As Its Single Ranks Swell, Japan Wonders 'Where's the Love?'

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Dai Nakajima wouldn't mind a girlfriend. At 28, he's starting to feel pressure to settle down. Not short of gumption, he approaches girls on the streets of Tokyo's trendy districts and asks if they'd like to join his weekly gokon parties. Like blind dating in a group, these singles-only meet-ups are designed to help people connect and, ideally, exchange numbers. He admits that his street success rate is only about 10%, but says that's enough to keep him going. "I've been looking for four years," he says. "But to be honest, I'm enjoying my single life."

Nakajima is single, yes, but not alone. "Not dating," "single" and "no real need to get married" were the surprising majority of responses in a government-sponsored 2011 survey of men and women ages 18 to 34. A record-high 61.4% of unmarried men had no girlfriend, up 9.2 points since the previous survey in 2005. Unmarried women with no boyfriend hit a record 49.5%, up nearly 5 points. Among the 40% who said there was no need to get married, 45% of the men said they have no particular interest in "dating the opposite sex." (Comparable figures on same-sex relationships are not available.) This ambivalence has sparked fears that Japan's birthrate and, indeed, its economy, will continue to flag.

It is still unclear what, exactly, is behind the country's changing dating and marriage patterns. However, anecdotal evidence suggests shifting gender norms and new economic realities are playing a role. Along with labels like otaku (geek) and hikikomori (shut-ins), young Japanese men are often derisively called "herbivores" for shunning so-called manly pursuits. Meanwhile, more Japanese women are entering the workforce, earning wages and enjoying increased economic freedom.

Take Keiko Kamijinaka. Kamijinaka, 32, has a boyfriend but says she is in no rush to tie the knot. Bright, attractive and ambitious, she has been diligently climbing the corporate ladder for the past 10 years and recently topped off her impressive skills with an M.B.A. "Nowadays even men and women in their late 30s and 40s are finding good partners and getting married," she says.

Long working hours and a shy personality have slowed Haruna Okado's marriage prospects. Now 38, and with a new, less demanding job, she's recently embarked on an aggressive search via singles-only parties, coed cooking classes, "mixed" mountain climbing and konkatsu (overnight sightseeing trips). "It keeps me busy every weekend," she beams, confident that she'll finally find someone. To offset the cost of her new venture, though, she had to move in with her mom.

Tatsuya Waida, 43, will also be living with his parents when he returns to Japan this month after six years of studying law and English in Seattle. "I'd like to get married," he admits. "At my age, though, it'll be tough to find a decent-paying job in Japan. Women want a man with a good income."

But this, too, is changing, says Mikiko Matsumoto of O-Net, one of Japan's biggest matchmaking services. There was a time, she says, when Japanese women "wanted a man making about $100,000. Now they'll go for a combined income at the same level. After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disasters, O-Net's membership jumped 30% from the same period a year before. "People realized the importance of marriage and family," she explains. Interestingly, divorces also increased.

Indeed, divorce is also fueling the singles boom. In 2007, the number of divorces initiated by women surged after a new law granted wives half their soon-to-be-ex-husband's pension after retirement. Keiko Kamijinaka counts among her friends several women who married early, had kids and divorced, but are doing fine as a single breadwinner. "Being divorced [in Japan] doesn't have the negative image it used to have," she explains. And many don't want to marry again, she adds. "Too much trouble."

For Ken Suzuki, 68, marrying again was worth the hassle. He divorced his wife of 25 years in 2009, and soon after, he married a woman he met through Akanekai, a matchmaking service catering mainly to over-50 singles. "Couples were expected to endure a kamen fufu [loveless marriage], but now attitudes are changing," he explains. "I'm 80% happy, and that's enough for me," he says. "A perfect marriage is impossible." Perhaps that's why a growing number of Japanese are opting to be imperfectly happy alone.