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Loving's not easy on Japan's biggest date night

Couple looks at light-emitting diode illuminations ahead of Christmas in Tokyo, Japan
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Couple looks at light-emitting diode illuminations ahead of Christmas in Tokyo, Japan

Christmas Eve surpasses Valentine's Day as the romantic dinner event for Japanese couples, but viewed as a socioeconomic read on Japan, the celebration highlights two major problems the country faces: low wages and low birth rates.

"Twenty and thirty-somethings are disproportionately struggling to find stable, well-paying jobs – and that is making young Japanese men shy away from getting into relationships," said Naoki Yokota, senior researcher at Meiji Yasuda Institute of Life and Wellness.

According to the Institute's latest survey, the majority of Japanese women want potential partners to earn at least 4 million yen, around $33,728, but only 26.7 percent of men in their thirties meet that criteria; the number more than halves for men in their twenties.

Middle class incomes for men in their twenties and thirties are fallowing out. The number of thirty-somethings earning between 5 million and 6 million yen, around $42,628 to $51,154 – the average household income range in Japan – fell by almost 10 percent between 1997 and 2012, a recent government white paper showed. Incomes for twenty-somethings also fell.

Wages are a key concern for the government. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe again pledged to push companies to boost wages during his snap election campaign this year – a promise he's struggled to deliver on since taking office at the end of 2012.

A pricey dish

Despite the prevalence of low wages, the range of Christmas Eve dinner offerings in Japan runs the gamut.

Those with deep pockets can have a full course dinner in a private suite at the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay for 170,400 yen, or around $1,455, or a standard room at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo for around 100,000 yen, or around $855. Both plans have already sold out.

Meanwhile, bookings for Christmas dinner at the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay's Takumi restaurant at 40,000 yen per person, or around $341, are "booked twice over," said hotel spokesperson Takako Shiraishi.

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But few can afford such lavish meals. At the less extravagant end of the market, some hotels are discounting their Christmas specials.

Grand Pacific Daiba, for instance, has cut the price of its dinner menu from 7,300 yen to 5,500 yen, or around $47 – widely seen as the minimum for a full course dinner – on a coupon site this week. Even the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay reduced the price of its cheapest Christmas stay package by more than a third to 36,000 yen.

Got a date?

While restaurants compete for customers through luxurious offerings and budget options, finding couples may prove difficult.

Only 22 percent of Japanese men in their twenties and 15 percent in their thirties have a partner, according to the Meiji Yasuda Institute survey.

The future looks as bleak – the government estimates that 20.1 percent of those born in 1995, who are now just under twenty, will never marry. At that rate, the birth rate will be stuck at around 1.3 per woman and the population will shrink from 127 million currently to 86.74 million by 2060.

Still, according to a survey from Open Table, 65 percent of respondents in their 20s and 30s want to spend Christmas Eve with a significant other.

Some hope to find last-minute dinner companions through speed dating events the day before Christmas Eve.

One event, run by a non-profit called "Supporting Marriage Activity," or J-konkatsu, has almost filled its eighty slots, according to founder Koki Goto, who organized the non-profit as a public service because "there are too many singles out there." He says women are more pro-active and sign up early for his events but most single men aren't even trying to find a partner.

"No couples, thank you"

And if all else fails, PiaPia2's got them covered.

The restaurant has banned couples on Christmas Eve, making it a singles only destination.

The notice, which has gone viral, was originally meant to elicit a chuckle out of regular customers, but also to secure headcount, restaurant manager Jun Sakai said. One of his waiters, a 19 year-old, didn't want to work on the 24th – he's still nursing the wounds of being dumped on the very day.

Their main draw? A 2.5kg spaghetti bolognaise, at 1,800 yen, or around $15, per serving.