TOKYO, Aug. 7, 2009 -- Smartly dressed young Japanese professionals casually converse in a dimly lit bar at what appears to be any other hotspot in Tokyo.
But between sips of sake, the stakes are high. These singles are here for konkatsu, or marriage hunting.
This latest mainstream trend of actually seeking a spouse is a departure for tradition-driven Japan and from the era of office ladies and arranged marriage.
Today, with more Japanese women holding careers after the equal employment opportunity act was passed in 1986, government statistics show marriage rates are on the decline and the marrying age is rising.
"Until the 1980s, we had this system of arranged marriage, or meeting people through work," says Masahiro Yamada, who coined the phrase konkatsu with co-author Tohko Shirakawa. "So there was a system working for a lot of people. So you didn't really have to make an effort. You didn't have to be that active to meet someone."
The word "konkatsu" is a spinoff of the term "job hunting." As their best-selling book "Konkatsu Jidai, or The Era of Marriage Hunting," flew off shelves last year, the concept has become a socially acceptable trend.
Businesses Cash In
Businesses in this economic recession are cashing in.
Since changing his publicity plan at his bar, Green, from a singles bar to a members-only konkatsu bar, manager Yuta Honda says business is up 400 percent.
"In this downturn economy," Honda says from his bar in the city's Roppongi district, "if you just go after money, you will not succeed. You have to give customers some kind of value or benefit."
In the nearby neighborhood of Shibuya, a "konkatsu cooking class" offers the benefit of expertise in the kitchen -- or, perhaps, the chance to meet a potential spouse.
Participants pay about $60 to mingle in a small group at a private residence. There they partake in an intimate cooking lesson, chopping up vegetables and sampling sauces side by side.
After preparing their meal, they eat together as a group and see if any of the sizzle from the kitchen transfers to the residence dining room.
Kunio Saragai, a 32-year-old systems engineer, tells ABC News he's at the class because "he's not a good cook and wants to learn," but he also joined for konkatsu. He says he hopes to ask out one of the women he met that night.
Yamada, also a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, has observed differences between singles culture in the East and West. He says singles in Japan are too comfortably passive.
"They wait for somebody to find you, or to talk to you, or to approach you," he says. "It's not how Americans act. Too many people are waiting."
Speaking in broad terms, he attributes some of the laid-back mentality to a group he calls "parasite singles." It is another popular buzz word and refers to adults who enjoy a carefree lifestyle by living with their parents, or as his name suggests, feeding off of them.
"In Japan, there are many people in their 30s and 40s who live with their parents. They have company so they don't really feel lonely," Yamada explains. "They don't feel the urgency, that's why they are waiting. They wait for somebody perfect to come to their life. That also has to change."
Konkatsu Becomes a Craze
The konkatsu craze has spread throughout Japan, with venues searching for clever ways to play modern-day matchmaker -- from bars and cooking classes, to baseball stadiums and even shrines.
Imado shrine in Tokyo offers a prayer service and tea party for singles.
"This is a shrine known for marriage and many men and women seeking a good match come here," priest Tomoe Ichino tells Reuters.
Relying on divine intervention and actively looking, however, doesn't always provide answers.
"Now given this economy," says Teruko Katsuragi, a konkatsu bar patron, "not every man is guaranteed with lifetime employment, so there may be a gap between what men can offer and what women want."
While getting married may still be prevalent in Japanese society, Yamada concedes that he came up with the idea of konkatsu to simply help people get together.
"It's only natural that people want to meet somebody and want to love and also want to be loved," he says, "and when that happens, they don't necessarily have to get married."
Noriko Namiki contributed to this report.