FUKUI, Japan (Reuters) - Stepping into her neighbor’s house for green tea and red bean cake, Ikuko Juryo pulls out a photograph of a young bachelor.
“He’s a good marriage prospect,” she says. “Works for the local government. His family might own a house.”
Proud to be a busybody matchmaker, Juryo belongs to a 200-member women’s group in Fukui which makes door-to-door visits to single people’s homes in a bid to marry them off and raise the birth rate of the sleepy prefecture in western Japan.
Subsidized by the local government, the matchmakers have helped around 50 couples tie the knot in the past year.
They are also credited with helping Fukui become the only one of Japan’s 47 prefectures to raise its fertility rate — the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime — in 2005, just as the nationwide count hit a record-low of 1.26. By contrast, Fukui’s fertility rate was 1.47 in 2005.
Juryo’s travails — from knocking on doors to organizing matchmaking parties — reflect the hurdles Japan faces turning its birth rate around in the face of a rapidly ageing population.
Japan’s population of around 128 million is set to decline in coming years as the number of elderly far exceed the number of births. Japan is home to the world’s highest proportion of old people, with 20 percent of the total population aged 65 or older.
Shoko Mitsunari, the group’s octogenarian head, says getting people to marry and have children is no easy task, an unthinkable situation when she was young and most women married by age 20.
“People need to know that if you don’t marry and have kids, the country will simply die away,” she said, tagging along on the matchmaking visits. “It’s not just a problem for the individual.”
Academics trace the root of Japan’s falling birth rate to the economy’s rapid growth in the 1970s, when more women went to universities and began to work full-time.
Since then, an increasing number of women have delayed having babies or opted out of marriage and child-bearing altogether.
The phenomenon is not unique to Japan. But the country has lagged behind other nations such as Sweden, the United States and France in finding ways to help parents balance work and family, said Makoto Atoh, a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo.
“The government is often blamed for not doing enough, but that’s not necessarily the case, when you look at how it has shortened work days and built day-care centers,” Atoh said. “It’s more an issue of people not making use of the measures in place.”
Long working hours for ambitious career men and women as well as late-night business meetings put a damper on family life. The high prices of child care services is also a disincentive.
“The problem of long working hours has been overlooked in the past because labor unions are weak, but this needs to change if people are to be encouraged to have babies,” Atoh said.
But that may change as big companies start to dole out more child support and time off for employees with children.
Internet conglomerate Softbank Corp. plans to award employees 50,000 yen ($425) when they have their first child, 100,000 yen for their second and more for bigger families. Employees who have a fifth child will receive 5 million yen.
The hope is that steps like these will help Japan overcome its skewed demography with the proportion of people aged 14 or under projected to drop to eight percent of the population in 2055 — from a current 14 percent — raising concerns of a pensions crisis, a labor crunch and damage to the country’s long-term economic growth potential.
Softbank Corp. will also allow staff to work shorter hours and take more days off while their children are growing up.
“It will benefit our company in the long run,” said spokeswoman Makiko Ariyama. “We want to prevent women from wanting to leave the company once they have children.”
At electronics maker Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., nearly half of the company’s 76,000 employees will be given the option of working from home once or twice a week starting in April.
In regional areas, however, where child care is a less urgent matter as couples tend to live near their families, the focus is on matchmaking.
Hiroe Takaoka is one of the single women the matchmaking group is determined to marry off.
But so far the 23-year-old city hall clerk is holding out, even after being handed a photograph of an eligible bachelor several months ago by a matchmaker.
“Any nice-looking man would be fine, but when I saw the picture, he seemed so old. Maybe he was in his early 30s,” she said. “I’m still young. I don’t have to marry any time soon.”