Tokyo — In Japan’s northeastern Miyagi Prefecture, residents can find life partners through a government-sponsored, artificial intelligence-powered matchmaking service. In Ehime, in the southwest, regional authorities are offering a big data-based matchmaking system, while further south, Miyazaki is taking a similar approach, instructing potential couples to exchange handwritten letters.
Across the country there are public and corporate sponsored singles parties and “life design seminars” designed to give young adults a concrete roadmap for marriage and family. The city of Tokyo even teaches basic dating skills, like the art of conversation (tip: don’t just talk about yourself). Photographers offer free flattering portraits; Stylists and make-up artists are employed to spice up the old-fashioned.
Never in the history of Japan has the state played such a prominent and growing role in matters of the heart. And this role is set to grow even bigger.
Last month Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government would take “unprecedented” measures to tackle the problem Japan’s declining fertility rate. In a parliamentary address, he warned the country was on the brink of dysfunction and sliding towards insolvent pension and healthcare systems, rising public debt and economic decline.
Japan has the fastest aging population of any post-industrial nation on earth. The birth rate — the average number of children a given woman has — began to decline in the 1970s. The current total fertility rate is 1.3, well below the “replacement level” of just over two children per woman, which is widely accepted as the rate needed to ensure a stable population.
The country’s gerontocratic leadership believes more marriages are the answer.
A regular poll by the National Institute for Population and Social Security Research found that nearly a fifth of men and about 15% of women express disinterest in marriage, the highest level since 1982. Almost a third of men and a fifth of women are in the 50s in Japan have never been married.
As such, Japan’s new Children and Family Agency, due to launch in April, will deploy “marriage support concierges” in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
“They’re basically going to augment existing local programs and come up with new ideas” to increase marriage rates, said Yuki Nomura, a spokesman for the Cabinet Office. The central government is paying 75% of the cost of the concierges, who are now being recruited from public and private sector individuals with matchmaking expertise.
But many experts say the only way for Japan to save itself is to abandon the “male breadwinner, female caregiver” norms that continue to underpin policy-making and corporate governance.
“Post-industrial countries (like Sweden) that made it possible to balance work and family life have not suffered large fertility declines,” noted Harvard sociologist Mary Brinton in a recent presentation analyzing Japan’s demographic missteps.
She noted that Japanese women spend five times as much time doing housework as men and work what she calls a “second shift,” which discourages couples from having two or more children.
Some local governments seem to be at least paying lip service to this inequality. The governors of Saga, Miyazaki and Kagoshima have donned yellow aprons over their suits and ties to be filmed as they try their hand at vacuuming, ironing and scrubbing. They marveled at the sheer amount of drudgery.
Chuo University sociologist Masahiro Yamada is skeptical that Japan will emerge from its existential crisis.
“It’s not a matchmaking issue, it’s an issue of more men with unstable incomes,” the professor told CBS News. “Even among ordinary workers, relative incomes are falling, so it’s better (for single people) to live with parents” than to get married.
Yamada berates the government for programs he says primarily benefit Japan’s well-educated elite. In 2021, a fifth of men and more than half of women worked part-time, freelance or in other irregular jobs.
Brinton of Harvard University said the plight of non-regular male workers is another reason Japan should adopt an egalitarian norm of dual earners, dual supervisors.
“Young men (in precarious jobs) feel unable to fulfill their role as breadwinners in the family,” Brinton said. “Young women don’t necessarily want to marry these guys.”
Lower incomes are far more of a deterrent to marriage in East Asia than in the US or Europe, Yamada argues, because Asian men are more concerned with unilaterally earning enough to support children.
A truly effective policy, he argues, would double or triple investment in families rather than seniors.
“Japan will go down along with its birth rate,” Yamada warned. “And South Korea and China will be right behind us.”