A recent government survey showed that nearly one in four men and one in seven women will never marry. A growing number of people are struggling with finding stable employment that ensures a livable wage and, unlike decades ago, marriage now is one of many options available to people during the course of their lives rather than a socially expected norm.
But for those who actually want to wed, the process is as confusing as ever.
There are a multitude of choices and compromises to make. Those seeking marriage must decide what they want from a spouse-to-be such as an acceptable income, a character type, compatibility and so on. They must also consider relationships with in-laws when selecting a partner.
Then there are the matchmaking events, where singles agree to put themselves on display so prospective partners can screen and judge them based on their age, appearance, resume and a host of other criteria.
The following individual stories related by Kyodo News in a series on marriage in Japan illustrates some of the expectations and realities the nation’s bachelors and bachelorettes face in finding a suitable mate.
The individuals interviewed in the following stories all declined to give their real names.
Lost on the road to love
In the spring of 2015, Sakata started dating a woman he met at a get-together event organized by a matchmaking agency.
Sakata thought he and the woman, who was one year his senior, hit it off well, but he was shocked to learn one month later that she smoked, even though she had assured him she did not.
He gave her an ultimatum: “Choose smoking, or me.” She chose smoking.
Such has been the fate of Sakata, who asked that his real name not be revealed. He has had a job driving a bus in Tokyo for several years but he has had few opportunities to meet women at work since most of his colleagues are male.
He works long hours, sometimes from early morning to late at night, and almost always on weekends. Like other bus drivers, he is subject to strict drinking regulations, making it hard to go to bars where he might have a chance to meet someone.
Sakata, who had always planned to marry before 40, began attending matchmaking events five years ago. But he has had little success, due at least in part to his own personality flaws, he thinks.
“I don’t know what to do to attract women because I don’t have much experience with romance,” he said. “Perhaps I have flaws as a person.”
To improve his prospects, Sakata paid ¥300,000 (about $2,700) in the autumn of 2015 to attend a six-month “konkatsu seminar,” or spouse-hunting seminar. A male instructor there told him to talk to female sales clerks at department stores to learn how to communicate with women. He spoke with dozens of them, but it got him nowhere.
Then, as the seminar drew to a close, Sakata was persuaded to fork over an additional ¥300,000 for more lessons. He began to question the tactics taught at the seminar because they never bore fruit, and he realized he had thrown a large sum of money down the drain.
Sakata later registered with an online marriage agency and attended a matchmaking event at a Buddhist temple. But going out on a dinner date was as far as he got with anyone he met.
When Sakata sees children and their parents on the street, he can’t help thinking that even if he marries and has a child, he will be retired before the child reaches adulthood.
“I am not confident that I can economically or physically raise a child,” he lamented.
Koshi Kimiya, chief priest of the temple matchmaking event, tries to encourage Sakata with upbeat stories, including of his own grandparents, whose long and successful marriage was arranged without them having even met beforehand.
These stories do not help Sakata, who finds the endeavor of meeting a partner — by whatever means — more than he can handle.
“It is hard to make decisions because there is an excessive amount of information and (matchmaking) choices in society today,” he said.
After repeated rejections in his search for love and companionship, Sakata feels exhausted and not at all enthusiastic.
He may not have given up the search for good, but for the moment, Sakata has decided he needs a new hobby — one that he enjoys.
Parents or a spouse
Maruyama, a Tokyo resident living with her parents, has signed up for a temple matchmaking event and attends mixers with her friends several times a month.
“Tokyo has many places where I can meet men,” she said.
Maruyama, who also did not give her real name, said at one recent mixer she hit it off with a man who was around her age. He told her he wanted a girlfriend but was not interested in getting married for now.
It seems that men she is attracted to are either already married or not willing to commit. Although she has lots of chances to meet men in Tokyo, she has not been able to find the right one.
Maruyama, who works for a midsize manufacturer, has been given responsibilities at her job where she has worked for more than eight years. She considers it worthwhile continuing.
“Even if I fall in love with someone outside of Tokyo, I can never think of leaving the city,” she said.
