Sushi master and matchmaker
By Sheridan Prasso (IHT)
Friday, October 17, 2003

TOKYO Mamoru Ohmae, a Tokyo sushi master who after 59 years on this earth has been rendered a wizened, silver-haired philosopher, is tired of reading about the declining marriage rates of Japan. So he decided to do something about it.

Young singles in Japan work late and have little time for dating. And Japanese are fearful of meeting without an introduction. Tokyo-ites, when they do socialize beyond the usual circle of workmates, stick to people they know and rarely meet strangers. It is not uncommon for young urban professionals to remain unmarried well into their 30's.

So Ohmae started matchmaking the patrons at his tiny, nine-seat sushi counter under the railroad tracks in the Ginza area, setting up men from, say, the Foreign Ministry who come in for a late meal with the women who work in the offices nearby. He has successfully joined three couples, one of which married last October. "Japanese salarymen are working so hard that they forget to fall in love and have fun," Ohmae said. "They want to get married but don't have the chance or the courage, so I just try to create the opportunity for them and push them a little bit toward marriage."

The women often talk about finding a mate - or more often, about not finding one - and Ohmae overhears. Unlike at parties, he said, where people put on their best faces, they reveal their true natures at a sushi bar. "When I stand behind the counter I can see right into people faces," he said, "and since customers often drink, they speak very honestly and very straightforwardly about their feelings. So I can tell that this woman has this type of character, but she works too much, and she is looking for somebody to be with."

Such a woman has a red string tied to her pinky, Ohmae said, and he can see it - thick, red and just waiting to be attached. Japanese tradition holds that lovers are already tied to one another in destiny through the red string. They have only to discover whom they are tied to. Ohmae wants to help them find out. "Men and women are forgetting what comes naturally," he said. "I just want them to have a happily married life."

That applies to those married salarymen who sit at his counter while their wives are waiting for them at home: "I tell my customers to take care of their wives and treat them well. 'Don't work so hard, and go directly back home at least a few times a week and serve THEM dinner,' I say. They become really annoyed, as if I've touched on a sore point."

But Ohmae's mission touches his own sore point. Seven years ago, his wife left him after his much larger restaurant failed under a mound of debt after Japan's economic bubble burst.

Now, Ohmae lives a downscaled life, alone, getting up at dawn on weekdays to travel to the Tsukiji Fish Market, following the results at the track in the afternoons, then opening his one-man restaurant, Sushi Daizen, at 5 p.m. He thinks it is more difficult for men to live alone than for women. "I still love my wife," he noted wistfully. "But women don't easily return once they decide to leave a man's heart."

The first two people Ohmae brought together were a civil servant, Shinji Nakagawa, 37, and his wife, Rumiko, 31, a bank teller. Ohmae thought Nakagawa was honest, serious and kind, and was surprised he wasn't married. At Ohmae's counter one day, Rumiko was lamenting that she had just turned 30 and didn't even have a boyfriend. The chef overheard, studied her for the rest of the evening to make sure she had a good character, phoned the bank the next day and got her on the line. "I know a guy who is suitable for you," the old chef said. "You had better come and meet him."

Sheridan Prasso recently completed a U.S.-Japan Foundation Media Fellowship in Tokyo.