.
Among them was a 39-year-old female clerical worker who said she has little opportunity to meet eligible men because “all (her) male co-workers are married.” Her mother, who lives in the countryside, is also pressuring her to wed because she wants to see a grandchild before she dies, she added.
Unable to afford matchmaking companies that typically charge more than ¥500,000 ($4,800) in fees, she found Kichienkai online, noting the ¥3,000 charge for participation.
“I have no other place to rely on,” she said. “I applied, hoping for sincere support.”
A 37-year-old woman working as a temporary employee said: “I’m afraid of online matchmaking because a friend of mine fell victim to marriage fraud. I feel the people coming to events at the temple are honest.”
Participants also had a chance to speak one-on-one with each other after making gift-wrapping ties together as a recreational activity.
At the end of the proceedings, they wrote their names and email addresses on cards and placed them in envelopes bearing the names of those they found attractive, indicating willingness for future contact by email.
“Being shy, I find it nice to start out from email,” said a 35-year-old male company employee while preparing envelopes. He said he had been without a steady girlfriend for 10 years.
A 2015 survey by a government institute shows among singles aged between 18 and 34, 70 percent of men and 60 percent of women said they had no steady romantic partners.
Yet nearly 90 percent of both men and women said they wanted to get married eventually, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
People who stay unmarried until age 50 formed only 1.7 percent of men and 3.3 percent of women in 1970 in Japan. But the ratio rose to 20.1 percent for men and 10.6 percent for women in 2010, according to the institute.
Against the backdrop of a growing number of people in financially unstable temporary employment, the institute predicts the figure to rise to 29 percent for men and 19.2 percent for women in 2035.
Akiko Nirasawa, author of “Konkatsu Nanmin” (“Marriage Hunting Refugees”), said temples are giving hope to those in their 30s or older who are fed up with other matchmaking services, where the focus is on selection criteria.
“Appearance, age and annual income tend to receive greater attention at arranged one-on-one meetings, online services or parties,” Nirasawa said.
Kichienkai has joined hands with some 800 temples across Japan and so far events have been held in Shizuoka, Tokyo, Aichi and Gifu prefectures. In November, it will host an event in Oita for the first time.
While such events are held essentially to help people in need, some monks said they are hoping that the new mission will draw more people to temples, which may help to address the drop in revenues amid the declining number of parishioners.
“People in their 20s to 40s, who usually stay away from temples, trust us priests” to conduct konkatsu events, said Kimiya, who heads the group’s secretariat.
According to a voluntary survey on the Kichienkai website, the matchmaking service has successfully paired at least 95 married couples, out of some 7,000 participants, since 2010.