Fertility crisis in Japan: let the state find you a mate

A fertility crisis has forced local authorities in Japan to go into the lonely hearts business

With fat black clouds hanging ominously overhead, a sludgy field of sweet potatoes in rural Japan might not seem the best place for a date with the woman of your dreams. Still, 33-year-old bachelor Naoki Nakai hopes to get lucky before the rain comes. "Yes, there could be someone for me here," he nods, glancing over at a long-haired beauty in knee-high boots. "There are some nice people here," he adds before his face darkens: "I think some of them are from the city."

In this remote corner of Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, men and women tug at yams while engaging in a courtship ritual as old as time. Jokes fly and shy looks are exchanged across muddy buckets, but today's good-natured flirting disguises a serious purpose. Japan has been hit hard by a demographic problem so severe it threatens to overwhelm the world's second-largest economy. As millions shun marriage and delay parenthood, local governments are turning matchmaker to the nation's lonely hearts.

"It's harder than ever for people to find a partner they want to have a family with," explains Nobuki Manome, head of the Ibaraki Meeting Support Centre, a matchmaking service that operates out of the city office in the prefectural capital Mito. "We have decided to step in and give them a little help." Mr Manome hovers near today's group of hopefuls – 40 men and women, some of whom have travelled two hours from Tokyo. "There's a purposeful atmosphere here today. At least the city women aren't wearing high-heel shoes."

The deal is straightforward. For 10,000 yen (£66), Ibaraki offers a three-year membership to its marriage club, which boasts about 2,800 over-25s. Singles fill in a confidential application form listing vital details: age, height and weight, health and wealth status and preference for children. A staff of 20 matches up the hopefuls at weekend camping and cycling outings, barbecues and cake-making parties. Today's spud-themed expedition targets one of Ibaraki's most stubbornly single demographics: the rural eldest son.

"It's difficult," sighs Mr Nakai, a heavyset, brooding man with a farmer's tan beneath his baseball cap. "You can't tell a woman straight away that she will have to live with my mother and father at home. They won't understand."

In an effort to bridge the yawning rural-urban gap, the local agricultural union works with Ibaraki to run these unusual dates – in a few minutes everyone will jump back on a bus for a tomato greenhouse.

"Farmers have an especially hard time getting hitched," explains Fumio Nohara, a local government official. "They must stay at home, so they don't have the time or chance to look for a wife."

Japan has one of the world's lowest fertility rates. In fact, the shortage of children is so severe that the government has created a cabinet position to deal with it. The impact has rippled through each layer of society, shutting elementary, primary and secondary schools and hitting rural areas like this, where many young people leave for the cities, especially hard. Last year, Japan's population fell by a record 51,317 and despite hints of policy change, it has so far shunned the most obvious solution: mass immigration.

Like most parts of the country, the ranks of the unmarried in Ibaraki are swelling: Since the 1970s, the percentage of women still single in their late twenties has more than tripled. Meanwhile, the number of pensioners is expected to double by 2025. For local authorities, the incentive to be a marriage broker could hardly be stronger: without more children, their already creaking welfare and pension systems will collapse under the weight of the elderly.

"This is such a huge problem, involving care of the old, social security and insurance, as the population decline lowers productivity," warns marriage counsellor and researcher Yoko Itamoto. She says that until recently, local authorities subcontracted matchmaking out to private businesses but as the problem worsens, Ibaraki is part of a growing trend toward a bigger official role. "Governments at the prefectural level now need to get a move on."

Mr Nohara agrees, adding: "Once people get to their forties, it becomes much harder to match them up." As today's singles – aged 25 to 40 – head back to the buses, he professes himself pleased. "The atmosphere is good," he beams. "Do you see how people relax and talk when they're out in the open?"

But back on the bus, there are worrying grumbles. "Honestly? The men are a bit lacking," moans Maki Sato, 35, who says she works as a fashion co-ordinator in Tokyo. "They're not really my type." Her friend Sanai Kumagai, 33, is also unimpressed, but can't say why. "I'm really not that fussy – the only thing I hate is stingy guys. But somehow it's not happening for me."

Over half a million Japanese are now registered with one of about 3,800 private matchmaking firms across the country, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. With most of the unmarried living at home, mothers and fathers too have become matchmakers. According to sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who coined the buzzwords "kon-katsu" (marriage hunting) and "parasite single", 60 per cent of single Japanese men and 80 per cent of women are still stuck in the family nest and unmarried into their early thirties.

Some parents have begun attending large lonely-hearts conventions, where they look for love and happiness – for their offspring. The strategy sometimes backfires when children find out their lives are being planned for them. "The children often know absolutely nothing about these meetings," explains Yasuko Kasai, president of matchmaking firm Marriage Club Wish Yokoyama.

Even Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF) are doing their bit for the national crisis, with singles' parties targeting unmarried women in Ibaraki and other prefectures. "They're the most popular with women and are always very oversubscribed," says Mr Manome. "The SDF is a secure job, and the men are considered masculine and attractive." Ms Kumagai, however, has her doubts. "Aren't a lot of them gay, living with each other like that?"

Japan's new Democrat (DPJ) government has launched perhaps the most concerted effort to end the baby drought, proposing a monthly child allowance of 26,000 yen (£170) and appointing Mizuho Fukushima, one of the country's best known feminists, state minister in charge of consumer affairs and the declining birth-rate. Ms Fukushima wants more money for childcare and fertility treatment, and legislation protecting pregnant women from discrimination in the workforce.

Mr Manome wonders if she'll succeed. "There have been so many social changes," he sighs. "Women are often financially independent now, so they don't need to get married." And Japanese men, he says, need a revolution of the mind. "Traditionally, they've been king of the roost, quite old fashioned. They need to be kinder and more supportive."

As the lonely hearts wander around a greenhouse picking plump tomatoes, Keiko Ozaki nods in agreement. A recently divorced woman with two young children, she gives few points to her ex-husband for his homemaking skills. "Men don't do any housework and they hardly help at all with the kids." Is she encouraged by today's outing? "I don't see anyone here for me," she says, glancing around. "I just want to find some company, and maybe someone to help with the children. But most men are not interested in women with a family."

Still, for disbelievers in the aphrodisiacal power of country air, Mr Manome pulls out his statistical trump card: in the three years since it was set up, the Ibaraki office has matched 350 couples – a success rate of over one-in-10. And the number of club members has tripled since 2006. Ibaraki's surveys show that 90 per cent of locals want to get married – if they can find the right partner. "I think we're doing something right," he says, adding that local governments in other parts of the country have come to his office on fact-finding trips.

Back on the bus, droplets of rain begin splashing against the windshield as it drives through darkening fields back for the final leg of the collective date: a barbecue. Farmer Nakai has struck out so far, but even if sparks don't fly over roasted yams and pork, he knows they'll be other days. "If there's one thing we have in the countryside, its time."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing