Japanese Omiai structure in Tamils’ arranged marriages

Arranged marriages. It is not an uncommon event in India whereas it is mostly non-existent in most parts of the world. Though arranged marriages were a norm in most countries, back in 18 or 19th century, it is such a rare sight now a days that it raises eyebrows in many cultures when they hear about it.

But not Japanese. Arranged marriage meetings though not as prevalent as it is in India, it still takes place in few pockets in Japanese society. It is called Omiai.

Let me just backup and explain what arranged marriages and specifically the marriage meeting is all about, where the bride and groom meet for the first time. In Tamil ritual it is called ‘meeting the bride’ ritual. Though I’m not very familiar with how people do things in other parts of India, (I’m thinking it is all the same) this is how it works in Tamil Nadu.

First parents select a prospective bride/groom for their son/daughter from a huge list (especially if the guy is an Charted Accountant, passed out of IIT or IIM and needless to say an American return). Extra points for the girl if she can sing, dance and cook. Relatives who know someone of marriageable age bring in profiles or the family employs a broker or register online. The broker or the said relative acts as a mediator between two families who exchange photos and horoscope for matching. The matching is based on large number of factors like caste, education, social standing, income and looks. (Do you remember reading lines in classifieds like: Looking for a slim and fair educated Brahmin girl from some caste and some sub-caste. They continue to exist today as well)

Then they get in touch with prospective spouse’s family to arrange for a meeting between the two. The meeting usually happens at bride’s home, where the bride wears traditional kanchipuram saree and dolled up to give the image of a shy and composed Tamil girl. Her upbringing is judged based on the way she serves tea or coffee to guests, snacks (dubbed bhajji and sojji) and quality of her house to name a few.

Once snacks are served, the elderly leave the prospective bride and groom to themselves so that they can chat. (This did not exist couple of decades ago as once the groom side gives an ok, the girl, even if she does not like the guy, has to marry him. I think that is how many parents think even now though girls have learnt to overcome the barrier.) After the chat, if both parties are interested, the families decide on an engagement and marriage date. Once it is got to this point, breaking the marriage is not acceptable unless it is for more serious reasons like the guy is an incurable alcoholic or impotent. But things are changing now as men and women are looking at marriage as a partnership between equals with mutual interests rather than just for procreation. Again they are more common in urban area, but less prominent in more orthodox families in the country.

That is how it is done in India, at least most of the arranged marriages. However there are no statistics about the percentage of arranged marriages in India but it is perceived that to constitute majority.

Omiai, Japanese arranged marriage meetings

An arranged marriage meeting or miai in Japan. Source: Your Japan Now

Now let us see how omiai works in Japan. As always, manga was my guide to learning about omiai culture in Japan. The system follows similar structure as that of Indians starting from exchange of photographs to selecting potential spouse through verification and various other socio-economic factors I mentioned above. A nakōdo serves the role of a go-between for families in the miai process. The nakōdo can be a family member, friend, or matchmaking company. The prospective bride wears a kimono, traditional Japanese dress. Meeting could take place anywhere and not necessarily at bride’s home. Unlike Indian custom, it is not necessary for the bride and groom to be accompanied by their parents. 

But the thing here is not all omiai result in engagement. Omiai is act of giving an ok to courtship between the man and woman with intention to marry. They can decide to break things off if either of them find that the relationship is not working out.  It is not taken as an offence by either party. 

Omiai or just miai is not very common in recent times and account for only about 6 per cent of marriages in Japan according to a research by National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. 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, over 30, are more likely to use the miai process.

Though Japanese culture of arranged marriage seem more liberal than that of Indians, underlying idea and taboo associated with late marriages are the same. The idea of the cutoff age is taken quite seriously in both cultures. In Japan, there is a tendency for women who remain unmarried past over 30 to be treated as inferior and compared to Japanese Christmas cake, fresh up until the twenty-fifth but on each succeeding day the cake becomes less appetizing. A newer expression replaces Christmas cake with toshikoshi soba, a dish of noodles to see out the year on the thirty-first. Males who engage in miai often occupy dominant roles within the marriage having traditional power structures and distinct divisions of labor between males and females.

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