When groups of single guys and women get together for some food and drink these days in Japan, there's a good chance that someone is busy at work behind the scenes, making sure everything runs smoothly.
This is what happens at arranged parties called gokon. An organizer, either an individual or organization, invites several single men and women to get together in a social setting, such as a pub or restaurant. There they mingle. If two in the group happen to hit it off, they follow up with phone calls, dates — and perhaps eventually marriage.
Gokon may be described as group blind dates, or perhaps speed-dating without the enforced time limits. But call them what you will, these matchmaking events are more popular than ever, according to Yomiuri Weekly.
The magazine's own extensive survey suggests that gokon have become one of the most common settings where people first meet their spouses. Fifteen percent of newly married people are "gokon couples." The group is second only in size to those who met their spouses through their jobs.
The poll quizzed 500 men and women who had attended at least one gokon in their lives. All were aged 30-45 and had married in the last three years.
Expect the number of such gokon marriages to rise in the future, says Miho Iwasawa, a director at the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The reason: Japan's modern work place is no longer an environment that breeds much love and romance.
"The introduction of performance-linked personnel systems and more concern on employees' confidentiality have had the effect of diluting human relations at the work place, and relationships forged through work have declined," she says. "The latest (Yomiuri Weekly) survey suggests that marriages from friends' introductions have become the most common of all."
Indeed, the 15 percent of gokon unions added to the 14 percent of respondents who said they met their spouses through "friends' introductions" slightly outnumber the percentage of workplace unions at 28 percent.
The trend is in stark contrast to the postwar years. "In the 1970s, arranged meetings through workplace connections had become the main way that couples got to know each other. But that trend has since been on a decline," Iwasawa points out.
Yet despite the gokon's growing popularity, many of the married "gokon couples" aren't eager to let friends, families or co-workers know how they first met. More than a third in the survey, 37 percent, say they've tried to keep secret the circumstances of their first encounter with their spouse.
Even so, Naoto Abe, an instructor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, believes that gokon offer special appeal for today's generation of young singles.
"A lot of single men and women seek natural and unexpected encounters. Sure, gokon may be 'staged,' but superficially, at least, they meet this ideal."
In its poll, the magazine collects a raft of enthusiastic responses from gokon goers, who generally praise the parties for being fun and relaxing. A 32-year-old guy uses two adjectives to describe what he likes about them: "comfort and freedom."
Some people find the parties so much fun and fruitful that they become addicts. Yoshio, a 36-year-old IT worker, attended more than 100 of the events before his recent marriage.
"I was going about once a week during the busy times," he says. "Each time, I'd use the parties as a way to practice ways of impressing women, which was a lot of fun."
Yomiuri Weekly is happy to hear that as it concludes that gokon are exactly what Japan needs right now. Perpetual or prolonged singleness has become a big issue, contributing to the even greater problem of the declining birthrate. And that problem, in turn, is expected to create a demographic time bomb that could no less shrink the economy and destroy the social-security system. Gokon, says the article's headline, may help save Japan from such a gloomy future.