Japanese Christmas cakes and marriage brokering
Junichiro Koizumi, who later became prime minister, was 36 years old when he married a 21-year-old college student, Miyamoto Kayoko, in 1978. The marriage was in accordance with “omiai” (お見合い) customs, although rumors abounded that Takeo Fukuda, who was prime minister at the time, had played a significant brokering role. No doubt Fukuda would protest vehemently against being remembered by posterity as a “nakodo” (仲人) or marriage broker, or God forbid, a procurer, all the more so as the union resulted in three children and a divorce four years later.
The custom of “omiai” is often considered a specific of Japanese social life, though it is not only typical of Japan. Marriages in Europe were often brokered to reinforce dynasties and alliances, while even among the peasantry spouses were often chosen by the parents. Nonetheless, in Japan it is often mentioned as a tradition that has survived to this day, and justly so.
The institution of marriage itself is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Japan. Until the Meiji era (latter half of the 19th century) formal marriage was limited to the samurais, who made up about 6 percent of the population. At that time it was common for a man to keep several women. The Emperor Meiji regulated this by law in a modernization effort as a signal that his country was approaching Christian Europe, which considered polygamy immoral. From then onward, the marriage ceremony of the Shinto religion appeared sufficiently civilized to western eyes.
Anyone can be asked to broker a marriage, including a distant relative, but there are also professional “nakodo”-s. Their role is to introduce marriageable people to prospective partners who are appropriate in social rank, family position and in given cases, education. This, of course, requires them to collect a great deal of data, which we might even call “market research”, since they need to offer accurate information when helping the couples to select one another. The information includes finances, health status, and even gossip coming from neighbors that covers all details. Even Chinese astrology becomes a part of the study. Serious work is rewarded with serious payment or valuable gifts.
Up until the 1950s the partners for most marriages, about 70 percent, were chosen this way. From then on, however, the proportion declined. By 1973 only 37 percent of marriage partners were chosen like this, and by the 1980s only a quarter of marriages required the mediation of a “nakodo”. According to a survey issued in 2005 by the Japanese Demographic and Social Insurance Research Institute, only 6.2 percent of marriages were brokered that year. However, most recently a growing number of people have chosen to have brokers assist them in finding partners. What might be behind this, given that the relaxation of social contacts makes meeting people much easier? This is only partly true in Japan. Long workdays combined with two-hour commutes to and from work give people little leisure time. Then the question becomes whether Japanese young people are able to overcome the shyness and reticence they have learned socially. With people socialized to make group decisions, do they dare to take the initiative and make a choice? As their 30th birthdays approach, it appears that many tend to fall back on tradition…
Today, parents who fear that their sons or daughters will remain single, as well as the young people themselves, turn to marriage brokers. I did not find any statistics on the satisfaction levels of couples brought together like this, but obviously there are many cases when the choice of a professional, based on objective factors and their knowledge of human nature, proves a good one. And surely, the opposite is also true. Perhaps the best known case was that of the heir to the throne of Japan, Prince Naruhito, who married in 1993 age 32. The Japanese imperial family is the longest-reigning dynasty in the world. As do so many other things in Japan, marriage is governed by strict rules, particularly when it is a matter of the heir to the throne. For instance, his prospective partner may have no non-Japanese ancestors for three generations, must be shorter than the prince (who is only about 160 centimeters tall), and must speak at least one foreign language. Other requirements are virginity, the ability to bear children, and satisfactory health. The court marriage broker team, the “jury of professionals” is said to have investigated some 70 candidates. The choice fell on Owada Masako, who was 29, spoke four languages, had studied at Oxford and Harvard, who wanted a career much like that of her diplomat father, and who had the skills and talent to make that a reality. She knew that the closed and rigid life in court would be a golden cage. She rejected the offer several times until finally, under great pressure, she was forced to agree. Since then she has rarely been seen smiling.
Professional firms have taken up the business of “nakodo” brokerages, while fortune tellers are exceedingly popular and private investigators have also joined in this profitable business. According to statistics issued in 2006 by the Ministry of Economics and Trade, their turnover was between 425 and 500 million US dollars. They are likely to get an additional boost from a decision soon to go on the books that will allow marriage advisory firms to advertize. At any rate, how to halt the Japanese population decline is a major concern, and since the number of babies born outside of marriage is negligible, making it easier to get married appears to be an appropriate tool.
Making it possible to advertize, banned from television at present to protect information privacy, might result in a major amount of business and ian ncreased opportunity for people who would like to get married.
The Internet also offers infinite options through its couples-seeking websites. Most marriage brokering offices operate within international networks, in accordance with the International Accord on Marriage Brokering. The Experian market research firm reports that 12 million people visited the 10 largest marriage brokering sites in 2013, which is 29 percent more than a year earlier.
Mail-order brides! Mail order catalogues – pick a wife from our catalogue! Sound weird? This is actually a real service, operating not only in Japan but in other countries as well. In fact a number of East European countries are quite active in these markets. The service is particularly popular among Japanese farmers. Local women tend to become more educated than the men or move to urban areas to work, preferring not to work in rural agriculture. This forces Japanese men to “import” wives, particularly from the poorer Asian countries. In Japan 2.5 to 3 percent of marriages are mixed, and the highest percentage of people choosing mixed marriages are farmers. There has been a sudden and steep rise in the demand for mail-order brides in recent years.
And how does marriage connect to Christmas cake? Well, Christmas cake must be eaten on the 25th December, when it is freshest and tastes the best. According to the Japanese, the same is true for women. Once over 25, so they say, a woman is like a Christmas cake eaten after the holidays. So there is a major demand for “nakodo”-s!
The pictures are illustrations from the following sources: