Integrating Online Dating into Society: Japan as a Case Study

Project: Research project

Call title (Call ID)

Faculty-development competitive research grants program for 2018-2020

Project Description

How can Kazakhstan increase its population? How can it cope culturally with the changes in human interaction brought about by more robust online infrastructure? In particular, how will it be affected by the use of the use of online dating platforms and other social media to find dating or marriage partners instead of meeting them through friends, family, or common activities? This application solicits funds to conduct fieldwork in Japan in order to study the evolution of online dating there, and the experiences of Japanese dating website users. Because Japan is currently in the process of adopting online dating, but has not fully integrated it into its society, it is a uniquely useful test case that can help us to understand these processes. When online dating inevitably comes to Kazakhstan, this research can help us to understand the benefits and the challenges posed by integrating online dating into a new culture.

In order to understand dating, marriage, and other demographic issues in the modern world, an understanding of online dating is imperative. Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) take it as axiomatic that searching for partners online is more efficient than any offline means. They hypothesize that the Internet will slowly displace other means of finding partners, including introductions and meeting in bars or other spaces where people previously mingled with potential partners. These basic predictions are borne out by their data. In the United States, finding a partner online is now one of the most popular ways to meet a romantic partner, and the popularity of this method of finding a partner has risen dramatically just in the last decade alone. Finkel et al. report that, “by 2007–2009, more new romantic relationships had begun online than through any means other than meeting through friends” (2012: 13).

In the era of the smartphone, online dating has moved from websites to phone applications. Many of these applications are location­based, meaning that they use the GPS functions of smartphones to find partners within a specified radius of the user. These applications can then travel with the user, allowing them to meet people wherever they are. Online dating is thus a global issue. Although the practice is perhaps most popular in North America and Europe, it has also been adopted in various forms throughout the world. Seth and Patnayakuni (2012) note that rather than “online dating,” India has developed “matrimonial sites” that bring its strong tradition of arranged marriages online.

I propose to conduct my research in Japan for a number of reasons. The first is that I have been studying the partner­introduction industry in various forms for the last decade. Although the focus of my doctoral dissertation research was specifically professional matchmakers (nakôdo), I also kept track of other forms of what is popularly called “marriage hunting” (konkatsu) (Yamada and Shirakawa 2008), in order to understand where matchmaking fits within the realm of options for finding a partner: introductions through friends or colleagues; privately organized parties of single friends, called gôkon; marriage bureaus of various sizes; matchmakers; and online dating, among others. During these past ten years, I have noticed shifts in the discourse around online dating sites, suggesting that they are gaining in acceptability. The sketchy deai­kei saito (“meeting site”) has been replaced with the more respectable koikatsu (“love hunting”) site. While in 2007 the only “respectable” site was a Japanese version of the American site Match.com, in 2017 there are sites and apps created by local companies, in line with local sensibilities. Traditional matchmaking language is also being reappropriated to describe dating apps, such as the Facebook­based “Omiai.” While omiai traditionally refers to the formal first meeting of a single man and woman, mediated by matchmakers and their families, for the Facebook app it simply connotes a respectable way to meet other singles. This process may mirror the adoption of online dating elsewhere. Prior to the early 2000s, online dating in the US faced many of the stigmas that it continues to face in Japan—that it was “sleazy,” “sketchy,” or desperate. In spite of these stigmas, however, it grew slowly until it suddenly exploded. (Orr 2004; Finkel et al. 2012).

What all of this means is that by studying online dating in Japan, I have the opportunity to observe the practice as it is being adopted, and as it adapts to and simultaneously transforms the particular cultural landscape of Japan. As mentioned above, understanding this process is necessary if we are going to
understand the processes underlying romantic and marital relationships in Japan, a country that has long experienced a population decline and that has not had much in the way of success developing policy to reverse it. This is perhaps because of a lack of collective action. The choice of any individual woman to avoid childbearing solves her problems on an individual level. However, many women making the same choice perpetuates the problem. However, because women can solve their problem individually, they have not banded together to demand broader social and policy changes to support working parents that would also allow the birth rate to rise (Schoppa 2010). This sort of reasoning may also apply to the choices of both women and men to avoid marriage. Much of the effort to bring singles together has been pushed into the private sector, with leading sociologist Yamada Masahiro exhorting Japanese singles to “marriage hunt” (konkatsu) the way they job hunt (Yamada and Shirakawa 2008), and various businesses leading the way with singles’ parties, marriage bureaus, matchmakers, and websites all trying to capture a portion of the marriage hunting market. Impact of Results
As mentioned above, a study of online dating is at present necessary to any understanding of demography in the modern world, especially as location­based apps bring online dating to markets that otherwise lack homegrown sites. For example, although the students who take my courses on marriage and kinship and online ethnography generally agree that online dating is little used in Kazakhstan, they are all aware of Tinder (https://www.gotinder.com/). Opening up Tinder in Astana reveals a variety of expats and locals using the site with both English and Russian profiles. This suggests that the internet will assume the role of “social intermediary,” as Rosenfeld and Thomas (2012) put it, wherever people have the internet—that it will reconfigure relationship formation globally.

Where online dating is already established, in the West, there was little sociological study of it during the time that it was actually taking hold, in part because research on the internet also lacked respectability. By looking at Japan, we can watch the process in action, and use it to predict how online dating practices might take root and flourish in places like Kazakhstan that do not, at present, have a significant domestic online dating industry. In so doing, we might also be able to make predictions about the kinds of technologies that can inhibit population decline, or encourage population growth, as well as contribute to better interpersonal relationships and a higher quality of life. The Kazakhstan 2050 strategy explicitly supports population growth, and emphasizes the need to both protect and empower women (http://kazakhstan2050.com/), along with calling for more and better digital infrastructure. A study of online dating as it is adopted in one part of Asia will be crucial for guiding the implementation of all of these goals, and understanding social factors that may inhibit their success. The study I describe below may also provide a model for future studies of online dating in Kazakhstan as it develops.
StatusActive
Effective start/end date3/20/1812/31/20

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marriage
Japan
Kazakhstan
website
population decrease
Internet
population growth
Society
infrastructure
industry
birth rate
cultural landscape
lack
present
market
facebook
earning a doctorate
demography
social media
kinship

Keywords

  • Online dating
  • Japan