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Miai (見合い, "matchmaking", literally "looking at one another") or omiai (お見合い) is a Japanese traditional custom in which a woman and a man are introduced to each other to consider the possibility of marriage. "Omiai" is sometimes mistranslated as an "arranged marriage" but it can be described as a meeting opportunity with more serious considerations for the future as a process of courtship. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, in 2005 it was estimated that around 6.2% of marriages in Japan are arranged via omiai.
The practice of miai emerged in 16th century Japan among the samurai class to form and protect strong military alliances among warlords to ensure mutual support. Later, during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) the practice of miai spread to other urban classes trying to emulate samurai customs. Miai was a solemn practice and involved considerations that aren't given as much weight by most modern Japanese people, such as family bloodlines and class. This type of miai is usually seen portrayed in films and television dramas.
After the Pacific War, the trend was to abandon the restrictive arranged-meetings system. Modern forms of miai are still practiced in Japan today, although they are no longer as prevalent as they were in the pre-Meiji era.
The participants in a miai process include the candidates who are to potentially be married and the families of these candidates. However, miai can take place without any involvement of the prospective couple's families.
A nakōdo (仲人 matchmaker) serves the role of a go-between for families in the miai process. A nakōdo is not necessary for all miai. The nakōdo can be a family member, friend, or matchmaking company.
The general purpose of the nakōdo, especially the traditional way of miai, is to provide introductions for people entering a new arrangement and to assist shy candidates. The nakōdo is expected to play a variety of roles throughout the miai process. The first is the bridging role, hashikake (橋架け), in which the nakōdo introduces potential candidates and families to each other. The second role is as a liaison for the families to avoid direct confrontation and differences in opinions between them by serving as an intermediary for working out the details of the marriage.
Even though miai marriages are not as common as they once were, they still hold a place in popular media. One example is Wedding Bells, a game show that substitutes for the role of the nakōdo in which contestants are introduced and screened for marriage possibility.
The initiative for the miai introductions often comes from the parents who may feel that their son or daughter is of a marriageable age (tekireiki), usually in the range of 22 to 30, but has shown little or no sign of seeking a partner on their own. Other times, the individual may ask friends or acquaintances to introduce potential mates in a similar way.
Parents often subtly interject the phrase “onegai shimasu” (“I make the request”) into casual conversation, which implies that both parents have consented for their daughter to meet eligible men. The daughter may be unaware that her parents have suggested her availability though the use of "onegai shimasu." Moreover, some parents send a candidacy picture to a future husband or go-between without their daughter's knowledge or consent.
Parents may enlist the aid of a nakōdo or ask a third party with a wide range of social contacts to act as a go-between. The word "miai" describes both the entire process as well as the first meeting between the couple and the nakōdo. Miai signifies that the parties were brought together expressly for the purpose of marriage on the initiative of the parents, a friend of the family or a go-between. It also means that the initial criteria of selection were objective ones. The potential mate and their family meet with the nakōdo and examine all eligible persons. The nakōdo often has photographs of candidates and a “rirekisho”, a small personal history. The rirekisho frequently includes the name, age, health, education, occupation and marital status of all members of the candidate's family.
The families then sit down with the nakōdo and screen the portfolios to eliminate any obviously inappropriate candidates. The photographs and rirekisho may be brought to the home of the potential mate's family for the son or daughter to scrutinize. The participant and their family examine the photos and short personal histories based on an investigation of social consideration. The education level and occupations of the potential candidate's family are the first aspects taken into consideration at this meeting. The potential mate and their mother create a list of primary choices and ask the nakōdo to investigate the first choice.
In more selective miai, the candidates and their families are judged on a large set of criteria aimed at determining the suitability and the balance of the marriage. This criteria is formally known in Japan as iegara (家柄). It includes level of education, income, occupation, physical attractiveness, religion, social standing, and hobbies. Many modern women are stereotyped as looking for three attributes: height, high salary, and high education. This is commonly known as the "Three Hs.” The participant's bloodline (血統 kettō) plays a large role. Many fear that a candidate's blood is contaminated with diseases such as epilepsy, neurosis, or mental illness. The fear is so prevalent that the Eugenic Protection Law of 1948 was passed to legalize sterilization and abortion for people with a history of mental defects and other hereditary diseases. Social status also plays a large role in selecting a candidate. Ideally, paired candidates and their families should be of equal social status. A candidate has a hard time finding a mate if his family is not of a matching social status as the other family — even if the candidate is of equal social status. Family lineage can also affect the quality of a candidate. For example, a candidate with samurai blood is more likely to be picked than one with ancestry from a different Tokugawa-era class.
The nakōdo provides a substantial amount of information regarding each candidate. The family researches the iegara of each candidate provided by the nakōdo once the preliminary list is constructed. Vast differences in iegara between the two families would cause embarrassment to the sides whenever they meet. One method of investigation in urban Japan is through a kooshinjo, or detective agency. In rural areas a common investigative method is to personally ask about the family of interest by questioning shopkeepers and neighbors: kuchikiki (“inquiry of mouth”). More recently, the nakōdo gathers information about the family in question by asking around and comparing responses: kikiawaseru/toriawaseru (“inquire variously and compare”). If all criteria are acceptable, the matchmaker arranges an interview for a miai.
