Worried Japanese parents are eager to marry off their children so they can retire in peace even as many adults in the country are opting to stay single even when they reach their 40s.
More than 200 parents gathered recently in the ballroom of a Tokyo hotel, many wearing reading glasses as they browsed a list of potential partners for their children.
AdvertisementMost of them were mothers and each parent carried at least 10 copies of their child's photo and a personal statement to hand out.
"I wouldn't come here if a good match could come to our house just like that, would I?" said 83-year-old Mr. Iwai, whose 44-year-old son is single.
"Even if there is only a one percent chance, I think it's worth giving it a shot," said Iwai, who like other parents did not want his first name used for the sake of family privacy.
Arranged marriages have fallen out of favour in Japan in recent decades as women take stronger roles in society and choose their own partners - or choose to stay single - without parental interference.
Many young people have focused on building their careers rather than families, contributing to Japan's rapidly falling birthrate.
Like Iwai, most parents who came to the match-making event said they had hoped that their children would first try to find spouses on their own.
But some parents leave bitterly disappointed, finding that age is a major factor for parents who want grandchildren. One father walked away crestfallen after no one would take a photo of his 43-year-old daughter.
"For my proud son, a potential bride should be no more than 31 years old, I would say," insisted Mrs. Sato, whose son is 36 years old.
In Japan, 47 percent of men and 32 percent of women in their early 30s were unmarried in 2005. Among women, the figure has more than doubled since 1990, according to the state-backed National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
Some 70 percent of single Japanese aged between 18 and 39 live with their parents, it said.
Toko Shirakawa, an expert on the falling birthrate, said that marriage in Japan has become a personal preference, not an essential part of life.
She wrote the recent bestselling book "Konkatsu-Jidai," or "The Times of Marriage-Hunting," which carried the shocking subtitle: "One in four young people will not be able to get married."
Women who are now around 40 years old belong to a generation "that fought against the male-dominated society and were at the vanguard of women's rights by having careers," Shirakawa told AFP.
"They spent their typical marriageable age working so hard and society was not ready to provide security to them both in career and family life," she said.
Shirakawa said that many Japanese of that generation want to avoid anything that could put their hard-earned lifestyles at risk.
"And marriage or building a family are considered such risks."
The match-making sessions were the idea of Michiko Saito of Office An, a marriage agency based in the northern city of Sapporo. More than 6,500 parents have participated in some 60 sessions across Japan in the past eight years.
Saito, 64, the mother of three children, said she decided to start the service after a woman she knew died of cancer, alone without any family.
"I have been alive for six years since then and I think I could make it thanks to my precious family," she said.
The service can help other mothers, "by soothing their anxieties about unmarried children, if only a little bit," Saito said.
Around 10 percent of past attendants' children found spouses through the event.
Sadako Kato tried the event twice in 2004 for her daughter, who was then 34.
Kato originally was uneasy about the idea, but changed her mind when her daughter came back smiling from her first date with a man whose parents Kato met at the event.
"Even though I had set up meetings with a couple more men, she asked me to call them off," Kato said.
Her daughter became engaged to her 40-year-old boyfriend a month later and married a month after that.
"You never know how fate works," Kato said. "I was worried about her since she was quite a timid type, but now I feel happy that I could help her out in some way."
Saito, the organiser of the event, said she frequently reassured parents concerned about intervening in their grown-up children's private lives.
"When you think about it, it is natural for parents to help their children. They help when kids take an entrance exam for school or university and when they hunt for jobs. So there is nothing wrong with helping beloved children get a good marriage when they want it."
But Saito knows that she still needs to convince some young people about the virtues of marriage.
"I believe that people, especially parents, should show the value of family and how great it is," Saito said.
"No one should die alone. People should live with mutual support and care. And I believe family is the answer."
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