Why are Korean and Japanese Families so Similar? Part 1: Neo-Confucianism

Korean Family LG Printer(Source: LG 전자; CC BY 2.0)

According to a recent study, Japanese women living with their parents-in-law are three times more likely to have a heart attack than those just living with their husbands. This, in a country famous for its very low rates of heart problems overall.

Which got me wondering about Korea. Korean family structures and gender roles are very similar to those of Japan, so it seems reasonable to suppose that the Japanese study has great relevance to Korea, and that a knowledge of Korean family life can reliably inform our interpretation of it.

Or does it? This is the question that has occupied me for past nine days, and, for readers by definition interested in Korean social issues, it is much less abstract and pedantic than perhaps it first sounds. Let me explain.

As a writer about Korean society, but often lacking in English-language material, frankly it is always a temptation to stress its similarities with Japan, just for the sake of having something to work with. But seriously, the huge Japanese role in the development of both the modern Korean state and economy has left profound and enduring legacies. Add that I’m a big proponent of the Marxian concept of base and superstructure—basically that much of a society’s oft-claimed timeless and enduring culture (one aspect of the superstructure) changes pretty damn quickly once economic structures or modes of production change (the base)—too, then it stands to reason that, with still broadly similar economic structures centered around horizontal and vertically-integrated conglomerates known as keiretsu and chaebol respectively, then much about daily life in both societies (workplace culture, working hours, drinking-culture, male-breadwinner based welfare systems, gender divisions between work and the home, and so on) would also be very similar. And it wouldn’t take much reading of just this blog alone to find that this indeed the case.

With that background and strong inclination however, there is always a danger of taking similarities as a given. And particularly in this case, where the authors of the study point out that:

One of the overwhelming things that stands out is that it doesn’t matter for Japanese men what the living arrangements are…they’re immune from stresses in the home (source, right: Urânia – José Galisi Filho).

And from which Samhita of the Feministing blog argues:

The article feigns surprise in finding out that men don’t have these same health problems, but fails to make the obvious conclusion that women get inordinate amounts of pressure from their in-laws to live up to certain expectations that increases stress in their lives. Many women are choosing not to get married or have as many children in Japan, but the culture of expectation around how women should act in the home seems resilient. I wonder if a similar correlation can be made with women that are living with their in-laws in the states?

Which is equally true of Korean brides, where those expectations include assuming the bulk of housework duties, and utter subservience to their mother-in-laws. Naturally, the ensuing potential for domestic tension and conflict make such living arrangements a staple of Korean dramas for decades, one such playing at the moment being You are My Destiny (너는 내 운명, but not to be confused with the 2005 movie with a similar name) starring the decidedly unhappy-looking bride Yuna below. Having said that, just like the traditional hanok houses that many of these dramas are inexplicably set in, one can’t help but assume that women’s disdain for eldest sons and the nuclearization of the Korean family mean that these living arrangements are increasingly rare in practice, which begs the question of why dramatizations of them remain so popular even today.

Writing a week ago, I thought it was because, in practice, living in separate homes has not diminished many parents’ intimate involvement in their childrens’ married lives, and hence the exaggerated situations of dramas still strike a chord amongst married couples and those of marriageable age. Indeed, the combination of Korea’s small size and improvement in Korea’s transport and communications infrastructure has made this even more possible and likely over time. Note that even as recently as the 1970s, a move to Seoul might entail not seeing parents and siblings in the countryside for many years, let alone friends who moved elsewhere in the country. (Source, above: HKGolden.)

But, to spare you the reflections on my preconceptions and academic baggage that took up much of an earlier version of this post, there comes a point where you need evidence. Much of those nine days were spent looking.

Fortunately, I was successful. But in the process, I discovered the question was much more difficult than I thought. Again, to spare readers from a frankly rather incoherent argument in a previous version of this post, in sum I learned that:

  • According to Yoshio Sugimoto’s brilliant An Introduction to Japanese Society (2003, pp. 175-176), Japanese dramas likewise dwell on intergenerational conflicts in households with extended families.
  • In fact, Japan has many of more such households than Korea (which will be discussed in Part 2).
  • But why? Crucially, Japanese society lacks the (Neo-)Confucianist ideology that underscores such family arrangement, and the ensuing conflicts.

Or so I thought. But, after a decade of constantly reading how Korea is the most Confucian country in the world, and “more Confucian than China,” I’d considerably underestimated Confucianism’s influence on the rest of East Asia.

Korean Woman Bench Sitting Gallery(Source: thomas park; CC BY 2.0)

This was revealed to me by Robert Smith in his chapter “The Japanese (Confucian) Family: The Tradition from the Bottom Up” in Tu Wei-Ming (ed.), Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Mini-Dragons (1996), and who aims to show:

…that it is impossible to advance a plausible argument that the Japanese family today is Confucian in the strict sense. It is equally impossible to argue that it has been completely purged of the effects of attempts by the authorities to structure it in terms of selected Confucian principles. (p. 157)

Some selected excerpts to make up the remainder of this post then. Please forgive me if there’s rather a lot of them, and apologies to any Japan-based readers who already started saying “Well…Duh!” to the computer screens some time ago, but hopefully they’ll still be helpful for any readers like myself that aren’t/weren’t as familiar with Japanese social history as they thought they were.

First, on why I had that impression that I did:

I have asked a hopelessly unrepresentative sample of Japanese colleagues, acquaintances, and friends whether contemporary Japanese think of themselves or their families as Confucian. The spontaneous answer is a resounding no, often supplemented by a dismissive reference to the conservative, reactionary, or feudal (a favorite term of opprobrium in Japan) character of its teachings. The implication is that one’s grandfather or great-grandfather may have been taught Confucian ethics and might even have internalized them, but in 1945 the Japanese consigned Confucianism to the dustbin of history. (p. 157)

There is one obvious difference between the role of Confucianism in China and Japan, where is has always been only one of many competing ideologies, philosophies and ethical systems, and never, as in China, “a way of life encompassing the ultimate standards for Chinese social and political order.” (158)

And the Japanese tend to underplay the Confucian influence in their own society because:

Japanese Confucianism started as a cultural ideology serving the needs of the Tokugawa Bakufu (or Shōgun, or Army Commander)….Although for a time Confucianism had been discredited along with everything else associated with the shogunate, it gained currency again with the consolidation of conservative power in the late 1920s and 1930s. (p. 158-9).

The latter of which was the decade when:

…Japanese society was being reduced at the hands of fanatics to its most stifling condition of oppressive irrationalism [and] in which the ideals of the Japanese educational world were closer to those of its Togukawa past than at any time since 1870….Is it any wonder that today’s Japanese, if they have thought about it at all, are likely to view Confucianism in a negative light? (p. 159, my emphasis)

Now, why the influence of Confucianism on the Japanese and particularly the Japanese family remains pervasive nevertheless:

Were the Japanese ever Confucianists in, say, the same sense as the Koreans? No one claims that they were. Nevertheless, there are many ways in which the Confucianist concern with hierarchical relationships and its emphasis on harmonious families as the basis for harmonious states seems to have influenced Japanese society. Be that as it may, it is just as likely that the Japanese selectively utilized Confucian teachings to reaffirm and strengthen characteristics of their society, which was deeply rooted in the pre-Confucian past.

Presumably one of the domains in which Confucianism did not simply reinforce and justify older social practices is the treatment of women, for it is widely argued that they enjoyed a far more favorable position in Japanese society before the introducton of Confucianism. It may well be, however, that the decline of women’s status in Japan actually began with the popularization of Buddhism. (pp. 160-1, my emphasis)

Finally:

The question is not whether Confucianism is a religion. It is rather: Does Confucianism, broadly defined (or, perhaps better, undefined) have anything at all to do with religion in Japan?

The “rules” by which religions are tacitly expected to operate in Japan are, more than anything else, Confucian. As so often in Japan, Confucianism plays the role of a moral and ethical substratum that, its preconditions being met, allows a harmless surface diversity. Indeed, one could argue, as many have, that these principles go back beyond Confucian influences on early Japan to the values inherent in ancient clan structures and an agricultural society with their demands for loyalty and cooperative effort; Confucianism did not so much crate as articulate the values by which Japanese society works.

