Do Arranged Marriages Still Happen In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jacob asked:

I was recently watching the second season of Aggretsuko, which dives into the world of marriage and the different viewpoints on the subject. I was surprised to see such a diverse views from the young, middle-aged, and older generation from complete disinterest to almost an expectation. One thing that I found very odd was Retsuko's mother setting up matchmaker dates for her against her will as well as telling here 25-year-old daughter that she better find a man to marry soon before it's too late. As a millennial, the thought of getting married at 25 is insane considering most people are barely out of college as well as not really having a great handle on life yet. Do Japanese parents pressure their kids to get married young? Do arranged matchmaking or marriages still occur? Are younger people choosing to opt out en mass?

Asian families are traditionally a little more, shall we say, parentally-motivated than in the West. Traditionally, most Asian countries have parents —mothers especially— pushing their kids in the "right" direction well into adulthood (hence the "tiger mom" stereotype). While this, of course, includes studying and career ambitions, it also includes dating and marriage. Parents want their kids to carry on the family, and lobby hard for them to find a good spouse, marry, and have kids as soon as is reasonable. Obviously not all families and parents are like this, but it is the traditional thing to do in that part of the world. Getting married and having kids is considered a family obligation, to a varying extent.

This takes different forms in different countries and regions. For some cultures, particularly in less Westernized and internationalized areas, this takes the form of outright arranged marriages, which are still common/mandatory in many parts of the world. But in Japan, parents take a far more relaxed approach: they can network with other parents of similarly aged young adults, and perhaps a professional facilitator (known as a nakodo) to set their kid up with a pre-approved potential suitor. They would start by just showing photos and giving stats, and then arrange a formal meeting. After a few dates, the couple may or may not decide to go ahead with marriage. This parentally-administered courtship is known as Miai, or Omiai.

Miai are considered very old-fashioned, and don't happen very much anymore. In fact, it's been in decline since the post-war occupation, when the Western idea of marrying for a pre-existing love took root. Until the 1940s a good 70% of marriages were arranged in this way, but now it's believed to be less than 6% —and most of those take place in rural areas where tradition holds greater sway, and young people have a harder time meeting. They do pop up in anime quite a bit, because they make for good child/parent drama. (I was first exposed to it watching Maison Ikkoku back in the day.)

Just as in the West, marriage has been changing a lot in Japan in recent years. People are waiting longer to get married, so older parents may be alarmed that their kids are approaching their "sell by" date a little prematurely. But also, many people are deciding that they don't want to date, or to get married. For women, having kids often means having to give up a career they worked hard for. (Japan's social support for young parents is not great, and the country's notoriously long work hours make being a working parent very challenging.)

But many young people of all genders have increasingly started eschewing romance altogether, worsening Japan's declining birth rate and population. A lot has been written about Japan's decreasing appetite for sex (a recent study noted that 25% of people aged 18-39 of both genders were, in fact, virgins— a significant rise), and many editorials have laid partial blame on the easy availability of porn and otaku delights as one reason why. Indulging in these products can often take the place of attempting to have real human relationships, and it's a hell of a lot easier to do so. I haven't seen any good data on how much of a factor that is, so it's hard to tell if that's a real issue, or just news media hand-wringing.

Not everyone has given up or opted out. While online dating platforms don't have the best reputation (many ended up becoming hook-up apps or used for bad behavior), Japan has quite a few popular ones, and newer ones are strictly moderated to keep things on the up-and-up. Professional matchmakers (kekkon katsudo, or konkatsu — literally "marriage hunters") are also a booming business. But if it happens for people, it's happening later in life. As of 2013, Japan's average age of first marriage is 30.1 years of age (putting it in line with America at 28.2 and Canada at 30.3).

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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