Tokyo's marriage bureau sifts many for elusive few

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 24, 1994|By Yoshiko Tanaka | Yoshiko Tanaka,Special to The Sun

TOKYO -- In most cities that issue marriage licenses, it's up to the participants to find each other. But Tokyo takes it a step further. The city will help you find a spouse.

Since 1933, with a brief break for World War II, Tokyo has run a serious marriage bureau.

On a recent Tuesday just after lunch, a half-dozen men and women were sitting inside the "omiai" -- or matchmaking -- office in a municipal skyscraper, rereading an official brochure with the optimistic slogan: "We are simply giving you a chance."

To be more precise, a very small chance.

According to agency statistics, only about 2 percent of the 4,300 people registered found a partner last year.

Still, even if the goal is elusive, the selection is vast.

"I've already met eight potential brides," said one young man, who requested that his name be withheld, "and made offers to four."

None were accepted, but the man was undaunted as he planned to register for his fourth two-year stay with the bureau.

Others, he notes, have waited more than a decade before achieving success.

Asako Yamashita remains similarly persevering. She has been refused once, has declined offers twice and is eager to continue searching.

"It is easy to say yes or no if it's through this office because the people don't know me at all," she said.

That, of course, is part of the problem and part of the reason for the existence of Marriage Counseling Center (to use its formal name).

As is often said about Japan, it is a country of deep relationships where merely having an honest conversation can require an introduction by a respected third party, and several preliminary chats.

The singles scene can be extremely permissive, but when it is time to get married, strict rules and standards come into play.

A potential spouse must often be screened by relatives, even distant relatives, as well as private detectives whose background checks may look back three or four generations.

Traditionally, this awkwardness was avoided by the use of matchmakers who often arranged marriages between people who would not meet until they went to the altar.

Government assumed some of the matchmaker's role immediately before World War II as an industrializing Japan drew people to major cities.

Given that the term for marriage, "eikyu-shushoku," means lifetime job, the omiai bureau was, in a sense, just another employment office.

In the aftermath of World War II, there were far more women than men, but that has reversed.

All seekers partake in monthly parties directly sponsored by the office and slightly more informal ones thrown by six registered groups with names like "happiness" and "fresh."

Some counseling is given.

For instance, one administrator stresses that unemployed men would be more desirable if they got a job.

A lengthy application form is required of all registrants, and preferences tabulated.

The answers give some indication of what it takes to make the grade in Japan.

The women ask for university graduates, making at least $40,000 to $50,000, not previously married, working as a bureaucrat. The men ask for high school graduates who are young. Period.

The romance is tightly controlled. A computer spits out 30 possible mates, applicants choose 10, and they are provided photographs.

Two are selected and then notified by mail, at which point they can review the facts on their selector. A meeting is arranged at the center. Ideally, literature for the agency says, marriage follows.

That, of course, should be the end of the story.

But, as is often the case in such matters, reality has begun to intrude.

Maintaining the center and its 21 discrete employees costs the government about $1 million a year.

Plans are being made to cut back the omiai, or to eliminate it all together. But not until 1995 -- a delay to enable budding romances to flower.

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