300 Japanese couples have matchmaker to thank

SAPPORO - "There just doesn't seem to be anyone suitable for my child," said one participant in a gathering for parents of unmarried children, according to Michiko Saito, 71, manager of Sapporo-based matchmaking agency Office Ann Co.

Listening to two similar laments at gatherings she organised in Tokyo and Fukuoka, it occurred to Saito that the children of the parents who made them would be a good match. She arranged for them to meet in Osaka, midway between their Tokyo and Fukuoka homes. Three months later they married.

"Anyone can find a good partner," Saito said.

Parents, seeking a marriage partner on their son's or daughter's behalf, take resumes and photos of their offspring to events organised by Saito's agency. Since 2000, the meetings, which go by the agency's trademarked name Zenkoku Oya no En wa Ko no En Koryukai (nationwide arranged marriage exchange association), have attracted a total of 23,000 attendees. The 200th such event was held in Tokyo on Dec. 3.

Saito established her agency in 1998 at the age of 54. Three years before that, she had been hospitalised for cancer and shared a room with a woman in her 40s who later died alone. The woman was unmarried and estranged from her parents.

"It was terribly sad that she had no one at her deathbed," she said.

The feeling prompted her to establish her agency.

Saito herself married at 28, considered late at the time. She had an arranged marriage - people around her recommended her future husband - and ever since she has wanted to return the favour to others.

Upon marriage, Saito quit her job at a regional bank. Still, she contributed to the household budget and established a nest egg while raising three children, taking on odd jobs such as private home tutoring and part-time work at a local social welfare council.

There are no special qualifications required for matchmaking, but Saito did obtain qualification as a marriage and child-rearing counselor. She learned the basics of establishing a business at seminars organised by a financial institution.

Once her children were independent, she started her business. The initial cost was around ¥500,000, including the fee for affiliation with the World Bridal League Co., which provides information on men and women seeking marriage. She drew on her nest egg to pay this amount.

Saito set up an office in a building near JR Sapporo Station. She found that many people who came for consultations were parents who wanted to help their children find a partner, and this gave her the idea to hold gatherings especially for parents. It became a success.

"Nowadays, other agencies hold similar gatherings, too, but we were the first," she said proudly.

Her business is doing well. The main sources of income are matchmaking fees, including the fee for a successful match resulting in marriage (from ¥270,000 to ¥324,000), and attendance fees at parental gatherings (from ¥7,000 to ¥15,000 per person). Saito and her husband also have a pension, and she says the combined income is plenty for the two of them to live comfortably.

Saito's matchmaking has now produced about 300 happily married couples. She has also established a nonprofit organisation to help low-income earners who have given up hope of marriage.

"I want to continue to do as much as I can to support people who want to get married," she says.

Nearly 80 per cent want to wed

The 2010 national census revealed that 20.13 per cent of the male population and 10.61 per cent of the female population had not married by the age of 50. In 1970, the figures were 1.7 per cent for men and 3.33 per cent for women.

Furthermore, according to statistics from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the average age of people marrying for the first time in 2014 was 31.1 years old for men and 29.4 for women. Statistics show that today men marry 4.1 years later and women 4.7 years later than they did in 1975.

However, a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office on "marriage and family formation" from December 2014 to January 2015 reveals that 77.7 per cent of Japanese people aged 20 to 39 want to marry. The largest group, or 54.3 per cent of respondents, replied that they have not married because they could not "find a suitable marriage partner."