Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'Konkatsu' marriage activity businesses booming

Whatever you may have thought about former Prime Minister Aso Taro, what were called gaffes were most often his simple-minded verbalization of what a lot of Japanese still think. Typical of this was an address he made shortly before the recent national election to a group of university students.
He was asked by one student if financial fears weren’t a major reason for people to get married later and thereby contributing to the falling birthrate. Aso in his usual forthright style said that he reckoned young people without money should indeed wait to get married, because it would be difficult for their partners to respect them otherwise.
Forget about love and all that soppy stuff! Alas poor Taro, he was seldom politically correct.
But financial fears about the future do indeed appear to be one of the major reasons why people are taking longer to get married. If you track the birthrate and the financial condition of Japan over the last 10 years, the correlation is very close. Fundamentally, the bottoming out and slight recovery of the fertility rate over the last three years to 1.37 kids per couple appears to be due to the improvement in the economy during the period 2005 through 2007—allowing some lag for people to gain confidence about their futures and dream of having a happy family.
Granted, there may be other reasons for the lower birthrate, but they don’t track so closely as does the economy.
However, after three relatively strong years, the Lehman Shock of last year caused reality to bite hard again, and now many young people not only face the depressing prospect of low salaries (according to NHK, more than 80% of those under 35 years old now make LESS than 2 million yen a year!) but also fear even keeping the unfulfilling jobs they already have. As their lives are impacted, I’m pretty sure that the birthrate will take another dive again from next year.
These financial fears are well founded. In fact, it costs about 30 million yen to raise and send a child to school (until they graduate from university) these days, which is about as much disposable income as many families can expect to earn in their lifetimes if the mother is a full-time housewife. You want two kids? Well forget about it—you need to either be rich or living out on a farm under the same roof as your parents and your foreign wife (statistically an Asian wife, if you’re a farmer boy).
But not having the confidence in one’s financial future doesn’t stop you from being lonely, and this seems to be the case with many young and middle-aged people in Japan. As a result, the dating business is booming.
But these days it’s dating with a purpose—to get married, not the old-fashioned idea of joining with friends to have fun and see where it goes (that activity is called a “gokon“).
The new performance dating is called “konkatsu” or “kekkon katsudo,” meaning “marriage activities” and comes from a term coined from a 2008 book by sociologist Masahiro Yamada—the same guy who came up with the cute term “parasite singles.” With “konkatsu,” he was referring to a growing number of singles who are not making enough money to provide a decent future for their mate, and thus those wanting to get married are having to focus on financial and emotional preparation.
Sounds desperate doesn’t it? And to a certain extent it is—but the connotations of inadequacy don’t seem to impact the ongoing popularity of “konkatsu” parties. Indeed, as some commentators have remarked, since the term “konkatsu” derives from the term job hunting (“shushoku katsudo“), it seems to connote the same resignation of getting results that one might normally reserve for job hunting.
So as a result, it’s somehow become trendy to be slightly desperate and determined. Although as one matchmaking owner says, it appears that the most enthusiastic marriage seekers still tend to be women in their late 30s who are sensitive to their biological clocks ticking away.
I thought the “konkatsu” trend would quickly hit its peak at the end of last year, when several TV dramas on Fuji and NHK showed the situation of aging singles (typically cast as women in their late 30s and men in their early 40s) becoming more obsessed with getting married so as to not grow old alone, or to miss the chance to have kids before it is too late. But in fact, rather than dying off as so many other fads in Japan do, this one appears to be gaining pace.
According to a Nikkei report, a 2007-2008 survey by Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Science reckons that older singles rely less on friends and networking to find a mate and turn more to professional matchmaking services such as “konkatsu” party organizers. The 2005 census statistics have 47% of men aged 30-34 still being unmarried and 32% of women. You can be sure that the 2008 number is at least as high.
“Konkatsu” is a growing business. After the popularity of the “konkatsu” TV dramas, leading matchmaking company Zwei said it had a 20% jump in inquiries and its membership has now risen to around 40,000. Zwei had sales of 4.4 billion yen in 2008, and a net profit of 321 million yen, up 9% over last year. This may not sound like a lot, but Zwei is spending large sums on advertising and clearly is on a roll recently. Their share price has surged 40% in the last six months. I saw them advertising on a rail-side hording today, alongside parent company Aeon.
There are literally thousands of companies getting in on the “konkatsu” act. One company that I spoke to in Shinjuku said that they have 20,000 members, about 1/3 of whom show up to parties every month. Indeed, they have members who have subscribed for five years or more and who still regularly attend parties but who remain unmarried. I felt like asking them “What’s the point?” but that wouldn’t have been polite.
Anyway, the average fee per party is 5,000 yen for men and 3,500 yen for women, and since this company like many others uses regularly booked venues multiple times a week, a well-rehearsed master of ceremonies, and modest drinks and finger food, its costs are low and profits high. They seem to be doing well—although they were complaining about increasing competition.
So is “konkatsu” working? Well, there were 726,000 marriages in 2008, up about 6,000 over the year before. However, given that 2008 was a leap year, in fact this represents just two day’s worth of extra marriages—not a statistically meaningful amount. My guess is that the dating bit will continue, but the reality of peoples’ financial situations means that marriage rates and eventually fertility rates won’t improve until the economy does. Related website :

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