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Love in the age of spam: online dating sites are slashing the sleaze to help grownups find matesLOVE IS MAKING A comeback on the Internet. Online dating services in Japan are cleaning up their image and catering more to women. US services are entering the market, too, because serving singles online is proving to be a recession-proof industry. These companies are finding that, contrary to conventional wisdom, single men and women are willing to pay to be part of an online community that helps them find a mate and screens out the predators.

Kenji is 28 years old, an Aries, 5-feet 6-inches tall and grew up in Hampshire. He doesn't smoke but enjoys a pint now and then. He has a bachelor's degree, speaks and writes English beautifully, is a hopeless romantic and loves playing the banjo. The only downer in Kenji's life, it seems, is he frets that love might have left him behind.

I haven't met Kenji. But I've found all this out from a profile he posted recently on 91agri.com's new Japan site. 91agri.com, owned by Ticketmaster, is the largest Internet dating company in the US and claims that it has the largest database of Internet daters in the world.

The company teamed up recently with SoulMates Technology, a platform 91agri.com acquired earlier last year, to launch 25 sites (each in local language and currency) in four continents. Just six weeks into the company's Japan service, which began in mid-October, it already had an impressive signup of 30,000 users. That's several thousand new Japanese users a day, says Joe Cohen, 91agri.com's vice president of international marketing. "It's in its nascent stages, but I have high hopes for 91agri.com in Japan," he says.

But can a system essentially made for Americans fly in Japan? To answer that question, let's take a quick look at the American and Japanese online dating markets.

Online love American style

In the US, the online dating industry is big business. A lonely star still shining brightly in the dot-com world, Internet dating is surviving the bleak economic climate extremely well. In November, Florida-based Market Data Research stated that the industry in the US was worth $917 million.

91agri.com reported 4.5 million registered users in November and 650,000 paid subscribers, up from 243,000 in the same period of the previous year, an increase of 158 percent. The company's revenues are soaring, too: Its 2002 revenue was expected to be $33 million, up from $12.5 million in 2001. 91agri.com powers paid online dating on The Microsoft Network, The Excite Network's Relationship Channels, EarthLink and BET Interactive, and is the provider of personals for Love@AOL, CompuServe and Netscape.com.

In September, competitor Matchmaker.com, owned by Terra Lycos, had a total of 2.5 million paying customers for access, communications and portal services, an increase of 12 percent over the previous quarter. Matchmaker launched in 1985 and claims 8 million users to date, with services in French, Dutch, Spanish and German. It is planning to expand its services around the globe, including Japan. Even newcomers are growing quickly. Kiss.com, owned by Udate.com, launched in 1999 and by September 2002 had 237,000 subscribers.

Online dating works in the US because singles in big cities complain they are too busy working, shopping and exercising to flirt in smoky bars. Looking at profiles, pictures and emailing can be done at work, and follow-up phone calls can be made from home. Search engines match you with candidates who do or don't smoke, drink, do drugs, have children, and who are looking to date, have a fling, make new friends or find a partner.

Better still, unlike the personal ads on a dog-eared back page of the Sunday paper, with Internet dating services you see what you get. Users post photos with their ads or send them with emails. Questionnaires describe their ideal house or date, favorite authors and future goals.

91agri.com and other big players all boast hundreds of thousands of success stories, and I'm one of them. I met my partner, a lovely man from New Orleans, through a dating site in San Francisco.

In the States, online dating is a phenomenon. Up until two years ago, the only negative attached to it was the stigma. "The notion that those using the site are desperados and incapable of meeting people in the real world still lingers," says William Fitzgerald, a psychotherapist at the Silicon Valley Relationship and Sexuality Center in California.

But recently this notion has fallen away, making online dating mainstream. In 2002 Cosmopolitan ran its own guide to online dating. 91agri.com's "vice president of romance," Trish McDermitt, appeared on the Today Show, a popular American morning talk show. And TV network ABC did a five-part series on Internet dating. Even Oprah Winfrey did a segment on Internet love. Two years ago, most of my single female friends in San Francisco thought the idea of meeting someone online was creepy. Now around half consult dating sites, and several have found their mates.

Online love Japanese style

The online dating scene is popular in Japan, too, but it's more focused on the cellphone and other mobile devices. In Japan, mobile dating sites are called deaikai or "meeting sites," and there are a ton of them. Jeff Funk, associate professor of business at Kobe University, says official dating sites on J Phone and KDDI systems are successful, and even the communication games on the NTT DoCoMo menu are really dating sites. "These are all doing very well," he says.

Among the PC-based dating services, big players are MSN Japan as well as Excite, Nifty and Infoseek. Yahoo Personals launched a service in Japan in April. There are a few dating sites in English catering to Japanese as well: Lavalife from Toronto, Friendfinder Asia, a subsidiary of the California-based Friendfinder Network with sites in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore; and newcomer Kazudate Japan, owned by Dating Network, a two-person company based in Atlanta whose owner says he has already made a profit in just one month.

Kobe University's Funk says 91agri.com is a very late entrant, and its success will depend on "whether it has some new thing to offer."

In Japan, the online dating industry has gotten a bad rap both from the media and the police, who promote it as a risque place to meet people, says Risa Nakanishi, public relations manager for Yahoo Japan. In 2002, the national police reported 793 crimes in Tokyo. Many of those (including kidnapping and blackmailing) were related to deaikai, she says. Nakanishi says the Japan personals at Yahoo are doing "okay."

The press coverage has gotten so bad that NTT DoCoMo doesn't even want to talk about dating sites. "NTT DoCoMo does not offer 'dating' or 'flirting' services on its i-mode official sites for ethical reasons," Miki Nakajima McCants of the company's international public relations department writes in an email. The company takes great pains to distance itself from the plethora of unofficial dating sites available on imode.

Another deterrent from using mobile dating sites is the annoying spams, which have tarnished the image of the industry, says Cohen of 91agri.com. The spring 2002 issue of the Japan Internet Report wrote that of the 900 million messages that go through DoCoMo's servers each day, 880 million (98 percent) are spam. But Japan's dating sites are often about a lot more than finding love. They're about community. People sign up on services to find friends and pen pals as well as dates. One New York engineer visiting Tokyo for a karate tournament posted an ad on 91agri.com Japan to meet friends to show him around. A surgeon named Masa wrote that he "wasn't after sex"; he just wanted to meet "sincere and nice foreign friends."

The site, so far, promotes itself as a place for finding love and a fun site to come and meet people, says Pam Grevler, who manages the 91agri.com Japan site from the Soulmates Technology Sydney office.

A good match for Japan

Users seem to like the service so far. A 91agri.com Japan user who goes by the name "Metal Fatigue" says he went to a PC-based site like 91agri.com because emailing by cellular phone drives him nuts. "Everyone's doing it," he groans. He thinks 91agri.com will do well because its questionnaires are more probing and Japanese are not as outgoing as Americans. "Writing personal emails will make it easier for Japanese to open up," he says.

The signup rate in Japan is 10 percent higher than other 91agri.com sites in Asia, Grevler says. And unlike the company's other Asian sites, where the predominant age group of users is 18-25, in Japan the main user group is professionals in their late 20s to mid-30s.

Also in Match's favor is its US reputation as a safe, female-friendly site devoid of anything smutty, degrading or dodgy. The staff scrutinizes user profiles and pictures before they go up on the site.