Before the miai occurs, the parties scrutinize each other's pictures to prevent future rejection. Although candidates rely on their photographs and resumes (rirekisho) in the modern miai process, an older custom known as "kagemi” (hidden look) was once employed. Kagemi occurred when a potential male candidate attempted to catch a glimpse of the female in secret. The objective of the kagemi was to prevent embarrassing denials based on appearances. The miai itself is a casual meeting between the potential couple, the nakōdo, and the parents of both parties. The nakōdo determines the place and format of the meeting.
The miai is just as much an opportunity for parents to survey the bride/groom as the couple themselves. The meeting begins with an informal introduction between the two families by the nakōdo. The introduction is often followed by small talk between the parents. Occasionally, the conversation shifts to one of the potential candidates. Toward the end of the meeting, the potential couple are advised to go off spend some time alone to get better acquainted.
Kotowari (excuse, apology, refusal)
If the initial miai introduction is successful, the potential couple goes through a series of dates until a decision is reached. The decision is usually expressed at the couple's third meeting. If the potential couple chooses to marry one another, they go through a formal marriage process known as miai kekkon (見合い結婚), in which a betrothal ceremony (結納 yuinō) is arranged by the groom's family. Contrastingly, there are standard provisions to turn down an offer or proposal with relatively little loss of face on the part of the party refused.
There is some amount of racial, class, and genetic discrimination in the miai process.
Many Japan-born Koreans are discriminated against for being “half-bloods” — not of full Japanese ancestry. Also, the year of the Horse in the fifth cycle of the Japanese lunar calendar, hinoeuma — every sixtieth year — are thought to be bad luck. Women born during this year will often claim to have been born in the previous or following year. The belief is so widespread that in 1966, according to the Japan Statistical Yearbook, the birthrate in Japan took a 26% dip.
The most widespread class discriminate is against members of the burakumin. This former outcaste group is composed of descendants of workers traditionally associated with trades involving blood, death, or other undesirables. Some examples are leather-workers, shoe-menders, and butchers since shoes are too dirty to be taken into the house and meat was in the past forbidden by the Buddhist faith. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, demotion to burakumin status was sometimes a way of punishing criminals. Today, burakumin members may be identified by the region of the city where they live or by their street address. Often, a nakōdo will require a candidate to bring a family history to prove that they are not a member of the burakumin.
Members of the Ainu, an indigenous people from the Hokkaidō region are commonly avoided as well. Descendants of people who were exposed to the radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are avoided due to stories of possible child deformities and susceptibilities to rare diseases.
Modern attitudes toward miai have changed significantly. According to an estimate in 1998, ten to thirty percent of all marriages that took place in Japan during that time were arranged marriages. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research in 2005 estimates that 6.2% of marriages in Japan are arranged. The younger generation is more apt to adopting the Western philosophy of love where marriage is often preceded by romantic courtship. Romantic love (ren’ai) implies that there are no constraints against selecting individuals whom one can marry. However, it is not always possible to classify a particular marriage as “love” or “arranged” because of parental influence on the candidates. Women are more inclined to seek a romantic relationship than men. Gender enculturation is often seen as the cause for the discrepancy. Women are raised with the expectation that they may only find satisfaction within the home and are therefore perhaps more susceptible to modern brands of idealism, such as that true love will be followed by marital and domestic bliss.
There are several methods for meeting potential mates that differ from the structure of the miai. For example, konpa or compa (companion) is a method young people have adopted into modern society. Konpa occurs when groups of four or five boys go out together with the same number of girls to see how they all get along. This method has become more popular since it is highly informal and does not involve parents.
Gender and miai
Although current rates of miai marriages are fairly low, the persistence of miai in modern Japanese society can be explained by examining gender relationships. As discussed earlier, people who are past marriageable age, tekireiki, are more likely to use the miai process. The idea of the cutoff age is taken quite seriously. There is a tendency for women who remain unmarried past tekireiki to be treated as inferior and compared to Japanese Christmas cake: fresh up until the twenty-fifth but becoming less appetizing with every day past this date. A newer expression replaces Christmas cake with toshikoshisoba, a dish of noodles to see out the year on the thirty-first.
Males seem to possess only a bit more latitude. A man who does not marry by about 30 is considered untrustworthy by colleagues and employers, who believe that such men have not been conditioned to learn the fundamental principles of co-operation and responsibility. For males, marriage also makes an implicit statement about staying in the family business. Males who engage in miai often occupy dominant roles within the marriage. Miai marriage has been criticized for promoting patriarchal relationships with traditional power structures and distinct divisions of labor between males and females.
In other countries
The same practice is also common in Chinese-speaking countries, known as xiangqin (Chinese: 相親). In China, 82% of first-tier-city dwellers had experienced Xiangqin, primarily due to parental pressure and a lack of opportunity to meet people of opposite-sex. 
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