Online Dating

Swipe right for friendship: dating apps change tack as Asia grows richer but lonelier

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 11:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 11:00am

As countries like China, Japan and South Korea become richer and shed their conservative trappings, the market for apps aimed at combating loneliness is growing, and with it the venture capital willing to invest in them, pundits say.

“People [in East Asia] are becoming more isolated,” Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher who works at a think-tank in Japan, told Al-Jazeera.

“They used to live in friendly communities where neighbours would help them.”

Now, they are now more likely to shop at giant supermarkets, or online using Taobao or Tmall, two shopping platforms run by e-commerce giant Alibaba, especially if they are Chinese and in their 20s or 30s.

One company hoping to cash in on this growing level of social disconnectedness in the offline world is Singapore-based Paktor.

It offers a matchmaking app similar to 2012 start-up Tinder, and raised US$7.4 million in Series B funding in Singapore on Tuesday.

Paktor said it will use the money to attract more users in Japan and South Korea and expand beyond the realm of dating into platonic matchmaking.

“We think there’s a white elephant in the room that people don’t touch,” Paktor CEO Joseph Phua told TechCrunch. 

“Namely, how can I meet somebody, not for a relationship, but [for] social interactions around food, sport or other interests.”

Recent studies suggest there is a growing demand for this as Asia grows lonelier. 

One report by NLI Research Institute, a Japanese think-tank, estimates that single households will be the dominant model in Japan within five years.

According to last year’s Gallup-Healthways Global Well-being Index, people who live in Hong Kong and Japan are financially well off but dissatisfied socially due principally to a shortage of supportive or loving relationships.

The index measures a society’s level of happiness based on five metrics: people’s sense of purpose, their physical and financial health, their social well-being, and sense of community.

Of the 145 countries surveyed, Hong Kong placed 23rd in terms of financial well-being, but a lowly 134th in terms of how happy its people were socially. 

Singapore (9/123), Japan (11/127), China (59/129) and South Korea (53/112) showed similar chasms between the two metrics. 

The registered user base for Paktor has risen from 1.5 million in November to over 5 million this month, the company said. It makes 12 million matches a month globally, it added. 

By way of comparison, Tinder claims to make over 26 million matches a day.

As Asia grows lonelier, a colourful array of new ventures are popping up in Tokyo. At some shops, customers can pay to sleep in a communal space with strangers. Other people head to rent-a-friend agencies.

On a more macabre note, Japanese have coined the term kodokushi for people who die alone and remain undiscovered for long periods of time.

As a result of China’s longstanding one-child policy and growing economic success, an entire generation has grown up with more disposable income but fewer if any siblings or cousins to play with.

In South Korea, loneliness is now so entrenched it has become fodder for public entertainment. 

This is highlighted by the growing trend of mukbang ("eating-broadcast") shows in the country, where people live-stream themselves wolfing down family sized dinners to audiences nationwide.

Some 45,000 people tune in to the shows on an average dinnertime, a threefold increase from 2013, according to media reports.

The shows owe some of their popularity to people’s love of dieting, and some to the “rise of one-person households in Korea,” Serim An, the public relations coordinator of Afreeca TV, which hosts the shows, told CNN.