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Japanese parents marry off 'parasite single' offspring

Young people living at home in their thirties are being paired up by mum and dad at large-scale lonely hearts conventions. David McNeill reports

At a hotel in Tokyo, Takashi, a balding, middle-aged businessman, is on the hunt for a marriage partner. "This one seems nice, but I'm not sure," he hums, glancing down a list of potential candidates and hovering over the profile of a 32-year-old. "She's a bit old," agrees his wife sitting next to him.

Like any lonely hearts convention, the 80 or so people gathered in this huge dining room are looking for love and happiness – for their sons and daughters. Frustrated by grown-up kids who refuse to leave home, Japanese parents are taking the initiative and becoming matchmakers. "The children often know absolutely nothing about these meetings," explains Yasuko Kasai, president of matchmaking firm Marriage Club Wish Yokoyama. "Parents are so worried about their unmarried offspring that they feel they have to do something."

According to sociologist Masahiro Yamada, who coined the term "parasite single", 60 per cent of single Japanese men and 80 per cent of women still live at home and unmarried into their early thirties, one of the highest rates in the world. Yamada says there are 10 million "parasite singles" of both sexes in Japan.

A burden on many parents, the parasite phenomenon is a disaster for the nation, which is rapidly running out of babies. With men and women putting off marriage and children, or not having them at all, Japan's fertility rate fell to a low of 1.25 in 2005, meaning more people died than were born. Without immigration to offset the shortage, the population of 127 million will halve by the end of the century, the government warned recently.

The plummeting fertility and marriage rates are fuelling a revival of a Japanese tradition many thought would soon be consigned to history: omiai, or matchmaking. Once a common way of introducing the children of families from similar backgrounds, traditional arranged marriages from omiai meetings have fallen to about 7 per cent in Japan and are almost unheard of in big cities. Instead, they're being replaced by big matchmaking companies.

A single firm, Exeo, arranges 300,000 meetings every year between men and women aged 20 to 65 a year. Office Ann, another marriage agency, took the next logical step: mass lonely hearts conventions for parents. The idea has spread to about a dozen cities.

The rules are simple. Convention guests are handed a list of eligible men and women detailing age, background, income, work and blood group – an instant date-maker (or breaker) in a country where blood type is believed to indicate personality and compatibility. Guests who like the look of a candidate take along photos and CVs of their offspring to parents sitting in the same hall.

If the parents click, they exchange information and agree to arrange a meeting between their children. Then the hard work of playing cupid to unsuspecting offspring begins. "Our son doesn't know we're here, but we hope he'll be pleased," says Takashi, who declined to give his full name. "He is just too busy to come by himself."

Masahiro Yamada blames the parasite phenomenon on "lazy" children who grew up in luxury to baby-boomer parents, but the problem is more complex. Millions of Japanese men in their twenties and thirties toil some of the longest hours in the developed world, then spend most of their weekends sleeping, leaving little time to look for partners. Women, meanwhile, shun marriage to overworked men who are seldom around. In the middle are their worried mums and dads, says Ms Kasai.

"Some people are lucky because they find love by themselves," she says. "Others need a little help, from wherever they can get it. That's what we're here for."