In late 2016, a usually routine report by Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research received some very un-routine coverage in the international media. The National Fertility Survey, which is conducted every five years to investigate trends in marriage, childbirth and child-rearing, contained one particular statistical trend that caught the attention of global outlets from the Washington Post to CNN: 40% of Japanese between the ages of 18 to 34 have never had sex – and that percentage is growing. Five years earlier, in 2010, it was 35%.

Most of those articles went on to connect this apparent lack of interest in sex with Japan’s famously low total fertility rate (currently 1.41, compared with the United States’ 1.87). Less commented on was a separate statistic contained in the same study – one that arguably explains both trends, and that is particularly close to the heart of O-net, a Rakuten-owned matchmaking service.

As O-net spokesperson Osamu Nakagame explains, “The underlying problem is that young Japanese these days find it difficult to meet potential partners. According to the government survey, as many as 89% of non-married Japanese women in that same 18 to 34 bracket say they want to get married. For men the percentage is almost as high: 85.7%. And of course, once those people get married, they will likely have children.”

In other words, the problem appears less about loss of interest in sex – or in having children – and more about the difficulty of finding a date.

O-net marriage advisers discuss why young Japanese find it difficult to meet potential partners - and what their company can do to help with sex and marriage in modern Japan.

O-net marriage advisers discuss why young Japanese find it difficult to meet potential partners – and what their company can do to help.

Matchmaking for marriage

And that’s where O-net comes in. One of the nation’s largest matchmaking services, O-net has 46,000 members, all of whom are very serious about getting hitched. Unlike many online dating services, O-net imposes significant hurdles for membership – including the need to submit proof of any marriage history, or lack thereof. Membership is not cheap, either. Members pay as much as 106,000 yen for the privilege of joining this broad network of people who, they can be confident, are as serious about marriage as themselves.

To delve further into this issue, Rakuten.Today sat down with some of O-net’s veteran marriage advisers to find out how the service works, and, most intriguingly, exactly why it’s necessary. What is it that’s stopping young people from finding partners themselves?

Yukari Matsumiya, from O-net’s Ginza branch in Tokyo, started by explaining some broad changes that had occurred in Japanese society over the past few decades.

Changes in workplace romance

“If you look back 10 or 20 years ago, the vast majority of people in Japan met their future wives and husbands at their places of work,” she said.

Ironically, that started to change as efforts were made nationwide to improve gender equality in the workplace and also to stamp out workplace sexual harassment.

“These days, sexual harassment seminars are becoming mandatory in most companies, and they’ve unintentionally created an environment in which it’s difficult for people to become romantically involved with a coworker,” she said. “When your busy life revolves around work and home, and you can’t meet anyone at work, where can you find a partner?”

O-net and sex and marriage in modern japanOnline distractions

Another major change impacting dating habits is the rise of the internet and smartphones, she continued. “It’s true that some people just don’t feel so lonely because they have their smartphones,” she said. “There’s a level of satisfaction you can get through online interaction – and many people in their 20s are accustomed to that.”

Guiding paths to finding “the one”

Still, Matsumiya and her colleagues have a message for Japanese millennials who find it difficult to meet someone: “If you can’t get married because you don’t meet people, the solution is simple: Change your environment and meet people. That’s where we can help,” she says.

“O-net provides a platform for people who are serious about marriage to meet each other,” says Matsumiya’s colleague Noriko Kumagai. “We can create personalized plans that meet each client’s need.”

O-net offers members five alternative means for meeting people: automated data matching, where users’ profiles are matched for their chemistry; online browsing, where users can search through other members’ information; parties and events, which are tailored to bringing together people of similar interests; and pairings recommended by dedicated advisers.

Perhaps indicative of the digital age, it’s those first two “digital” options that account for 90% of successful marriages, Kumagai explains.

And, speaking of successful marriages, there’s a lot. The number of members leaving the service each year to marry other members reached over 5,500 in 2016, up from 4,660 in 2014. That suggests that as social customs change and the workplace ceases to function as a place to meet future partners, services like O-net are making things a little easier.

Of course, there’s one thing that they can’t help with. As Matsumiya jokes, “The real challenge for young people starts after you meet ‘the one’!”