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More Japanese singles trying online dating amid pandemic limits, falling marriage rate

A man is seen taking part in an online dating meet up from his home in Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 12, 2021. With his time alone increased due to the pandemic, he says he's started to feel he'd like to be with someone. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- With the coronavirus crisis, chances for people to meet face-to-face and talk have been reduced greatly. As opportunities for chance meetings are taken away, how do people find that special someone? The Mainichi Shimbun took a look at the pandemic-affected dating scene in Japan.

    "Good evening," "Where are you calling from?" It's just before 10 p.m. on March 12, in an apartment in southeast Kanagawa Prefecture, which neighbors Tokyo. A man in his late 40s sits and smiles in front of the smartphone set up on his table, a can of beer in his hand. There's an easy atmosphere as the men and women on screen say things like, "Nice to meet you," "Oh, did you cut your hair?" and, "Looking sharp today."

    Although it seemed like an online drink among friends, what had just begun was actually an event held by dating support business LMO Corp., based in the southwest Japan city of Fukuoka, which uses a video conferencing app to hold singles parties. Including first-timers, there were more than 20 people from across the country attending the party that evening.

    A host runs self-introductions and other activities, but if conversation among attendees is particularly lively, they can often go on past the 11:30 p.m. end time. Among the merits the online meetings offer is that there's no need to worry about a venue's usage time limit, meaning people can talk as much as they like. In this instance, the party didn't wrap up until about 4 a.m. the next day.

    Online singles events are on the up with the spread of the coronavirus. LMO's parties are part of this trend, and its distinctive offering is its "one set" of parties held three days a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The company's CEO Kota Takada told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Normally one party runs about two hours, but that kind of time isn't really enough to get to know someone."

    If someone finds a person they like during one of the parties, they can, via the company, request a one-on-one online meeting. If they consent, and if the conversation seems to be making progress, they can exchange contact details, and arrange a date to meet in person. Takada said, "People say there's good and bad about using the internet, but it's just one opportunity. The essence of this kind of search for a marriage partner, which is seriously thinking about the future of one's life, is unchanged."

    The man in the apartment first started thinking about marriage in his late 30s, and he participated in meet-up events a few times a year. Although there were women he dated out of those events, he says he wasn't that enthusiastic about finding a future wife. He bought the apartment he lives in now at age 40, thinking it might be good to live in as a single man for the rest of his life. The apartment is a bit too small for two people.

    A man is seen taking part in an online dating meet up from his home in Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 12, 2021. When they go well, parties can reportedly go on into the small hours of the following day. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

    He really started seriously looking for a marriage partner from spring 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. "My time alone has risen a lot, and when I watch TV at home or things like that, there are moments where I suddenly feel lonely," he admitted. He found out about LMO online, and started taking part in February. While he used a smartphone on the day the Mainichi Shimbun met him, he has bought a tablet to improve his online dating set up.

    But, he said there are difficulties that come with taking the activity online. "What should you talk about and with what timing? You can't be silent, but you can't talk too much. It tests your communication skills," he said. On top of that, he said, "It's difficult to request an online one-on-one meeting. You don't know if someone you met for the first time and thought was nice will be at the next party. But, if you rush a request, they might reject you."

    It seems more than a few people have expedited their search for a life partner with the coming of the coronavirus. A faculty member in his 30s at a university in west Japan's Okayama Prefecture is one of them.

    He started thinking seriously about marriage when the calendar switched to the first year of the Reiwa era, in May 2019. More and more of his friends were getting hitched, and he started thinking that he "wants a partner who he can share his life with." He hadn't made any promising connections with a local marriage consultancy center he signed up to when the pandemic hit. Although he likes to go out drinking with colleagues and students, chances to do so fell. "Suddenly, the time I spent alone or working went up. I felt lonely."

    At the end of 2020, he refrained from going home to see his parents in the Kanto region in eastern Japan for the traditional New Year holidays, and applied for an online dating party. "I thought it would be a great way to spend the New Year period. It was fun to pass the time and get to know other single men and women online who couldn't go home." In February, he met one of the women at those parties face-to-face.

    She lives in a harbor town on the island of Kyushu in southwest Japan and some way from Okayama. To see her, he left his home in the early morning, and rode shinkansen bullet trains and other transport to get to her. Perhaps because they'd already seen each other online, there was "no nervousness, even though it was our first meeting." He said she told him that her impression of him wasn't all that different from the person she met on the internet.

    They went for a meal, and she showed him around the town in her car. He had planned to go home the same day, and when he asked her about a next time at a cafe that was the last stop on their date, she said, "At this stage I'm not sure about dating." It seemed like she wasn't sure how she felt, and he went back to Okayama without asking her decision.

    He still hasn't heard from her on it, and said he feels that it's "probably unlikely" for their relationship to develop into more than just friends. But, he remained positive, saying, "Your ideal person, someone who shares the same outlook as you, they aren't necessarily nearby. The chances of meeting new people in rural regions is lower than it is in Tokyo and other big cities. Being able to search for a partner from across all corners of the country online means that the first barrier to meeting someone, distance, is removed."

    One PR official at a marriage partner search support company said, "There are some people who, despite ordinarily thinking that being alone is enjoyable, have come to feel a loneliness from requirements to stay indoors and other factors. Amid that, the relatively easy method presented by online dating has spread."

    IBJ Inc., based in Tokyo, offers a number of dating services. After the first state of emergency declaration spanning April to May 2020 was lifted, the company saw a rise in one-to-one meetings of potential marriage partners among its affiliated marriage consultation centers nationwide. In October 2020, a record 42,680 one-on-one meetings were held, and the number of couples getting engaged through their services was also its highest ever, with reportedly around 9,700 couples.

    A survey by Recruit Co.'s bridal research firm, "bridal soken," reportedly showed that 41.6% of single respondents who already had a desire to date and marry said their feelings about "wanting to marry someday" had "risen" due to the coronavirus crisis. Additionally, 37.5% said their desire to have a romantic partner was stronger.

    Among the positive evaluations of online dating provided by respondents were that "costs are lower than in real life," cited by 45.5% of those surveyed, while 35.8% said you can "meet people without worrying about people around you," and 35.6% praised that it "offers freer time than in real life."

    But while online dating is enjoying a surge in popularity, numbers of actual marriages in 2020 were deeply depressed. The initial figures released in the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's 2020 Vital Statistics showed there were 537,583 marriages, 78,069 fewer than in the previous year. The 12.7% drop is behind only 1950 for the steepest fall in the postwar period.

    The data appears to be a reaction to 2019, when marriages were up for the first time in seven years thanks to trends including couples rushing to tie the knot while it was still the Heisei era (1989-2019), and for weddings taking place in the first year of the Reiwa era. But many have also asserted that the fall is due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Marriages have been down across the world. In the U.S., which has the highest number of coronavirus infections and COVID-19 deaths internationally, estimates show that 2020 marriage numbers were down more than 330,000 compared to a world without the pandemic. American media has reported that economic anxiety and other factors brought by the spreading infections are behind the fall.

    Professor Masahiro Yamada, an expert in family sociology at Tokyo's Chuo University who coined the terms "parasite singles" and "konkatsu" -- the word for activities to find a marriage partner -- said, "Even if your desire to marry has increased, whether you can get married is a separate issue. For example, I don't think a person with financial security provided by living with their parents is going to intentionally go and marry someone financially unstable. As a result, I suspect that trends of more people being single, and of fewer children being born, are going to accelerate."

    (Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

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