Love's Winter Bloom

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An elderly couple pose for a portrait.

Nisaburo and Hiroko Ohata are unlike most Japanese couples their age. Sure, Hiroko, 58, fusses over her husband's diabetes, while Nisaburo, 60, promises his wife that if she loses 18 pounds, they'll take a trip abroad. What makes the Ohatas unique is how they met, through a matchmaking organization for single seniors. "On the second date he asked if I wanted to meet his family," says Hiroko. "I took that as a proposal." A little rushed, perhaps, but after 17 years as a widower, Nisaburo knew he'd found a new wife. The couple just celebrated four years of marital bliss last month.

In the past, people like Nisaburo and Hiroko might have chosen to live out their lives alone. But as Japan's society ages, attitudes about love and remarriage late in life are changing. Increasingly, divorcees, widows and widowers and never-marrieds in their 50s, 60s and 70s are finding companionship, defining for themselves a more mature vision of happily ever after. In 2006, three times more men and nearly five times more women in their 60s and 70s married for at least the second time compared with 20 years before, according to government statistics.

Granted, change is slow. For this silver-haired population the concept of "dating" is still largely masked by the innocuous rubric ocha nomi tomodachi (friends having tea together). And older people often need help meeting prospective mates. That's where specialized matchmaking services such as Ai Senior — "Love Senior" — come in. The Tokyo company represents 300 clients, aged 50 and up, who are members of a 6,000-person database of eligible elders. When Shunichi Ikeda started the online service three years ago, he was surprised by how many inquiries he was getting from people in their 60s. "I thought, 'They can't get married!'" he says. "But I soon realized that there was a real need for a place for older people to meet."

Ikeda says that his clients have an "American perspective" about the dating scene. And their children are often very supportive, sometimes being the ones to register parents and post their profiles. "Before, people used to be embarrassed. And some still ask me, 'Am I too old? Is it O.K.?'" says Ikeda. "But I think that more older people are realizing that life is supposed to be enjoyable — not lonely." About 17% of the matchmaking clientele in Japan is over 50 years old, according to Ai Senior, and seniors' market share has more than doubled over the past three years.

That's not surprising, considering that divorces among the elderly are rising. In 1975, for example, men 50 and older accounted for just 6.2% of divorces; that proportion rose to 18.8% in 2006. Some wives attribute this to "retired husband syndrome" — a condition in which a wife feels estranged after a husband's return to the household after decades of long hours at the office. Recent changes to divorce law also have loosened the purse strings that tie women to unhappy marriages. A law passed last year allows a divorcee to claim half of her husband's pension. Women have filed an estimated 95% of divorce applications since last April.

But that does not mean older Japanese are disillusioned with the institution of marriage. "For older, single men, even doing laundry or cooking is difficult," says Naomasa Saito, the head of online matchmaking service Taiyo no Kai (meaning "Circle of the Sun"). "They want to live with a woman." Likewise, "it can be boring" for women living alone, he says. "They want to provide for someone."

Eiko Komori, a resident of Motegi, a small city northwest of Tokyo, says she doesn't consider herself particularly progressive. But Komori, 70 and previously widowed, married a man two years her junior after four dates. Eleven years later, she and her husband are often reluctant to reveal that their relationship blossomed with the help of a matchmaking service. They still tell people they don't know well that they were introduced by friends at karaoke — which is partly true, since they went to karaoke right after they first met at a Taiyo no Kai event. He thought she was a good singer; she liked him because he didn't say much. They argue over petty matters, but they're happy. "People are more independent and live longer than before," Komori says. "If they can be with someone and enjoy life, that's meaningful." And with life expectancy rates what they are in Japan, wedding bells for seniors gives new meaning to the silver anniversary.

With reporting by Yuki Oda/Tokyo