IT was a Saturday night. From inside the Tokyo hall came the sound of the Beatles's ``Penny Lane.'' Some 60 single men and women sat in a first encounter, an unusual one, a sort of lonely hearts club. They made sweet whispers, not in courtship, but in a subdued discussion on why so many young Japanese women of today choose not to marry.
Each person had come at the invitation of a professional go-between service, Marriage Consultation Office. This semi-governmental enterprise sponsored a two-day event recently to explore a gap in how Japanese women and men think of each other.
Japanese leaders have suddenly cast a spotlight on this gap in understanding to look for causes and solutions to the nation's declining marriage rate - and the resulting drop in the birthrate.
``What men take for granted can be insulting to today's women,'' says Haruki Murase, an event coordinator and self-professed house-husband. ``The insensitivity of men makes it difficult for them to have better relations with women.''
Some women criticized their male coworkers for getting wild and fondling women during company trips or ordering them to serve tea at the office. ``There is a saying that courtesy should not be forgotten, even between close friends,'' said a banker.
One man rebutted: ``Like children, men want to touch women when we feel closer to them. And besides, women don't complain when they are touched by a handsome male colleague.''
Then, he questioned, ``Why do women hate to make tea? We carry heavy bags for women.''
A man in his 20s says that many young men have already changed, but women don't yet realize it.
``Our generation is paying the price for what our fathers did to women,'' he said. ``While some men are trying to be gentle to women, I wish women would do the same to us.''
The event also attracted many professional go-betweens, most of whom work for local governments in depopulated rural areas, which have lost young women to the bright lights and jobs of the cities. The match-makers try to help young male farmers find Japanese brides, but many end up importing Filipino women.
``I have a yearning for marriage,'' said a single woman from one rice-farming island. But she says that she hesitates to marry her boyfriend. Her neighbors would keep a close eye on relations between her and her potential mother-in-law, speaking ill of her if she got up later than the mother.
``A rumor will spread to everybody that the bride is bad because she sleeps until noon and eats rice for free.''
The women expressed a frustration that Japanese society takes it for granted that a man must work long hours while a wife must endure housework and child-rearing, even if she works.
They see a social bias in such things as the fact that day-care centers close at 5 p.m.
``Men do not think much about how life will be after marriage because they do not expect it to change very much, while a woman does,'' says event organizer Yoko Itamoto.
One panelist, law professor Sumiko Hoshino, says, ``The Japanese are not yet freed from a [pre-war] marriage system where a woman becomes a member of her husband's family.''
One drawback is a rising divorce rate among middle-age couples. ``Many of the women say that it's not a life for human beings when a wife and husband do not have a real discussion, despite being married for years,'' says sociologist Osamu Watanabe.