May 2, 2006

Japan Mulls Matchmaking Ads to Boost Birth Rate

TOKYO -- Alarmed by a falling birth rate and rapidly aging population, Japanese policymakers are thinking about allowing TV ads for matchmaking agencies in the hope that an increase in couples will result in more kids.

Japan's population shrank in the year to October for the first time since 1945, heightening worries about economic decline due to a smaller workforce supporting a growing number of pensioners.

An official at the Trade Ministry said on Tuesday that the ministry is considering allowing advertisements for matchmaking agencies to be shown on television, which is currently forbidden.

"Compared to newspapers, where such ads can currently run, the impact of television is much greater," the official said.

"One cause of the falling birth rate is later marriages, or no marriage at all, so we see promoting marriage as one good way of dealing with this problem."

Policymakers, once wary of pushing the issue for fear of echoing wartime efforts to boost the birth rate, have said the next five years are crucial for efforts to halt the population decline.

According to recent Health Ministry data, the average age of women on their first marriage has been creeping steadily upwards, from 25.8 in 1988 to 27.8 in 2004.

"We think that improving the image of matchmaking agencies by allowing them to advertise on television is one important way to boost the number of marriages," the trade ministry official said.

Experts argued, however, that more fundamental changes are needed, citing recent surveys showing that most Japanese think it is difficult to raise children in their nation.

According to a poll released last week by the Cabinet Office, only 48 percent of respondents said Japan was an easy place to raise children, compared to Sweden at 98 percent and the United States with 78 percent.

No specific reasons were given but the cost of child raising, a lack of child care facilities, and attitudes that make it hard for women to return to work after taking time off to raise children, are frequently cited to explain the falling birth rate.

TV advertising for businesses that are based on private information is generally not allowed in Japan.

"I don't think the plan to have matchmaking agencies advertise on television will do anything for the birth rate," said independent social commentator Tomoko Inukai.

"We need much more fundamental changes in social infrastructure to really make a difference."