Japan's Fukui prefecture has the nation's biggest share of dual-income households, the highest ratio of working women, and the lowest unemployment rate. What it doesn't have is enough babies.
So this month the provincial government will launch an online dating site for singles. Called the Fukui Marriage-Hunting Cafe, the website makes no attempt to disguise its purpose. And, as if wedded bliss were not its own reward, authorities will offer cash or gifts to couples who tie the knot. "Our goal is to first help people meet each other and then support them as they get married and raise children," says Akemi Iwakabe, deputy director of Fukui's Children & Families division.
At 1.34 children per woman, Japan's fertility rate is one of the lowest in the world, well below the 2.1 that is considered the minimum for a developed nation to maintain a constant population. That means the pool of workers and consumers is shrinking, while the ranks of pensioners are swelling. About 23 percent of the population is over 65, the highest ratio among the 62 countries tracked by Bloomberg. "It's difficult to breathe life back into an economy without children, without young people," says Naoki Iizuka, an economist at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo. "When an area like this keeps aging, the public finances of that government won't last."
The baby deficit is a by-product of more Japanese women postponing or forgoing marriage. Census data show that 32 percent of women between 30 and 34 were unwed in 2005, more than twice the number from 15 years earlier. "I do not think I'll get married until I'm at least 30," says Azusa Takahashi, a 25-year-old employee at a Tokyo publishing company. "With the economy where it is, I can't solely rely on a man's income."
The Democratic Party of Japan came to power last year promising to lighten the burden of child rearing. Starting this year, families began receiving monthly allowances of 13,000 yen ($150) per child, and fees for public high school, which ran at around $115 a month, were scrapped. Prime Minister Naoto Kan also has done his part to encourage procreation: In his previous job as Finance Minister, he encouraged his staff to leave work at 6 p.m. for dates.
Japan isn't the only country experimenting with government-sponsored matchmaking. Singapore's Social Development Network runs a website called LoveByte that dispenses dating advice and allows people to search for other registered singles. Fukui's service will compete with a host of private online dating services such as Tokyo-based O-Net, which has 38,000 members and organizes events such as wine-tasting tours and fashion seminars for women. Organized dating activities called konkatsu, or marriage-hunting, are becoming popular. They include 8 a.m. singles breakfasts, Sunday morning book clubs, and—for the civic minded—trash pickup by Shinjuku station in Tokyo.
Some skeptics note that the central government's previous attempts to nudge up the birthrate have not met with success. Shigeki Matsuda, a sociologist at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank, says eroding job security is the main reason couples are not making babies. "They don't have financial stability," he says. "That's a problem that can't be resolved by dating support."
The bottom line: To reverse a falling birthrate, Japan's central and provincial governments are looking for ways to get singles to click.
With Monami Yui