Of all the outrageous things that happened in episode 7 of Hanasaku Iroha, I was most intrigued by the theme of arranged marriage that was brought up at the book ends of the episode, where Christmas Cake (undesirable after the age of 25) Tomoe is proposed an arranged marriage meeting by her mother.
Of course, Japanese arranged marriages (a process also known as miai or omiai) aren’t new in anime. My personal favourite example comes from Azumanga Daioh, where in one episode, Yukari and Nyamo-sensei are set up on a triple blind date with a friend. Nyamo, who was previously set up for a marriage meeting by her mother over the phone earlier on in the episode, presented herself seriously, compared to the juvenile antics of her teaching counterpart, made possible with the subtext established by the arranged marriage proposal. Yukari and Nyamo’s conversations after the date, juxtaposed with the mundane school activities that the main characters were doing in the “main” storyline, made for a fairly heavy episode, one of many that makes Azumanga Daioh stand out from its contemporaries.
The concept of arranged marriage comes off as a bit foreign to westerners. The notion of having someone chosen to be your spouse without any particular pretense of dating and courtship seems justifiably absurd. It’s a perception more closely associated with dowry-style Indian arranged weddings, satirically made popular by that episode from the Simpsons featuring Apu’s arranged marriage. There are fundamental cultural differences from Japanese arranged marriages and other South Asian forms, but the underlying dissonances are common between the two: lack of say between the two candidates, the lack of genuine romance, and superficial matchmaking parameters based on appearance, education and income.
However, the premise of an arranged marriage can provide intriguing alternatives to the challenge of romantic conquest. In today’s Western culture where as many as 1 in 5 marriages end in divorce, young people today seem to be unable to successfully capitalize on their romantic freedom of choice. The recommendations of a trusted and reputable go-between matchmaker (known inJapanas the nakodo) can lead to compatible pairings leading to stable marriages, often without the added service costs provided by the likes of matchmaker websites that are popular today.
While romantic freedom may seem desirable, it’s often wasted on individuals who are incapable of finding the right partner. Realistically, not everyone can be a capturing god like Keima Katsuragi from The World God Only Knows. Not everyone can “see the ending” to the dating sim of their own lives. The convenience of Omiai is like a cheat code for the real life version of dating sims. They can be happy within a stable marriage, allowing for them to learn and grow romantically as the marriage progresses. The premise of the manga/hentai OVA Futari Ecchi is based on this particular relationship progression. Outside of the erotic scenes, the main couple adapt to life as a married couple, despite having very little experience in both romance and sex, making it very distinct from other ecchi series.
At the end of the day, arranged marriages, particularly the Japanese kind, keep the roots of its history, but has adapted itself to modern societal needs, maintaining its identity in Japanese culture, especially in the anime that we see today. Tomoe eventually declines the offer from her parents, but promises to improve herself as a woman so she can fulfill her promise of providing her mother with grandchildren. It makes for a very nice little book-end that wraps up the craziness in the episode, while at the same time portraying the arrangement process in a realistic and interesting manner.