Virtually all religions that have endured in Japan have adapted external forms agreeable to the patriarchal family model and have made their peace with the state. (p. 171, my emphasis)

At this point, a more thorough blogger than myself would probably move onto those passages where Smith discusses that latent Confucianism within Japanese families (and the education system) more specifically, but I think that readers can reasonably extrapolate those from the big picture that I have already provided rather than requiring me to add those too. Ergo, Japanese families are indeed (Neo) Confucianist, and I’m especially glad that demonstrating that gave me a legitimate opportunity to get stuck into my recently purchased copy of Tu-Wei Ming’s book. But while 2500 words is a rather short post (for me), given the long time this one took and that Confucianism, Demographics and Biological Anthropology are much more discreet subjects than what I normally blog about, I’ll wisely end this post here!

Update

Although they’re not really related to the topic at hand, the questions of: a) to what extent the US could be described as a “Christian country” and b) whether Confucianism is a religion or not came up in the comments, and are interesting in their own rights. And while I’m usually reluctant—yes, really—to type out literally entire pages from books here, Robert Smith does answer both much better than I could:

To what extent has the Japanese family ever been Confucian, and to what extent is it today? Would that the question could be so easily answered. Even the most casual survey of the vicissitudes of Confucianism in Japan suggests the need for caution. Indeed, I was tempted to indicate just how cautious one must be by titling this essay either “Confucianism Is in the Eye of the Beholder” or “Confucian Is as Confucian Does.” That is to say, how Confucianism is described, the praises sung of it, the importance assigned to it, and the terms by which it is denounced are all very strongly colored by the historical period in which the assessments are made, the position in the social hierarchy of the person expressing the opinion, and – not least in recent times – the age and gender of those who views they are.

I hasten to add that in these respects Confucianism seems to me rather like all other philosophical, ethical, and/or religious systems of whatever time or place. An example, drawn from personal experience with one such system, involves one of the myriad subcategories of the southern United States brand of Protestantism. Fifty years ago its construction of Christianity was a finely crafted one that had no place for Catholics, who were thought of as idolaters, or for Quakers, of whom few had ever heard. Depending on the particular church and the position of its minister on the issue, it was not always entirely clear that Methodists and Presbyterians were Christian either.

Be that as it may, did my relatives and neighbors think that they themselves led Christian lives? Of course they did, or tried to. Were it to be pointed out that someone had committed some “unchristian” act, the usual explanations were that all are conceived and born in sin, that it all happened before the miscreant had found God – or perhaps it was because Christ had found him. It is all now too far in the past for me to recall the full inventory of shifting grounds on which our neighbors and relatives took their unshakable Christian stands. Would they have agreed – and do they still – that the United States is a “Christian country”? Of course. They have never doubted it….Yet I wager that in the course of conducting interviews on the subject, you could collect scores of definitions – some of them flatly contradictory – of just what the term “a Christian country” might mean. There is bound to be some overlap, to be sure, but no consensus. Are we then to conclude that the United States is not a Christian country? I think not. But I submit that consensus on the religious and ethical dimensions of Christianity is not much more likely to be achieved than agreement as to precisely what Confucianism might be and whether the Japanese family is a Confucian institution.

It is possible, of course, that I am looking in the wrong place for an authoritative definition, and would be better advised to seek it among the philosophers, the theologians, the ethicists, or the intellectual historians. My reading of the relevant sources, however, strongly suggests that consensus at the tip is even more difficult to achieve than at the bottom. In any event, my anthropological training predisposes me to start at ground level. (pp. 155-157)

Thoughts?

