As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Japan's economy is struggling to keep its head above water, jobs are evaporating and the outlook is undeniably bleak.
For many young Japanese, seeking love and partnership provides a welcome distraction. However, finding a partner is complicated as people using dating websites can't meet in person due to physical distancing regulations.
Traditional match-making companies responded by developing platforms that take searching, meeting and dating entirely online. They are confident that enthusiasm for online introductions will remain even after the world has returned to the way it was.
"We just started online dating support at the end of April, but the number of users has increased continuously and the figure doubled last week," said Go Yamakoshi, customer service manager of Tokyo-based marriage agency Sunmarie.
"I think that because the government asked people to refrain from going out, the desire to talk to another person face-to-face has been increasing," he said. "Simply hearing another person's voice on the phone was not enough."
Looking for connection in a crisis
Yamakoshi said he thinks it is human nature that people want to connect in a time of crisis, when the news is consistently bad and the future uncertain.
"Anxiety increases the desire to be with someone else and to stay together," he said, adding that Japan's wedding business witnessed a similar phenomenon in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and destroyed entire communities.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, marriage agencies are reporting that inquiries in April 2020 have increased as much as 20% year-on-year.
To meet that demand, Sunmarie began offering free, 40-minute online consultations with clients. Women between the ages of 20 and 40 are most interested in the company's services.
They are also encouraged by statistics that show that online dating in Japan is as much as 30% more effective in bringing people together permanently than the far more conventional approach of meeting someone through work, friends or by chance in a bar or restaurant.
Other companies are being similarly proactive in devising ways to bring men and women together in the internet age, even when they are being advised that physically they should not be close to other people.
A virtual night out
A recent study by Linkval Corp., a Japanese event management firm, conducted a survey determining that 90% of unmarried men and women have felt lonely since the government imposed a state of emergency across Japan.
The company responded by creating the V Bar video chat service. Singles are invited to join an online "party" with up to 200 other people from the comfort of home.
Even on weekdays, the company says it can attract 50 V Bar participants for chatting, sharing drinks and meeting new people.
Dating agency Eureka, which operates the Pairs matching service, said messages on its site have increased by 15% from before Japan's "soft lockdown" was imposed, while a new video dating function was added to its site in mid-April to enable people to stay in touch more easily.
Sunmarie has introduced a shared experience feature on its website, such as cooking a meal together.
Sunmarie's Yamakoshi said seeing a person's face when they speak or smile helps people feel connected, even if they are far away physically.
He admits, however, that some minor disadvantages have become apparent. A person cannot see how tall their date is, for example, and height could be a deal-breaker for some people looking for romance. And it's impossible to catch a person's scent, Yamakoshi added.
Happily ever after, finally
Chris Dunn, a civil celebrant who has overseen hundreds of weddings across the Kanto region surrounding Tokyo, says that in a time of adversity, people seek companionship.
"We saw it after the earthquake in 2011 and we're seeing it again now; everyone wants to be with someone and they are taking this opportunity to do exactly that," he said.
The wedding industry has been on a hiatus since the state of emergency was declared, but most companies have permitted couples who were planning to tie the knot this spring to simply put their formal ceremonies back to later in the year.
"It has been difficult for people who had everything prepared for an April or May wedding, but I think people understand why it has been important for everyone to follow the rules on social distancing," said Dunn.
"But Japan does appear to be emerging from the worst of the crisis in better shape than many other countries and I'm optimistic that things will return to normal here quite soon."
"And that means that churches and wedding halls are going to be very busy, probably as soon as July, as there are many people who just can't wait any longer to get married," he said.