Dressed to the nines on a balmy summer night, a crowd of young Japanese filled the reception area of a Tokyo wedding hall, a white mansion with Greek columns romantically festooned with fairy lights.
The setting may have seemed a little gaudy, but the 100-odd men and women there, clutching their cocktails and scanning the room, were seriously focused on their goal - finding the love of their life.
AdvertisementThe twenty- to forty-somethings are part of a new fad sweeping Japan: "konkatsu" or "marriage-hunting," a word play on "job hunting" that suggests finding Mr or Mrs Right is a matter of good research and thorough planning.
An expert in the field had some advice for the assembled lonely hearts.
"Try not to make that instant decision," said Helen Fisher, a US anthropologist and special guest at the Match.com party in Tokyo's upmarket Nakameguro district. "Go up and talk to them and find out about them.
"The whole point of this evening is to try to fall in love."
This year Japan has gone konkatsu-crazy, with the trend spawning countless magazine articles, a weekly TV drama and a best-selling book.
A Tokyo shrine now offers konkatsu prayer services, a Hokkaido baseball team has set up special seats for those looking for mates, and a Tokyo ward office arranges dating excursions to restaurants and aquariums.
A lingerie maker has even come up with a konkatsu bra with a ticking clock that can be stopped by inserting an engagement ring.
Japan, known for its strong work ethic that can squeeze social time, and for its declining birth rates, seems to be getting its mojo back.
Dating site Match.com said in March it had signed up one million members in the country, its second largest market after the United States, and parties like the one in the Greek mansion have become wildly popular.
"I like this system of meeting new people," said a 27-year-old office clerk, one of the 100 guests chosen from almost 300 mostly-male applicants. "I have a hard time approaching a woman with my friends around."
Social observers see a variety of reasons for konkatsu's popularity, including Japan's current recession which may be leading some women to choose marriage over career in a search for financial stability.
"Now I see many women in their 20s looking for a man with a stable job and a steady income," said Toneko Bando, the founder of leading match-making agency PIF, short for the Pay It Forward Love Prepschool.
With the new plan-ahead attitude, many women are also preparing for the next stage, "sankatsu" or birth hunting, she said.
"My agency provides services for them, such as fertility check-ups and cooking lessons, so they become healthier for future birth-giving," she said.
"I wouldn't deny a carefree lifestyle to have fun day by day. But especially for women, who constantly face the biological clock ticking before giving birth, they cannot help counting how much time is left."
Japan's government has thrown its support behind konkatsu to boost the birth rate of just 1.37 children per woman, hoping to slow the decline of the aging population, which is projected to shrink nearly 30 percent by 2055.
An advisory panel to the cabinet last month proposed a 10-point plan to raise the low birth rate, including the promotion of "love and marriage", possibly by organizing matchmaking events.
Yoko Itamoto, a marriage counselor and gender equality expert, said Japan is making an "all-out national effort" for konkatsu, a fashion trend which she said highlights a social crisis.
Traditionally in Japan marriage was a pragmatic social function, in which a woman joined the family of her husband whose job it was to support her and their children, who would then carry on the male family line.
Marriages were typically arranged in a custom known as "omiai," usually organized in a formal setting by the parents or close family members, stereotypically a meddlesome aunt or uncle.
As social change has altered lifestyles, gender roles and social expectations, those of marriageable age have usually searched for their life mate by themselves, but experts say this hasn't worked for everyone.
"If they are an introvert, not too popular or low-key, old-style marriage counseling may still work better," said Bando. "But many people just don't feel about themselves that way."
Marriage rates have fallen sharply between 1975 and 2005, from 85 percent to 51 percent for men aged 30 to 34, and from 90 percent to 63 percent for women of the same age, according to census data.
Itamoto said increasing numbers of people are turning to professional help in their quest to find love and perhaps tie the knot.
"Currently some 4,000 match-making agencies do business in Japan, with a total membership of some 620,000," she said. "About half of local governments also give similar matching services, especially in rural farming areas.
"But the successful mating rate through such an agency stays as low as eight percent," she added. "People don't have communication skills good enough to find a partner, no matter how many candidates they meet.
"Konkatsu is not a bad thing," she said. "But we need to study what brought the marriage crisis to the country in the first place."