Maruyama also hopes to stay close to her parents and care for them as they grow old. But she dreads the idea of never finding companionship.
“I shudder to think that I might be all alone in old age,” she said. “I hope I find a man and we can support each other.”
Finding a mate in Tokyo
Ueda has long dreamed of getting married.
But he hasn’t had much luck in love.
Ueda, who did not disclose his real name, is a researcher working for a major manufacturer in Tochigi Prefecture, where most of his colleagues are men.
He also has no childhood friends there because he grew up in a different area of the country. He drives about 20 minutes to work and doesn’t go anywhere in particular after hours.
It’s not that Ueda has never dated. But his past serious relationships with two women ended because they lived too far away.
He went out with the first woman for five years when he was in his late 20s. But she lived in a town three hours away by car and her parents disapproved of their long-distance relationship.
Two years ago, Ueda dated another woman who was a year older and living in a neighboring prefecture. But she dumped him, saying even if they got married she had no intention of moving away from her parents.
Ueda now travels to Tokyo once every one or two months to attend matchmaking events, one of which is organized by temple priests.
On one weekend in early April, Ueda traveled two hours by train to come to Tokyo for his second date with a woman he met at one of the events. They planned to see cherry blossoms. The problem of distance, however, is always in the back of his mind.
“Many seem to think that Tochigi is a rural, inconvenient place, far away from Tokyo, despite both being in the same Kanto region,” he said. “Living outside Tokyo can be a disadvantage when looking for a partner.”
With the population concentrated in Tokyo, it seems like the best place to find a mate.
But nearly one in five women and more than one in four men in the capital had remained unmarried by age 50 as of 2015, according to a report by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
The percentage of women and men who had never married by age 50 was 19.2 percent and 26.1 percent, respectively. By prefecture, Tokyo was top for women and third for men.
Age limits do apply
When she was in her 20s, Kimura imagined the day she would quit her company to get married, bowing to her parents and thanking them for all they had done for her before her wedding day.
“Hurry up and get married,” her father had often jokingly said. And now she would.
But Kimura, not her real name, was sure that meeting and falling in love with her future husband — preferably someone with the same character traits as her father — would happen quite naturally. So for the most part, she avoided actively searching for a mate.
But her life took a devastating turn when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, 2011, snatching away her father’s life and her dream of marrying a man while he was still alive.
Her 62-year-old father had been on a business trip at the time, but happened to stop in for a brief visit at his family’s home on the coast of Miyagi Prefecture.
It wasn’t until Kimura, who was working in Tokyo, saw TV footage of the huge tsunami engulfing the town that she began to worry about her father’s safety. Days went by, and then a week but she was still unable to reach him.
Two weeks later his corpse was recovered from the rubble and sent to a mortuary.
She said that standing in front of the body, she had apologized for not getting married while he was alive and not being able to show him the face of his grandchild.
“I wish I had started earlier in my search for a spouse,” she recalls saying while crying and gazing at a necklace given to her by her father over 10 years earlier.
It took another two years before Kimura began to sort out her feelings so she could begin a serious search. But many obstacles would await her, particularly for a woman in her mid-30s.
For one thing, since Kimura is not fully employed, money is tight, so she is limited to how many matchmaking events she can attend, as one session can cost thousands of yen.
And even when she tries to participate, she is discouraged by age limits, such as “up to 35” or “up to 39.” She also feels self-conscious that men are concerned about her age, when she is asked whether she is considering having children.
Because she wants to become a housewife, Kimura hopes to find a partner who takes home an annual salary of ¥5 million or more. But she said the men who show up at the matchmaking events fail to meet her criteria.
“Maybe it’s a luxury for me to think I can be a housewife in this low-salary society,” she said.
Whether she will be able to find an ideal man like her father — someone she considered to be gentle, humorous and reliable — remains unknown.
Kimura participated in a matchmaking event organized by temple priests earlier this year, but was not impressed with the clientele.
Koshi Kimiya, a 39-year-old priest who was running the program, advised her to look deeper than the surface.
“He told me it’s important to look at the person, not whether he fits your criteria,” she said.
As if admonishing herself, Kimura nodded.