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Mask-wearing marriage-seekers try to get past outward appearances

Participants, many in casual attire, are seen at a "Mask de Omiai" matchmaking party. (Photo courtesy of DEF Anniversary)

The age of women seeking the "three highs" (high educational, high income and height) in their marriage partners is long past. Since then, Japan has passed through the period of the "three Ms" (median income, mediocre appearance and mild personality), and we are now in the era of the "four lows" (low arrogance, low dependence, low risk and low spending), with data showing that few men and women now place emphasis on their potential marriage partner's physical attractiveness.

    This latter phase has even spawned an increasingly popular kind of matchmaking party, one where the participants all wear masks. As a 33-year-old single male reporter from the Mainichi Shimbun who is looking to get married, I tried out one of these parties and searched for what is behind this new emphasis on inner qualities in a potential mate.

    Some 60 men and women gathered in a room in one Tokyo building were all wearing disposable surgical masks, commonly worn in Japan during flu or allergy season. It was "Mask de Omiai," a party appealing to unmarried women and men who valued personality over appearance in a potential partner. The parties have apparently been well received, and are now being held about once a month.

    Mainichi Shimbun reporter Kenichi Omura, left, is seen participating in a "Mask de Omiai" matchmaking party. (Photo courtesy of DEF Anniversary)

    When I arrived some 15 minutes before the start, I was first guided to the men's waiting room. Among the requirements for participating was that I bring my own mask. Everyone had put on their masks, gone to reception and been guided to the waiting room. The fee was 4,000 yen for men and 3,000 yen for women. For this particular party, all the participants had to be 30 or older.

    This was my first time at a matchmaking party. I tried to follow the advice of past participants I had read online: "First you have to relax," "Listen to the other person without forcing your self-introduction on them," and, "Enjoy yourself without rushing ahead."

    The tasks we were given in the waiting room, such as filling out a card about myself, were not so different from what I've heard about other matchmaking parties. In what may be an unusual characteristic of these masked parties, we used nicknames rather than our real names, and there was nowhere on the card to write my annual income. Instead we were asked to list our hobbies, favorite foods and music preferences. Many of the participants were dressed casually. There was none of the stiffness usually associated with the word "omiai" (a meeting with a prospective marriage partner).

    A comedian served as master of ceremonies and skillfully called out to the participants, saying, "Today, men, become assertive and proactive." When he bellowed, "Then, let's begin!" the wall between the men's and women's waiting rooms was removed. The sensational performance made me feel as if I was on a TV show.

    Masked participants are seen at a "Mask de Omiai" matchmaking party. (Photo courtesy of DEF Anniversary)

    First, the men and women sat facing each other in two parallel rows of chairs. Moving from chair to chair, the men spoke to all of the 30 women for two minutes each. While I was there to be a part of the event, I was also there as a reporter, so I asked one 37-year-old Tokyo woman why she had come.

    "It was easy to participate because the area around my mouth can't be seen. I could hide my low points," she said, smiling. I understood how she felt. I am 168 centimeters tall and weigh over 100 kilograms. I am at an age where my family is pressuring me to marry, but I feel that if I went to a regular marriage matchmaking party I would be ignored. Even with a mask I couldn't hide my body, which gives me an inferiority complex. However, reminding myself that everyone there was supposed to value inner qualities over outward appearance helped me feel a little better.

    Another woman said, "I don't want to worry about my partner's appearance, and I don't want them to worry about my appearance, either."

    After the round-robin conversation segment, we had free time where participants who had been attracted to each other could talk and, if they agreed, exchange contact information. There is a carefreeness afforded by having one's identity and about half of one's face hidden, and I, with my mask on the whole time, exchanged Line message app IDs with a woman there.

    The event was run by the firm DEF Anniversary. President Kei Matsumura, 26, says, "We try to make sure that there are no participants who are left alone because they had no one to talk to. Our goal is to make pairs that start as a casual friendly relationship." She says that each party is adjusted according to the number and ages of the participants.

