Статьи Скотта Гормана (Scott Gorman)

January 13, 2009

The Marriage Broker

She is a beautiful, cultured woman of 40, dressed in a fashionable outfit that will keep her warm in the chill northern Japan evening, wearing one gold ring and another set with a number of diamonds, both as tasteful and understated as the seemingly valuable watch wrapped around her delicate wrist.

She needs the watch to keep close tabs on her appointments. Neither a doctor or a lawyer or a politician, she nonetheless holds people’s futures in her tapered hands, and she is always punctual.

This is the marriage broker, the one who brings women out of China and perhaps allows the families they leave behind to live a better life with a yen dowry; the one who provides lonely Japanese men with a companion, a mother for their children and badly needed help on the farm.

Her name is Keiko (she prefers not to state her last name). In the past four years she has been to China 20 times, going back to the land of her birth with particulars in hand, seeking life companions for Japanese farmers here in Akita Prefecture who otherwise may never marry. It’s not that they are undesirable on a personal level, or hopelessly ugly. And they are certainly not poor; although she will not discuss the actual price of procuring a bride, Keiko implies that it isn’t cheap.

No, they are simply farmers, in an age when young Japanese women, besotted with images from television and magazines of the “glamorous” life in the teeming cities of Japan, have little or no interest in settling down with a simple farmer, and a sense of horror about the hard and endlessly repetitive labor being a farmer’s wife demands.

Even in those cities, the marriage rate in Japan has declined sharply since 1970, according to official government statistics, when nationally there were 10 marriages per 1,000 people. By 1999, that number had fallen to 6.1. The percentage of women who are in their late 20s and early 30s and still unmarried follows along about the same curve. Divorce, once almost unheard of and until very recently an option few chose, has become far more likely, with women having more protection under the law in matters of spousal abuse and community property. The divorce rate was 1.26 per 1,000 persons as late as 1988; by 1999, that figure had leaped to two per 1,000.

The situation has become so worrisome that even local municipalities get into the marriage game, setting up meetings called omiai between prospective brides and single Japanese men.

Some of this can be traced to more opportunities for women, although by western standards Japanese women are hardly equal under the law or in the workplace. Some of it might have to do with exasperation with workaholism, drinking practices and the fact that the seeming majority of Japanese men have no idea which is the business end of a broom. The term “cockroach husbands” can he heard throughout the land from the tongues of disaffected women; even if they work outside the homes just as their husband does, the average woman is still almost entirely responsible for daily cooking, cleaning and child-rearing.

PERHAPS a man who lives in the city, can buy food at restaurants or the omnipresent convenience stores and has only to care for a small living space is comfortably able to get along without a wife. But for a farmer, the lack of a business and domestic partner can be a burden beyond endurance, for practical reasons if not for emotional or sentimental ones.

The farmers of Akita are still a mainstay of economic development in this sparsely populated region. The total land area is 11,431 kilometers, most of it forested or covered with snowy peaks. A large percentage of what’s left, about 16 percent of the total land mass, is under active cultivation. About 85 percent of that is covered with rice paddies, and Akita rice, thriving due to almost ideal weather conditions for growing rice and an abundance of good water from snow runoff, is famous all over Japan.

With Japan’s economy in a tailspin and once-thriving companies in the urban areas laying off workers in droves, at least by Japanese standards, the idea of leaving the family farm and heading for work in office buildings and factories has become an option few pursue; at least on the farm they know they will have a place to live and food to eat. But the difficulty of finding someone with whom to share the joys and burdens seems to make many men border on the desperate.

And no wonder. I interviewed Ai Saito, an attractive, unmarried woman of 25 who works in the driver’s license division of a local rural city town hall. She very much wants to get married, but asked if she would marry a farmer, she at first recoiled and then laughed out loud. She just wouldn’t do that, she said, nor would anyone she knows.

“You just work, work, work, that’s your whole life,” she said.

Faced with this reality at home, in the mid-90s, a number of Akita farmers drove their tractors all the way to Tokyo (a trip which takes many hours by bullet train, and many days by tractor) and paraded down major metropolitan streets, honking and waving and advertising their need for wives. It was reported that most women looked on with amusement or even a sense of horror; in any case, there were no takers.

That’s where Keiko comes in. She herself was a contracted wife, in Japan only seven years after growing up in a middle class home in urban northern China. Once she decided that she would have a better life in far more affluent Japan (and for other, more personal reasons she won’t go into), she made an arrangement with a broker who was in China seeking wives for rural Japanese clients. She was shown a photo and given details of prospective husbands, and chose one. Once that was done, there was no backing out. She paid nothing, and she says that in her case her family received no money, although in other situations that is part of the deal. The process started in March 1994; by August, she was married and living in a strange new nation.

She had no idea what her new home in Japan was like, whether it was north or south, mostly rural or mostly urban. When the deal was already struck and the agent showed her a map of Akita, she says, she was disappointed at how remote it was from “modern” Japan.

But a deal was a deal. At first, she struggled with farm tasks; as a city girl she had absolutely no experience or skills in farming. There were other adjustments as well, but unlike many arrangements in which the age difference is great, her husband is only seven years older than she, with a kind and mild disposition, so she adjusted rather quickly.

STILL, Keiko saw a lot of room for improvement in the process, and wanted to spare other women the difficulties she had lived through, so she resolved to become a marriage agent herself and make these sorts of transactions easier on everyone.

She tells the women in China exactly what to expect, and “shows them the way,” she says. She claims to take no profit, only expenses, although she acknowledges that is not true of every agent. And “some do cheat,” she says.

It is a thriving business. When she first came to Akita, Keiko says, there were only seven imported Chinese wives in the area. Now there are around 800, 28 of which are married to her own Japanese clients. China provides the most brides to Japanese men; in second position are Filipinas.

Most of her Chinese imports are happy, Keiko says, although there have been cases of women going back to China or just disappearing into the multitudes in urban Japan.

“The first year, they miss China, but then they adjust, get used to their new lives,” she says.

With that, she smiled and left to pick up her healthy, thriving, well-fed young daughter from a nearby classroom and headed home.

Soon, thought, she will once again be back in China, no longer bearing a Chinese name or a Chinese woman’s future, photos and resumes in hand, her own best advertisement for what she clearly considers a very fair deal for all concerned.

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