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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Japan pins hopes on 'speed dates'
Duncan Bartlett
Business Daily, BBC World Service

Speed dates in Tokyo
Speed dating is a popular way for people to meet in Japan
It's not everybody's idea of romance: meeting a rapid succession of people from the opposite sex, with bare minutes to make a connection before a bell signals it's time to move on.

But speed dating parties, as such events are known, are proving increasingly common in many countries.

In Japan, though, some are paid for by the government.

The hope is that by encouraging people to date, marry and start a family, the current demographic trend leading towards a shrinking population can be arrested.

It might not seem the most obvious scheme to tackle a falling birth rate, but it has proved extremely popular, and speed dating events happen across Japan every night of the week.

At one event in central Tokyo, run by a firm called Exeo, 20 men and women cram into a small upstairs room in the hope of finding somebody special. Each pairing gets two minutes, before everyone swaps partners.

It's difficult to meet women at work, so that's why I am here
Hiroshi Nakahara, office worker

Some couples seem to hit off instantly, while others are shy and conversation is muted.

"I don't have a girlfriend and it's difficult to meet women at work, so that's why I am here" says Hiroshi Nakahara, an office worker. "I'm embarrassed to be doing this."

Love hurts

Many of the people at the party seems to echo the same problems. They spend a long time in the office and so they have little time to invest in finding love.

"It's becoming harder to meet suitable partners these days and that's one reason why people are getting married later," says party organiser Natsuko Minami.

"Women used to be able to rely on family introductions, such as aunts who arranged meeting a suitable man. But that's not happening much any more. Women now have to find lovers on their own."

Alternatively, company bosses used to take on the role of matchmaker for their staff, although this is rare now.

Furthermore, modern Japanese women are able to find well-paid careers, so their economic need for a husband is less pressing.

Yet the desire for romance means that many people are willing to pay for professional help in finding a partner.

Falling population

And local governments in Japan are prepared to provide financial support for the businesses that organise dating events as part of its efforts to tackle what it sees as a major social problem.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and a group of children
Japan is worried because not enough children are being born

The economic effects are everywhere.

Schools that were once full of baby boomers are now being closed down owing to a lack of children - more than 2,000 over the past decade alone.

As the population ages, more strain is being placed on the state pension system.

"One of Japan's problems is that so few children are being born," says Mr Saeki, president of Exeo.

"That's why the local governments are coming up with incentives to encourage people to get married and give birth. The aim of our business is to help people."

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