Dating Goes Global

Back to Contents of Issue: November 2003

Tokyo dating agency Destina straddles the seas to link up the lonely

by Benjamin Freedlan

DATING AGENCIES ARE NOTHING new, but only a select handful have moved into the 21st Century. With all those matchmaking years to develop, why have so few agencies adapted to changing times?

It takes much more than a clever piece of software and a couple of powerful servers to deal with something as sensitive and critical as human emotions. Destina, a Japan and US-based agency, has recognized this and now represents the cutting edge of what is, under the surface, an extremely complex industry. But the ambitious company goes one step further. Unlike many agencies that concentrate on one city or even one country, Destina is geared towards the creation of international relationships. It is a company that has realized that the world is a global place, and that modern marriage can be global too.

Founded in New York in 1996, Destina is run by a husband and wife team. Naokuni Naruse is now the chief executive officer, but it was a Japanese woman, Hiroko Ozawa, who founded the company. Ozawa later met and married Naruse, who was then a private consultant at US investment bank Goldman Sachs. Destina is headquartered in Tokyo and now has branches in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Sitting in the cozy elegance of Destina's Tokyo headquarters, Naruse explains what sort of a market his company is targeting. In short, Destina is an introduction service that provides matchmaking between Japanese women and Japanese or Western men who live in or outside of Japan.

As Naruse makes clear, while Japanese women in general are delaying marriage these days, some are taking the hunt for prospective husbands global to broaden their options. Many such Japanese women come knocking on his door. There is a dire need for matching up single men and women living in big cities, he says, who feel their chances of finding serious relationships are limited.

The environment of Destina's offices is a perfect reflection of how the company goes about its business. This is not a place that operates on the "try, try again" ethos, but rather an atmosphere in which every care is taken to ensure that the matches are the right ones. They want their clients to be honest and relaxed so that the results are tailor-made to a perfect fit.

"It really is very low tech," laughs Naruse. "We use people, we use good listeners and we take a properly long time over the decisions. A lot of companies may use computers or some other system that makes it all very pre-determined. Our system is flexible, even a bit ambiguous. We get a lot of information and we use it with a lot of intelligence."

Naruse also notes that Destina is catering its services to a new type of Japanese woman. He believes that Japanese society has undergone a major character change that makes it far more open than it was 15 or 20 years ago. A generation has grown up for whom finding a partner is no longer a straightforward thing.

"Japanese women are much more sophisticated than they used to be, and they are looking for partners who will reflect that fact," Naruse explains. "Their thinking is more open and their outlook is more diversified. They need relationships that satisfy that."

To date, about 3,000 members have registered, of which about half are currently active. There are around 600 to 800 new registrants every year. While almost all female members at Destina are Japanese, 55 percent of male members are non-Japanese -- most of them Americans, with some Europeans and Australians.

"Some Western men seem to prefer Asian women, especially Japanese women with a proper educational background," says Naruse.

Among female members, the most popular option is to search from both Japanese and non-Japanese male candidates, yet "some women say they definitely prefer non-Japanese men, because they find Japanese men too chauvinistic, or they like the mind-set of Western men," Naruse adds. About 70 percent of Destina's female members are proficient in English.

International marriages between Japanese and non-Japanese have increased 55 percent since 1990 to 39,727 in 2001, according to government statistics, although the majority of such marriages are between Japanese men and women from other parts of Asia. Marriages between Japanese women and non-Japanese men represented just 19.5 percent of all international marriages in 2001.

Destina's membership is mostly white-collar professionals, including doctors, lawyers, accountants and self-employed businesspeople. Naruse describes them all as very independent-minded and attractive people who do "not want to get married by accident."

The majority of male members are in the $60,000-and-up income bracket, according to Naruse. Female members with no income can apply if they have a valid reason, such as taking sabbatical leave.

Male members are mainly in their 30s and 40s, although their age groups span from the late 20s to up to the 70s. Female members are mainly in their late 20s to their early 40s. While Japanese male members generally prefer to meet women younger than themselves, "foreign men are more flexible about their partners' age. Some men say they can and will accept women who are up to 10 years older than themselves."

After making an initial contact with Destina on the phone, prospective clients take a free personal interview where they are asked to describe their lifestyle, personal and professional background and preferences on the type of people they wish to meet.

After paying a membership fee, members are registered in Destina's database. Membership fees range from JPY280,000 for a standard course of 12 introductions to JPY500,000 for a three-year course with no limit on the number of introductions -- as well as counseling and coaching services to enhance the client's appeal to members of the opposite sex.

As Naruse repeatedly emphasizes, the Destina matchmaking process is not computerized, but is instead coordinated through discussions among the agency's staff in Japan and the US.

"This is where the quality of the staff comes in. The matchmaking business is very appealing because it is such a satisfying job -- we are in the business of making people happy and helping them fulfill their dreams and destinies. Because so many people apply to work here, we really can afford to pick the very best listeners and matchmakers."

If both parties agree to meet, Destina will arrange a first date between male and female members either inside or outside of Japan. Every month, 10 to 30 female members travel to the US for these dates, while other meetings take place between US residents.

Japanese and foreign men living outside of Japan also travel to the country to meet their prospective partners. Destina typically makes two to five introductions during a dating trip. After each date, the company makes a follow-up call to members for candid feedback.

The agency's success rate of making matches that lead to marriage is somewhere around 30 to 50 percent, according to Naruse.

The CEO believes there is a strong niche market for such global matchmaking: "We're hoping to open offices in other US cities like Honolulu, Seattle and Chicago, as well as in Hong Kong and European cities, like London and Paris." The search for romance and happiness knows no boundaries. @

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