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Japan love letter project attracts singles seeking slow romance in the social media age

Asuka Togo, who works at the Miyazaki Koibumi project management office, is seen holding letters and envelopes used in the project at Miyazaki City Hall, on May 10, 2021. (Mainichi/Syunsuke Ichimiya)

MIYAZAKI -- Over the past year in this southwest Japan city, handwritten letters have undergone something of a renaissance since the local government launched a love letter exchange project for people looking to settle down. And while no one has tied the knot through it yet, over 300 people have registered and seven couples have interacted off the page.

    The two-year Miyazaki Koibumi (Miyazaki love letter) project began in April 2020 as a way to tackle population decline and late marriage trends. Singles living in the city of Miyazaki or the two neighboring towns of Kumitomi and Aya, as well as Miyazaki Prefecture residents aged 20 and older who hope to live in the corresponding municipalities in future are eligible to participate in the project.

    Members must first register on an official website with their email along with information including their hobbies and the age of the person they would want to exchange letters with. The letter exchange management office then selects and matches two people who seem compatible based on the registered information. If both parties agree, they can communicate through the office. The process up to this point is not that different from other common dating websites.

    The Miyazaki Koibumi project's distinctive feature is that the handwritten letters members send via the management office are dropped in to a yellow postbox in the city's Aoshima district that is said to bring happiness. The postbox was set up with inspiration from the mythology of Princess Toyotama and Yamasachihiko exchanging love letters in Aoshima.

    The only rules are that members can write letters of up to two sheets on designated paper. A pair can send and receive letters up to five times without divulging their name or home address. If both parties wish to meet face to face, operators take care when exchanging contact information. After that, it is left up to them.

    The project was proposed by a young city official inspired by his parents' story of them deepening their love by exchanging letters before marriage. What differentiates the project from other dating services is its analogue aspect, which runs contrary to modern trends in the age of social media where messages can be instant.

    According to the management office, 199 women and 132 men were registered as of the end of March 2021 -- 70% were in their 20s or 30s, and some were even in their 60s. Among the motives for registering have included: "The coronavirus has reduced chances to meet new people," and, "I admire encounters that happen outside social media."

    A 32-year-old office worker who exchanged contact information with her match told the Mainichi Shimbun, "You worry, 'Did I say something wrong?' when there's no instant reply or it doesn't show that the other person read your message right away. But I knew from the start that letters take time (to arrive), so it didn't stress me out."

    She and her match exchanged three letters each over two months, in which they wrote about their work and hobbies. She imagined her match as a caring person based on his replies, which took into consideration what she had written, and the shape of his letters and his pen pressure. Because of the pandemic she first met him online, but didn't notice anything off from the image she had of him. She then exchanged contact information, and they've since been to have a meal together.

    She had previously participated in matchmaking events several times, but had gotten tired of the pressure to liven up the mood, and said she was only able to have superficial conversations.

    The management office's Asuka Togo, 33, said, "If you're tired of judging people by their appearance or profile, or if you want to meet someone with an attractive personality, feel free to start by registering."

    (Japanese original by Syunsuke Ichimiya, Miyazaki Bureau)

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