Big in Japan: Public Policy of Love

Samantha Hatoski

There is a demographic time bomb waiting to go off in Japan. Experts argue that the country’s shrinking population, slow economic growth, declining fertility rate, and rise in unsteady employment are all to blame, and with an increasing elderly population, the outlook is dire. Japan has taken a unique approach to this situation, by funding government-sponsored matchmaking events to boost the marriage and birth rate.

Estimates predict that around 40% of Japan’s population will be 65 years or older by 2060. A large elderly population translates into a greater burden on the country’s health care system, as well as an increased reliance on pensions and old age security funding, all of which rely on taxpayer money for funding. The shrinking population results in a slowing of economic growth, due to a decrease in overall labour productivity given the large portion of retirees, and lack of consumer spending from the declining younger demographic.

This phenomenon is not unique, in fact, this idea of the “aging population” has economic forecasters worried around the globe. We know this all too well in Canada, as our aging baby boomers head towards retirement. 2016 marked the first time that seniors outnumbered children in the Canadian population. What softens the economic blow, however, is Canada’s immigration policy: 21.9% of the population is born outside of Canada. This helps compensate for the baby boomers’ mass exodus from the workplace; immigrants’ participation in the labour market boosts employment levels and keeps economic productivity up.  Japan, on the other hand, has one of the world’s lowest immigrant populations, standing at only 2%.  Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has made it clear that his party has no plans to increase immigration anytime in the near future, denying the possibility of foreign workers  to help remedy the situation. Indeed, the issue of immigration is politically taboo in Japan, and the country has a history of rejecting foreign influence and protecting cultural homogeneity that stretches back to the 1600s.

Given that the traditional method of boosting birth rates and economic growth using immigration seems to be out of the question for Japan, the government has turned to an unlikely secondary strategy: funding and promoting government-sponsored matchmaking services. In 2014, the Prime Minister announced that the budget would set aside 3 billion yen (about $34 million CAD) for plans to boost the country’s birth rate. Municipalities can apply for up to 40 million yen from this fund to support their own programs aimed at increasing marriage and birth rates. A Kyodo News survey reported that in 2017 50% of municipalities were hosting matchmaking events, called machikon, or marriage seminars.

Japanese women have traditionally valued steady employment and income in their future spouses. Think: Bumble, rather than Tinder. The rise of unsteady employment, however, means that this pool of reliably employed bachelors is diminishing. Indeed, some statistics estimate that up to 40% of people employed in Japan work in temporary and part-time jobs. Some scholars point to the weak labour unions and pressures of globalization on cutting production costs as culprits, as well as the Japanese cultural norms that take pride in hard work and long hours. As a result, there are many hardworking Japanese singles that want to get married. 90% of citizens surveyed by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research reported that they wanted to get married “in the near future.” Yet 30% of men surveyed and 26% of women reported that they were not actively seeking a relationship. The challenge, it seems, is that Japanese women cannot seem to find an economically stable spouse, and both men and women lack the time and energy required to seek out a partner after a long day at work. Thus enters the role of the machikon.

Many Japanese jurisdictions have used government funding to host matchmaking parties (machikon) for their residents, in a hopeful attempt to pair up eligible singles who will become married, child-rearing members of society. Participants typically pay a base fee for entrance to the event, which includes all-you-can-eat-and-drink service, and the opportunity to mingle with other singles. Some machikon events have amassed up to 400 participants in one night. The Japanese government’s matchmaking efforts seem to have been relatively successful thus far; 67.2% of municipalities believed that hosting such events had some effect on relationships, though many have struggled with low participation rates. Matsuyama prefecture’s marriage support center uses online matchmaking services, which allows for the collection of reliable data regarding success rates. The prefecture reported that 228 couples who met through their matchmaking services had married in 2015-2016. In other jurisdictions, however, the success rate is not as promising; in Ishioka, three years of matchmaking events have only resulted in two married couples, though lack of data may have skewed this number.

Given Japan’s enduring stance against immigration reform, slow economic growth, and increase in unsteady employment, government-sponsored matchmaking services don’t seem like such an absurd idea after all. It is too soon to tell, however, what the long-term impact will be on the marriage and birth rates.

Samantha Hatoski is an art history undergrad turned public policy enthusiast, currently pursuing her MPP at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She is especially passionate about policy related to mental health, digital governance, and the environment. She spent two years prior to her Master’s working as a wedding coordinator and accumulating a long list of horrifying/hilarious travel stories.