How “Strong” are East Asian Families?

In the traditional East Asian family that we all imagine, we assume the nature of a strong family. We have been exposed to the concept of strong family ties within East Asian societies through learning historical Confucian perspectives. We even subconsciously understand the strength of family ties through our consumption of mass media. This is seen in the popular film Crazy Rich Asians, in which the main character is pressured by his family’s opinions to make a decision about his love life. Our understanding of strong family ties among East Asian families is affirmed everywhere, but what if our understanding is flawed?


The Data

More recently, empirical research has been conducted to show that the strong family ties we assumed in East Asian families might not be so strong after all… While East Asian children are typically known to support their parents throughout all phases of life, analysis of empirical evidence proves differently. To measure the strength of strong family ties, we can look at the co-residence of parents with their children because when families face challenges, typically those with stronger family ties are known to pool their resources together and care for one another. Although East Asian parents and grown children value family, due to modern changes, the strength of the family ties is weakening. In more urban areas, there has been significant industrialization, pushing children to explore opportunities beyond simply caring for their parents.

But is this pattern of weakening family ties true across all East Asian families?

In another study, when examining education differentials among single parents, it was found that single mothers with a university education were most likely to co-reside with their parents while less-educated women were more likely to live alone. Essentially, family ties are strong for some groups, but this is not held true for all East Asian families. Also, looking at general trends in living alone and education levels, it was found that widowed women with less than an elementary school education were more likely to live alone than widowed women with a middle school education. In this study, the data shows that not only are East Asian family ties weakening, but the weakening ties disproportionately affect individuals based on their education levels. Overall, more highly educated people are more likely to live with their parents and take part in cohabitation than lower educated individuals.

Why would this be the case? 

Because low-income children tend to bear the costs of family transitions while high-income children benefit from their family’s stability.


Today’s Implications

But why does any of this matter? Sure, the family ties are weakening relative to what we think, but what’s wrong with that. 

For most readers understanding the weakening of family ties might simply be just that, but it is imperative to bring this newfound understanding to East Asian governments themselves. Currently, the governments also submit to this misinterpreted perception that when individuals are struggling, other family members simply pool resources together to help out. With this, people are assumed to leave responsibilities to their families as opposed to the state, causing the government to feel no responsibility to help in improving their citizens’ wellbeing.

We need to move past these cultural stereotypes. 

Moving from never having an Asian American female lead in Hollywood to having all Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, this is just the start. East Asians are so commonly misrepresented due to portrayals in the mass media, but through research, we see that there is far more to know than what appears to be.



Rehr, D. (1998). Family Ties in Western Europe: Persistent Contrasts. Population and Development Review, 24(2), 203-234. doi:10.2307/2807972

Hyunjoon Park, Jaesung Choi & Hyejeong Jo (2016) Living Arrangements of Single Parents and Their Children in South Korea, Marriage & Family Review, 52:1-2, 89-105, DOI: 10.1080/01494929.2015.1073653

Park, Hyunjoon, and Jaesung Choi. 2015. “Long-Term Trends in Living Alone among Korean Adults: Age, Gender, and Educational Differences.” Demographic Research 32: 1177-1208.


Have East Asian families changed?

Universal marriage and low divorce used to characterize family behavior in East Asia. A strong image attached to East Asian family is the minimal difference in family behavior across socioeconomic and demographic groups within a society. Confucian culture, in particularly, was invoked to explain uniform family behavior in East Asia.

However, during the last few decades, East Asian families have considerably changed, along with rising economic inequality and significant expansion of higher education in the region. Explaining the second demographic transition, which include delays in fertility and marriage, and increases in non-marital birth and divorce, demographer McLanahan (2004) emphasized diverging destinies as a key demographic trend over the last few decades in the United States.

What are diverging destinies?

McLanahan (2004) states that the changes from the second demographic transition have brought an increasing gap in children’s resources (time and money) between high and low educated people in the U.S. There are two different patterns that are concentrated in two different education levels. Delays in childbearing and increase in material employment are increasingly concentrated among the high-educated, while trends in divorce and nonmarital childbirth are concentrated among the low-educated. This same idea of diverging destinies (increasing gaps) between the low and high educated can be seen in East Asian countries. Japanese and Korean studies demonstrate the general trends of the second demographic transition (overall decrease in marriage and increase in divorce), but they also showed that some of the previously mentioned behaviors are particularly concentrated among low educated, creating an increasing gap between the low and high educated.

Studies focused on East Asia have demonstrated that:

  • Marriage is declining, but especially for low educated men and women. (Park & Lee, 2017; Fukuda et al, 2020)
  • Divorce is increasing, but especially for low educated men and women. (Raymo et al, 2004; Park & Raymo, 2013).

