You're never too old to fall in love. That's what Yoji Kawamura figured after retiring at the age of 62 and deciding that part-time work and his new hobbies of photography and computers weren't enough to fill his days.
Like a small but growing number of older Japanese singles, Kawamura has turned to an online matchmaking service in search of someone to share his "second life".
"When you reach my age, the scope of your activities shrinks and you can only meet people within a narrow circle," said Kawamura, sipping coffee in a cafe in Tokyo. "If you want to go outside that circle, you don't know how."
A former taxi driver who divorced 26 years ago and is now 65, Kawamura signed up with U.S.-based online dating service Match.com, part of Internet conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. last July.
"My horizons have widened and my life is richer because I can make friends," said the goateed Kawamura, who is now dating three women, two of whom are nine years his junior and one who is 62.
Launched in Japan in 2004 and now boasting about 840,000 members, Match.com began targeting the mature market after seeing the fastest growth in membership among the over-50 set, an age group once thought over the hill when it came to romance.
Although nearly half of Match.com members in Japan are aged 30-39, another 9 percent are aged 50 and over.
"It used to be considered that people aged 50 and over didn't talk about love. People would say, 'No way, you're too old'," said Match.com Japan President Katsuki Kuwano.
"These days, it's become acceptable for people in that age group to talk about marriage and love."
The growth of Japan's graying population is partly behind such changing views. Already one in five Japanese are aged 65 or older and the percentage is expected to double by mid-century.
Older Japanese have become more at ease with the Internet, while the numbers of people who have never married or who divorce, often after decades of marriage, is on the rise.
"With an increase in the divorce rate and more and more people accepting second marriages, that has definitely changed," said James Farrer, a sociology professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
"I think there is a cultural change in the way these things are talked about in the media," he added. "There is a sense that older people are sexual, and it's legitimate to talk about it."
Adult children who once expected to live with their parents and discouraged them from remarrying are also more supportive.
"People are living longer and more families are nuclear. There are more people like me who are living alone," Kawamura said. "Adult children are now keen for their parents to find someone to be with. Then they don't have to feel anxious."
Other online entrepreneurs eyeing the same market agree changing values are making it easier for older Japanese to own up to a yearning for romance -- and do something about it.
"People in their 20s and 30s think it's important to find their own happiness, so they can understand their parents wanting to do the same," said Junichi Ikeda, president of online marriage consultancy "Ai Senior", or "Senior Love". He boasts his oldest member is a 90-year-old man.
LINGERING IMAGE PROBLEMS
Still, an image of online dating services as shady fronts for sleazy one-night stands and prostitution lingers.
"I haven't told my children because I think it's best to meet someone naturally," said Match.com member Naomi, a 52-year-old divorcee who signed up in February. "That may be an old-fashioned way of thinking, but the image of dating sites isn't very good."
Such concerns are one reason why women make up only 40 percent of Match.com members in Japan compared with 50 percent in the United States, Kuwano said. Another is pride.
"They are afraid that using the Internet to find someone makes them look like losers," he said.
Online or off, the search for love can still be fraught with obstacles, including the potential for mismatched priorities.
A Match.com survey showed that Japanese men and women both put "shared values" as their top priority in a partner but men list "similar personality" second, while women cite income.
Kawamura says he experienced just that problem when he first joined Match.com, one reason he dropped out for a while.
"I'd send and receive email and they'd ask about my job. But my occupation is at the bottom of the scale in Japan," he said.
Lately, though, things are looking up and Kawamura has moved near one of his women friends so they can get to know each other better. But he's not in a rush. "The most basic thing is to be honest. And to be patient."