East Asia, particularly Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, have long been perceived as having culturally homogenous populations, failing to recognize long-existing minority groups in both countries. Such perceptions of cultural homogeneity in East Asia must change as migration flows diversify East Asia, particularly through marriage-based immigration and labor immigration (Wang et al. 2010).
Overall, the biggest factor of population changes in East Asian societies came from marriage with foreigners, specifically foreign brides. In 2005, South Korea saw international marriages make up 13.5% of all its registered marriages, Taiwan witnessed a 32% international marriage rate in 2003, and Singapore’s was the highest at 41% in 2010 (Kim 2018). As such, a significant proportion of recent immigrants to South Korea and Taiwan were made up of women from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, etc. (Wang et al. 2010). Therefore, as international marriages between foreign brides and native men increase, the homogeny of the country decreases due to the ethnically diverse brides that take up residence in such countries.
Across all East Asian countries, most had similar needs for foreign brides that rose at the start of the 21st century. As South Korean women gained higher rates of equality in the workforce and gained higher education, the prospects of low-educated men living in rural areas to marry Korean women significantly decreased (Wang et al. 2010). Along with Taiwan and Japan, South Korea had also had patrilineal family values that put emphasis on fist-born sons and their wives taking care of their parents and their farms (Tseng 2010). As rural women tended to move to urban areas and marry up the educational ladder, rural, low-educated men in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea resorted to marrying foreign brides who they believed to be more traditional and suited to live in rural areas (Wang et al. 2010). Nowadays, the population of foreign brides in urban areas has also increased as a result of marketing to low-educated, low-class, widowed or divorced urban men (Tseng 2010). Although immigration was seen as unfavorable until the start of the 21st century, the 2000s saw East Asian governments actively encourage foreign marriage. South Korean local governments, specifically, opted to provide benefits to families seeking foreign brides (Wang et al. 2010), and even took Korean men on matchmaking trips to China and other East Asian countries (Kim 2018).
Foreign brides tend to have difficulty in their new residences, as expected, since they do not know the environment nor the language. As such, many migration migrants tend to fall into poverty, are less likely to be employed, and even abused by their new husbands. Foreign brides tend to be significantly younger than their native spouses. As such, international marriages tend to create an age imbalance in the family power structure that contributes to marital instability or even abuse (Kim 2017). Caroline’s and Yongsu’s relationship becomes a perfect example of how a significantly older man controls his younger, foreign wife: Yongsu did not let Caroline have any economic control, and restrained her movements outside the home, two of the most common ways marriage immigrants are abused by their husbands (Kim 2018). Marriage migrant candidates spend very little time courting and getting to know each other; as such, living together as spouses is the only way marriage migrants get to know their living arrangements and the family they’re marrying into. After marrying Pyong-un, Sherly lived with not only him but his parents and took on the family business. His parents had all the control, and they had prejudices against the foreign bride who came with economic baggage. After five years, she finally got a divorce and moved out, which tends to be the case for many international marriages (Kim 2018). However, the hardship does not end at divorce for marriage migrants. Even if they receive local government help, like Sherly who was able to move out to an abandoned home with her daughters (Kim 2018), most marriage migrants tend to be driven to poverty since they are less likely to be employed. In South Korea, Vietnamese and Cambodian wives had the lowest level of education and significantly lower levels of speaking Korean (Kim 2017). As such, Vietnamese migrant women were 16.2% less likely to be employed than Korean Chinese women, who had higher levels of education. Therefore, the marriage migrant’s educational level and ability to speak Korean was detrimental in their chances of being employed and their chances of being in poverty (Kim 2017). Not only do marriage migrants face troubles in their new homes, being at high risk of abuse from their husbands and their families, they also face high difficulty in the labor market and are more likely to be economically unstable.
The increase in international marriages across East Asia has significantly decreased the homogeneity of East Asian societies. East Asian families will no longer be homogenous, instead having ethnically diverse children and spouses. Marriage with foreign brides directly counter the delayed marriage and low fertility of Korean women as foreign brides tended to be more fertile. Foreign brides also tended to get married in their 20s to older men, thus lessening the population of older men who previously had no prospects in the marriage market. Foreign wives also participated in the labor market more than women in the general population of women (Tseng 2010). As such, the increase in international marriage diversifies not only East Asian families, but also East Asian societies and their new generations. Diversity brings with it new perspectives, innovation, a wider talent pool, and an increase in the population. All such effects will also benefit the economy of the societies with more labor power and new citizens that will contribute to the economy. East Asian families are not as uniform or as homogenous as everyone’s speculates them to be; international marriage is one way to break that homogeneity.
Kim, Keuntae. 2017. “Cross-Border Marriages in South Korea and the Challenges of Rising Multiculturalism.” Vol. 55. Pp. 74-88, International Migration.
Kim, Minjeong. 2018. “Elusive Belonging: Marriage Immigrants and “Multiculturalism” in Rural South Korea.” Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Tseng, Yen-Fen. 2010. “Marriage Migration to East Asia: Current Issues and Proportions in Making Comparisons.” Pp. 31-45 in Wen-Shan Yang and Melody Chia-Wen Lu (Eds.), Asian Cross-border Marriage and Migration: Demographic Patterns and Social Issues. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Wang, Hong-Zen, Danièle , Lee, and Hye-Kyung. 2010. “Ethnic diversity and statistics in East Asia: ‘foreign brides’ surveys in Taiwan and South Korea.” Vol. 33. Pp. 1108-1130. Ethnic and Racial Studies.