This change of family behavior has its roots in multiple factors. However, economic inequality and uncertainty in the labor market are the main reason why families are diverging their behavior. As for economic inequality, in Korea, the top 10% of income brackets took up to 50.6% of the total national income in 2017 (Source: Business Korea).

Implications of Diverging Destinies for East Asian Families

In contrast to the old image of little variation in family behavior among East Asian families, we have seen diverging gaps in marriage and divorce between the low- and high-educated in both Japan and Korea. An important lesson from these family behavior trends is significant disadvantage of low-educated men and women in forming a family though marriage and in maintaining a family. More policy efforts should pay attention to supporting low-educated men and women in forming and maintaining a family. Otherwise, declining marriage rates and extremely low fertility in East Asia may continue.


Fukuda, Setsuya, James M. Raymo, and Shohei Yoda. 2020. “Revisiting the Educational Gradient in Marriage in Japan” Journal of Marriage and Family 82: 1378-1396

McLanahan, Sarah. 2004. “Diverging Destinies: How Children are Faring under the Second Demographic Transition.” Demography 41: 607-627.

Park, Hyunjoon and Jae Kyung Lee. 2017. “Growing Educational Differentials in the Retreat from Marriage among Korean Men.” Social Science Research 66: 187-200.

Park, Hyunjoon and James M. Raymo. 2013. “Divorce in Korea: Trends and Educational Differentials.” Journal of Marriage and Family 75: 110-126

Raymo, James M., Miho Iwasawa, and Larry Bumpass. 2004. “Marital Dissolution in Japan: Recent Trends and Patterns.” Demographic Research 11: 395-420.

News: Korea’s Top 10 Percent Income Brackets Take Up 50.6 Percent of Nation’s Total Income. (2019, March 19). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from


Growing Diversity in East Asia

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.

Can’t East Asian Education Produce World-leading Students?

Today is Thanksgiving. I am sitting in the living room and my mom is making dinner in the kitchen. “I am glad that I sent my daughters to the United States. This is the best decision I have ever made. If they studied in China, they will not be as successful”, I heard my mom talking with my aunts. I couldn’t remember how many times I heard my mom, who is a typical old generation Chinese, criticizing the Chinese education system or in general, the East Asian education system. From my personal experience, my mom is not the only one that thinks the East Asian education system is not as successful as that of the US. 

“Yes, average East Asian students are doing well, but they cannot be world-class students”. This is a common criticism against East Asian education. The highly uniform curriculum and standardized instruction in East Asia are considered not to offer the chance for talented students to move on to more advanced levels than average students whom the typical school curriculum is geared toward. In contrast, the US education system is appraised to allow students with varying learning abilities and interests to take courses of different levels.  It is considered as a strength of US education to provide customized learning opportunities for talented students as well as academically struggling students, which helps produce top leaders in economy, technology, and other fields.

An educational system can boast a high level of academic performance on average like what East Asian students show in international achievement tests such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). However, the high average score may not be always desirable if top students regress to the mean. Does the standardized system of East Asian education really hurt top students? What do we know about cross-national differences among top students in each country besides corresponding differences in average scores? 

In his book on Japanese and Korean education, sociologist Hyunjoon Park (2013) provides another point of view on this issue by comparing the performance of students in East Asia and the US on the PISA and TIMSS tests conducted in 2000 and 1999, respectively. PISA randomly chooses 15-years-old students from countries around the world and TIMSS tests 8th-grade students to assess their mathematics and science skills. The national average scores of Japanese (579) and Korean (587) students in the TIMSS 1999 mathematics test are both higher than that of the United States (502). Note that the average score difference between Korea and the United States is 85 points. The average score of the Netherlands, a country that is praised for its education quality, is 540. The difference in the average score between the US and Korea is almost double that between the Netherlands and Korea (47). A similar pattern of cross-national differences is also shown in the PISA 2000 test, which again emphasizes the overall academic success of East Asian education. 

What is more significant, however, is the score of top and bottom students.  In the TIMSS 1999 test, Japanese and Korean students at the top 10% scored  676  and 684 points,  higher than their US peers (611 points). In the PISA 2000 mathematics test, Japanese and Korean students at the top 10% ranked 1st and  4th, respectively, among 31 countries. In short, there is no evidence to conclude that talented students in East Asian countries are harmed by the standardized education system. Rather, one can even say that talented students in East Asian countries are actually more successful than those in the US. 

But more interesting from Park’s study (2013) is that not only the top East Asian students are successful, but East Asian students at the bottom of the score distribution are also performing better than their corresponding US counterparts. Among students at the bottom, the score differences are even greater than corresponding cross-national differences among the top students. In TIMSS 1999, Japanese students at the bottom 10% scored 475 points, whereas  US students at the bottom 10% scored 387 points. The average score difference is 88 points, which is higher than that among students at the top 10% (65 points). Korean students at the bottom 10% even scored 482 points, 95 points higher than the score of US students at the bottom 10%. Similar findings are also found in PISA 2000. The differences indicate that East Asian education not only helps talented students but also helps the bottom students when compared to the United States. 

