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Coronavirus outbreak puts Japan's singles in mood for matrimony

Dating agencies seize chance as online engagement shows higher success rate

The stay-at-home orders in place during the coronavirus epidemic have many Japanese rethinking marriage and family, giving matchmakers an opportunity to win new clients with online services.   © AP

TOKYO -- With stay-at-home orders in effect to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, many singles in Japan are reassessing the importance of marriage and family, even as they maintain social distance.

Tokyo-based marriage agency Sunmarie says inquiries about its services and memberships are up about 20% in April from the same month a year ago. The company began offering 40-minute, free online consultations the day after the government declared a state of emergency in seven prefectures on April 7.

"Many potential customers say the coronavirus has given them an opportunity to think about their future, or to think twice about ties with their families," said a Sunmarie representative. Most people seeking consultations are in their 20s to 40s and the majority are women.

Kekkonjoho Center, which runs the Nozze marriage agency, has been offering free spouse-hunting advice since April 10. Inquiries have risen 10% from a year ago, the company says. Those seeking assistance range in age from their 20s through their 70s, with women in their 30s and 40s making up the biggest share.

Marriages in Japan, which topped 1 million a year from 1955 to 1965, have been on a downtrend. But in 2012, the year after a big earthquake and tsunami hit the northeastern part of the country, the number of marriages rose by about 7,000 from the previous year as the disaster apparently led more people to seek permanent bonds. Something similar may be happening now, as singles spend more time alone and consider marriage more seriously.

But unlike in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, seeking out companionship during the pandemic isn't easy. The government has asked people to reduce their face-to-face encounters by 80%. But a temporary halt to daily commutes gives people more time to look for a spouse.

Marriage agencies are responding with online matchmaking services. Sunmarie began offering an online dating service on April 1. Clients post personal profiles and if a potential partner likes what he or she sees, they can move on to a 40-minute online "date" instead of meeting in a hotel lounge or other romantic spot.

Even when meeting online, men are encouraged to wear a suit and tie. A matchmaker is present for the first five to 10 minutes to break the ice.

The company also has an online matchmaking option for members. It advises clients to keep laundry or other personal items out of the camera's view. It also suggests that women put on a bit more makeup than usual, paying special attention to their eyebrows. It is best to position the camera for a shot from the chest up, Sunmarie says, and to avoid backlighting.

The data indicates that online dating is 20% to 30% more successful than the in-person sort. "People in their 30s and 40s do not seem uncomfortable meeting online. More people have additional free time as they work remotely, and I hope they use this situation as an opportunity to think about their futures," the Sunmarie's spokesperson says.

LMO, a marriage agency based in the southern city of Fukuoka, began hosting online matchmaking parties in April for people 30 to 45 years old. The company expects the total number of participants to reach 400 for the month. To minimize security concerns, it verifies the identity of participants using personal identification information.

"Unlike face-to-face gatherings, online services give people the opportunity to meet regardless of where they live," said Kota Takada, representative director of LMO.

The company holds online meetings for people from different areas each day "to offer people the chance to meet others from their birthplace, or to enable people who have been transferred for work to meet people in locations where they want to live in the future," Takada said.

Tokyo-based Eureka on April 20 added a video call app to its Pairs online matchmaking service. This lets prospective couples call each other after they have exchanged three text messages each. The company moved the launch of its Video Date app forward from the second half of 2020 to take advantage of the extra time people have at home.

The online service "enables people to casually see whether they can have a lively conversation before they actually meet," a Eureka spokesperson says.

But if stay-at-home orders mean isolation for some, it can mean intimacy overload for others. There is a growing concern that all that time spent together will push up the divorce rate.

While matchmaking services are helping lonely hearts, Kasoku, a Tokyo-based company with around 800 short-term rental rooms, offers respite for people who have seen more than enough of each other. On April 3, it began giving discounts of 20% to 30% on its rooms, many of which are suddenly vacant due to the absence of overseas tourists.

Kasoku has so far received about 130 customer inquiries. One typical comment: "My spouse lacks a sense of caution about the coronavirus and goes out." Another complains: "I don't want to see my husband because he stays at home too long." Many callers are looking to rent a room for two weeks to a month; 60% are women, Kasoku says. Most are in their 30s and 40s.

More seriously, the company has received at least five inquiries came from people troubled by domestic violence. Said one, "The violence has escalated because we now spend too much time together at home. I have no way out."

Kasoku has already provided rooms for 30 couples. Noting the cramped living conditions of most Japanese homes, a company official says: "I hope that if any trouble occurs to a family in connection with the coronavirus, the members will keep their distance from each other and reassess their relationships."

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