Omiai: The Culture of Arranged Marriage in Japan

  • Arranged marriage is a practice which is both controversial and a historically significant societal function. Not so long ago, arranged marriage was very common in all parts of the world. Marriage was more of a contract than anything else, and was common and expected among all classes and cultures.

    Marriages up until around the 18th century were usually organized by family members, and various negotiations had to take place regarding finances, suitability, and various obligations. The process of arranged marriage has differed in different parts of the world and time periods. Sometimes the couple were allowed to meet first, and sometimes they just saw a photograph before the wedding!

    In some parts of the world, arranged marriage is still very much a normal arrangement. In most developed and secular countries it has all but died out in place of a more liberal approach to marriage and relationships, but in countries such as India, Pakistan, and in tribal areas of South America, arrange marriage is still the standard.

    When it comes to Japan, there is a long history of arranged marriage (omiai) which still exists today. Japan has changed its views somewhat and nowadays many people are choosing partners whom they know and love, but it is estimated that around 5% to 6% of Japanese still go down the arranged marriage route and opt to have their partners chosen for them.

    Who are these people? Why do they choose to allow a marriage-broker to find them a life partner? Let’s take a look at this tradition which has still persisted in Japan until this day.


    Japan has historically had a strict view of marriage. You could say that historically so have most nations. However, in Japan, as views have persisted and remain today. For example, traditionally the age that people were expected to be married in Japan was 25 for women and 30 for men.

    Women who were not married by 25 were often slandered and seen as past their expiry date. They were sometimes referred to as ‘christmas cake’, which meant that they were ‘unsold after the 25th’. It was a real social and cultural pressure to marry by 25 or face never marrying at all.

    Nowadays, the average age of marriage has steadily increased to 29 for women and 31 for men, and unmarried women can tend to live their lives without much hassle. However, it is still a societal norm to marry before having children and moving in with a partner, and social pressure is strong for people in their late 20’s and 30’s to get married and have a family.

    There has even been talk about married men being more desirable employees for companies in Japan than unmarried men (maybe because they have more incentive to go to work every day even when they are not treated well).

    So what to do when you haven’t run into your Great Love yet, even though your 30’s (or 40’s) are looming, and you don’t want to end up alone? That is where the omiai agencies or matchmaking relatives come along.

    Literally, omiai means ‘see-meeting’, nicely explaining the concept: you meet, see if he/she and you get along, and if the answer is positive you get married, usually within a few months of meeting. In history, omiai was quite a formal affair, and often organized by family members.

    Nowadays it is quite a casual thing usually involving blind dates, double dates with two sets of friends, and a low-stress evening out to see if there is chemistry. You could say it is not so different from western dating sites or apps such as Tinder.

    The Process

    When you sign up at an agency which arranges omiai, the first thing you will do is fill out your own profile, and check out eligible singles in the agency’s books. Sometimes this is done by the marriage-seeker’s own relatives, and in that case profiles are circulated amongst (usually) mothers. Mothers do tend to get involved in the marriage process in Japan as much as they possibly can, although I suspect this is quite common everywhere!

    When a match is made, a short meeting is arranged. The undoubtedly nervous subjects are often accompanied by their mothers and fathers at this first meeting, as in Japan it is not just important to match with your potential partner, but also with their family. After all, you might end up living with them in the end when your parents-in-law become older.

    After the first meeting, which usually doesn’t entail much more than the exchange of basic information and small talk, the decision is made whether it is worth taking further. If so, only a few more dates are set up in order to get to know each other a bit better. Then more often than not, the couple will tie the knot within a few weeks or months after the first meeting.

    This short time to get to know one another may seem very strange to people nowadays. One of the reasons why the pre-marriage meetings are not drawn out is that the agencies are very expensive and charge a high amount of money to people on their books.

    Zenkoku Nakodo Rengokai is the name of the National Matchmaking Association in Japan, and it tends to follow traditional rules. It gives advice to its clients regarding how to attract potential partners and works with clients to choose a list of people they might be interested to meet.

    Happily Ever After?

    For people who come from different cultural backgrounds, the first thing they usually wonder is: are these people happy? Isn’t the divorce rate going to be very high among couples that have found each other in this way? The answer is ‘no’. The divorce rate for omiai marriages is actually a bit lower than for love marriages. Are you surprised?

    It is actually not that far-fetched in a society like Japan, where love is seen as something that can feel strong, but is also volatile and can be fleeting. Why base something as economically important as marriage on an emotion like that?

    What do you think? Could this type of matchmaking work out in places like the United States or Europe, the bastions of the love marriage? Could it work out better than the usual online dating and meeting at parties? I guess in the end it just depends on the person, and what an individual values most about being with a partner.

    Either way, as long as two people can live in harmony with each other and the marriage is not in any way forced or causing stress, there is no harm in it!