Of course, Park’s (2013) research may not offer a full picture of East Asian education. To fully analyze the effects of East Asian education across elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels, more studies are needed. In particular, a study that compares the achievements of graduated students in different countries in the workforce may be more convincing than comparing the test scores. In this article, I do not mean to say that the East Asian education system is better than the US system or vice versa. There are both strengths and limitations for every education system. I just want to highlight that there is evidence enough to arouse a question about people’s long-standing criticism against East Asian education. In addition, to keep criticizing East Asian education’s various limitations and problems, we should also try to understand how the East Asian education system is helping academically struggling students without necessarily hurting top students. 


Park, Hyujoon. 2013. Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes. London and New York: Routledge

Are East Asian Students Robots?

Elementary and secondary school students in East Asia, particularly in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are well known for their high ranks in international standardized tests for academic performance such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), outperforming their peers worldwide. Their high performance has led many to try to understand how East Asian education actually operates. But at the same time, some critics highlight the cost to East Asian education’s success for students’ academic achievement. Due to the emphasis on standardized testing and academic performance, for example, East Asian education has been considered to be weak in enhancing students’ creativity and independent thinking. A typical argument against East Asian education goes this way: Because students and teachers rely on standardized testing as a way to measure academic success, students resort to rote learning and memorization — taking in and spitting information out, just like a robot. Are East Asian students really robots? In order to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of East Asian education systems, it is vital to look carefully at how students in East Asia actually learn in their schools.

In a study comparing creativity of East Asian and US students, Kyung Hee Kim (2005) identifies three reasons as to why East Asian education may not be conducive to creativity; 1) East Asian classrooms heavily depend on rote learning and memorization; 2) The East Asian uniform and standardized school curriculum and teaching processes do not grant the teacher flexibility; and 3) the very culture of East Asian societies inhibits creativity. East Asian education systems’ exclusive reliance on standardized tests to measure a student’s academic ability leads to widespread usage of rote learning — repeating, memorizing, then spitting back out textbook information. Many believe that rote learning leaves no space for discussion in the classroom, which can be conducive to cultivation of students’ creativity and independent thinking. Moreover, critics argue, that since the government creates and maintains uniform school curricula and testing programs that span across the entire country, teachers have limited flexibility in the classroom and are even discouraged to think of creative approaches to teaching. With East Asian teachers being confined to a very specific and uniform teaching plan, their students in turn have little room for their own creative cultivation. Finally, East Asian culture places much respect for teachers. As a result, East Asian students do not ask questions or speak up in class — however, in order to become more creative, one must challenge the norm and state their own ideas instead of being submissive. 

But what is creativity? It’s a concept, an intangible and immeasurable quality that we all strive to possess. It is important to acknowledge that the definition of creativity is vague and malleable, and that we don’t necessarily have strong evidence of cross-national differences in creativity. In fact, a study suggests that we can look up the issue of East Asian students’ creativity in cross-national perspectives by utilizing the results of the problem solving skills from an interest student assessment. In 2003, students across 29 countries participated in an assessment (PISA 2003) to measure their problem solving skills. 

Given the difficulty to objectively measure creativity, the study instead used students’ ability to solve a problem as a way to compare students’ creativity across the world. On this test, the highest scoring country was Korea, ranked at #1. Finland came in at #2, Japan at #3, and the United States at #24 out of 29 countries measured, already raising huge doubts at the validity of this common perception that East Asian students are robots. 

It is not clear to what extent problem solving skills really tap into creativity. Therefore, Park (2013)’s study does not provide a definite answer to the question of whether East Asian students are more or less creative than their peers in the US and other countries. One does not need problem solving skills to be creative as many problem solving questions are more logic based, which is why problem solving may not be an appropriate measure. A different way to measure creativity would be to examine students’ creative writing since one needs an imagination and creative energy to write creatively. 

This article is not to defend East Asian education with respect to creativity. But it just highlights how difficult it is to compare the creativity of students across cultures. By simply accepting the stereotype that East Asian students are robots, we are likely to overlook the strengths of East Asian education systems where their students show higher levels of problem solving skills, even if not creativity, than students in most other countries. 



Kim, Kyung Hee. 2005. “Learning from Each Other: Creativity in East Asian and American Education.” Creativity Research Journal 17(4): 337-347.

Park, Hyunjoon. 2013. “Do Japanese and Korean Schools Make Talented Students Mediocre?” Chapter 3 in Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes. London and New York: Routledge

Is ‘Shadow Education’ the Secret to East Asian Success?