    While I often become engrossed in talking with my interviewees, this was my first time talking to 30 different people one at a time over the course of about two hours. I felt the event placed emphasis on its participants having real communication with each other. The one difficulty I faced was that, due to the masks, voices were easily muffled, and it was hard to understand what people were saying. Perhaps because I was overusing my voice, I sounded a little raspy by the end.

    Still, the event was a lively one. I spoke with Megumi Ushikubo, 48, a marketing writer with many books on love and relationships who has interviewed many young people. She says, "In addition to these kinds of masks, I've interviewed people who have been to events where everyone wore blindfolds or masquerade ball masks. Probably people who lack confidence in their appearance have an easier time talking (when wearing these). Furthermore, we live in an age where it's more risky to reveal your real name or face. But with these events, people can dress up like they do for Halloween and join in without worry, and they probably feel a sense of unity with the other participants who are also wearing masks."

    However, as the phrase "love at first sight" suggests, is not appearance an important part of love? Ushikubo says, "Particularly for men, if they join in a normal matchmaking party and none of the women talk to them, and they think they were rejected because of their looks, they might find it hard to try dating again. If they put on a mask first, though, their confidence isn't damaged as much."

    Ushikubo adds, "Thinking in biological terms, it's natural that physical attractiveness is an advantage in dating, but when I speak to young people I find more and more of them see choosing a partner based on looks as unfair. Young people especially dislike things like a company that entices new employees with honeyed words, only to turn out to be a place that mistreats its workers. While they may put 'enhanced' images (such as digitally changing the size of their eyes) up on social networking services, I think they feel strongly that putting on a fake appearance when seeking a marriage partner is a bad thing."

    She continues, "Particularly after the Great East Japan Earthquake, there is a growing tendency to seek a soothing relationship rather than a passionate one. Young people place importance on shared values and communication skills that allow them to feel at ease with their partner, and the relative importance of physical appearance may have fallen."

    In March this year, Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness conducted an online poll in which only 38.7 percent of men in their 20s answered that they wanted to marry, down 28.4 points from a 2013 poll. Only 59 percent of women in their 20s said they wanted to get hitched, down 23.2 points from the earlier poll. Among respondents in their 30s there were also drops of over 10 points for both men and women, bringing them below 50 percent. When asked what they placed the most importance on in a marriage partner, among both men and women in their 20s and 30s the number one selection was "matching values," followed by "kindness." "Appearance or height" was relatively low, at eighth place among men and 12th place among women.

    So, will "Mask de Omiai" help alleviate Japan's low birthrate? Ushikubo says, "When I asked about this event, I got the impression that participants valued the opportunity to talk in a carefree manner to many members of the opposite sex. As many young people are now only-children and so have no (sibling) of the opposite sex and the same age group to talk to, this kind of event may be effective. It may not immediately work to alleviate the low birthrate, but it may serve as a 'warm-up exercise' for dating."

    One woman at the event had told me, "Compared to other matchmaking parties, I felt like there were a lot of people just there to enjoy the event rather than seriously looking for a partner." For people who struggle with even starting their search for a partner, this party might be an accessible first step.

    The person behind "Mask de Omiai" turned out to be popular comedian Atsushi Tamura of the comedic group London Boots No. 1 No. 2. Tamura, who has a strong interest in social issues, has been holding masked matchmaking events around the country since about 2010 to provide men and women a way to meet and help solve the low birthrate. DEF Anniversary was established in 2014 with an investment from Tamura, and runs Mask de Omiai with Tokyo-based "Match Alarm," which offers dating and marriage apps on social media. In May it held an event in Hokkaido, with another scheduled for July in Fukuoka Prefecture, as organizers look to hold the parties across Japan.

    The organizers plan to keep holding the events regularly, and one representative says, "Many municipal governments have asked us to hold the parties in their areas. This summer we are planning a (Mask de Omiai) smartphone app. Through placing emphasis on people's inner qualities, we truly hope to contribute to solving Japan's low birthrate."

    The trend of valuing prospective marriage partners for their inner qualities looks like it's set to keep on spreading. (By Kenichi Omura, Digital News Center)

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