Year after year, East Asian students rank the highest on international tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that assess mathematics, science, and reading performance of students in elementary and/or secondary schools across many countries. These international tests are conducted to gather information about how various students in different age groups and grades are performing academically. In contrast to East Asian students, US students tend to rank in the middle of the pack. Given the outstanding performance of East Asian students, policymakers and the public in the US are continuously trying to find out why US students are falling behind those in East Asia. How do East Asian students consistently outperform their peers in the US and other parts of the world? Is it because their teachers are more qualified and their schools are stronger, or are there other factors coming into play? 

Critics often attribute East Asian students’ achievement to the high prevalence of ‘shadow education’, or private tutoring and learning outside of formal school hours. A report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) revealed that 70-80% of East Asian students in Korea and Japan are engaged in private tutoring and suggests that this is the main factor leading to East Asian students’ high performance on academic tests.

It is true that many students in East Asia participate in ‘shadow education’. In East Asia, students must go through an intense and competitive process to enter top universities. As illustrated through a national survey conducted in 2007, about eight out of every ten primary and secondary students in Korea engage in some form of private tutoring in order to remain competitive in college admissions (Park et al. 2011). In Korea, parents visit instructors in private tutoring institutions called a hagwon in order to discuss their child’s performance. This involvement extends beyond simply enrolling a child in the private tutoring institution, but also includes monitoring progress, and choosing which private instructors and programs to enroll their child in (Park et al., 2011). Similarly, Japanese students participate in cram schools called juku to supplement their learning from school. With so many forms of private tutoring, how likely is East Asian students’ strong performance due to shadow education, rather than the quality of public schooling? 

Discovering the Realities of East Asian Achievement

In a chapter of the 2013 book by Hyunjoon Park titled Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying the Stereotype, Park critically challenges the argument that East Asian achievement is mainly due to private tutoring. 

First, those who highlight the heavy prevalence of private tutoring in East Asia fail to understand the global context behind shadow education. They believe that shadow education is unique to East Asia but in reality, education is becoming institutionalized. The notion of equal educational opportunity is becoming a norm in modern society as a key mechanism with which to attain social mobility. In an increasingly complex job market, students are placing greater importance on education, making the educational competition rise around the world. With this increase in competition, parents are forced to find any possible way to help their children advance educationally. Oftentimes, this means engaging in shadow education. (Mori & Baker, 2010). The percentage of students participating in tutoring, both public and private, from 2003 to 2012 has increased globally with some countries, such as Hungary, increasing their participation rate by almost 20 percentage points, overtaking the increase in East Asian countries (Park et al., 2016). People associate East Asia with its high involvement in shadow education but in reality, the increase of student participation in shadow education is a global trend. 

Park also makes it clear that critics of East Asian education ignore evidence that the prevalence of student participation in shadow education is not strongly related to the national average test scores (Baker et al., 2001). However, a study conducted in China that analyzed 7th-grade students also found that tutoring increased analytical and mathematical performance (Liu, 2012). Given these inconsistencies about the exact magnitude of the effect of students’ participation in shadow education on academic performance, it is difficult to assume a direct link between the two. 

Moreover, in Korea, high-achieving students are more likely to take shadow education to advance in their studies than low-achieving students (Baker et al. 2001). However, in another chapter of his book, Park (2013) highlights that what makes East Asian education distinctive is the comparatively strong performance of their low-achieving students compared to the low-achieving students in other countries. In other words, low-achieving students in Korea, who are less likely to take shadow education than high-achieving peers, are the secret to Korean education’s success.

Although Park (2013) challenges the common perception that East Asian educational success is attributable to shadow education, there is still more we could find out about the exact impact shadow education has had on East Asian success. We could examine how students’ performance changed before and after the expansion of shadow education and look at the possible negative effects of shadow education on mental health, stress, and anxiety.  

Why Should We Care?

Ultimately, it is important to discover the realities of East Asian education to prevent policymakers from misusing these beliefs (Takayama 2017). Western policymakers often illustrate a caricature-like view of East Asian education, with some believing that we should heavily base our education system off of East Asia, but others magnifying the shortcomings of East Asian education. Policymakers are using these common misconceptions about education in East Asia to justify reforms, without looking at a more accurate cause of East Asian educational success and failure. Ultimately, to truly learn from East Asian education, we must clear up these misunderstandings and promote their realities instead. 

Works Cited 

Baker, D. P., Akiba, M., Letendre, G. K., & Wiseman, A. W. (2001). Worldwide Shadow Education: Outside-School Learning, Institutional Quality of Schooling, and Cross-National Mathematics Achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(1), 1-17.

Mori, I., & Baker, D. (2010). The origin of universal shadow education: What the supplemental education phenomenon tells us about the postmodern institution of education. Asia Pacific Education Review, 11(1), 36-48. 

Park, H. (2013). Re-evaluating education in Japan and Korea demystifying stereotypes. London: Routledge.