Backlash: The Role of the Asian Financial Crisis in the Feminization of Korean Ideals of Male Beauty

an-jung-hwan-two-korean-male-cosmetic-advertisement-2002(Source: Unknown)

Just some quick good news that my presentation proposal “Backlash: The Role of the Asian Financial Crisis in the Feminization of Korean Ideals of Male Beauty” has been accepted for the sixth International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) conference at Chungnam National University in Daejeon in August next year. I understand if you won’t be penciling anything in your 2009 diary quite yet though, so I’ll make sure to post a reminder closer to the date—it would be nice to meet any readers while I’m there, and to receive feedback.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract, based on this (5100 word!) post from earlier in the year:

In the mid-1990s, the dominant images of men in Korean popular culture were of strong, masculine figures that protected and provided for women, mirroring the male breadwinner ethos that underlay Korea’s then prevalent salaryman system and which, by dint of being much larger and more integral to the Korean economy than the Japanese one with which it is most often associated, had a correspondingly larger hold on the Korean psyche. Despite this, in accounting for the complete switch of dominant images of men to effeminate, youthful “kkotminam” in just a few short years after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-98, what limited literature exists on evolving Korean sexuality and gender roles in the last decade seems to exhibit a curious blind spot as to possible economic and employment-related factors, instead attributing it to, variously, a rising general “pan-Asian soft masculinity”, the import of Western notions of metrosexuality, and particularly of Japanese ones of “bishōnen”.

In this paper, I begin by acknowledging the validity of these factors but argue that the dominance of Japan in East Asian cultural studies has led scholars to overemphasize the latter, in turn ascribing too much agency to Korean women in their late-teens and early-twenties that were the primary recipients of such Japanese cultural products as “yaoi” fan-fiction. This is anachronistic, as public displays and discussions of female sexuality and ideals of male beauty were in reality very much proscribed in Korea for unmarried women before the 2002 World Cup, the locus of which was primarily married women instead. Indeed, as I will next discuss, in the mid-1990s there was an sudden and intense public discourse on both generated by increasingly radical depictions of married women’s sex lives in books and films, partially reflecting the coming of the age of the first generation of Korean women to receive democratic notions of gender and family life through their schooling but then encountering the reality of Korean patriarchy in their marriages, and partially also the concomitant liberation represented by increased numbers of Korean women entering the workforce: small, but growing, and symbolically significant in that they vindicated decades of the relegation of feminist concerns to the wider aims of the democratization movement as a whole, with the understanding that they would be addressed upon its success.

It is in these contexts that the Asian Financial Crisis struck Korea, and married women in particular would be the first to be laid-off as part of restructuring efforts, with the explicit justification that they would be supported by their husbands. Rather than retaining and reaffirming breadwinner ideals of male beauty as encouraged however, in the final part of this paper I demonstrate how images of men in Korean popular culture were suddenly dominated by kkotminam and such indirect criticisms of salarymen as were permitted under prevailing public opinion. This was a natural reaction to circumstances, and I conclude that explanations for the shift that do not consequently take the role of the crisis as a catalyst into account are inadequate.

(Source: Somang)

In hindsight, my overall argument about the increasing popularity of feminine ideals of Korean male beauty—that it at least partially stemmed from a sense of backlash and anger by Korean married women at their mass lay-offs and so forth—could possibly have been made a little clearer in that last paragraph, but then I was only just shy of the 500 word limit, and I’m not sure that I could have fitted everything necessary in otherwise. But it did the job! :D

Why Korean Girls Don’t Say No: Contraception Commercials, Condom Use, and Double Standards in South Korea

(Updated, January 2014)

As the English-language media likes to point out, Korea is a “sexually conservative” country, but sometimes there’s something to the stereotype. For instance, contraceptive commercials were banned from television until as late as January 2006. What’s more, it wouldn’t be until July 2013 that condoms actually graced Korean screens. Ironic, considering exceptions had already been made for the sake of HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns that played in October 2004 (source, left: The Hankyoreh).

The delay is interesting, and deserves further investigation; possibly, some de-facto restrictions against condom commercials remained in 2006. Either way, contraceptive pill manufacturers at least soon took advantage of the lifting of the ban, starting with this commercial by Mercilon four months later, and now nobody bats an eye seeing the pill on television or at the cinema.

Originally, the first half of this post was devoted to that commercial, as public statements by the actress, 22 year-old SNU student Kim So-mi (김소미), appeared to indicate a false ignorance of the pill, as well as making sure to distance herself from the sexually-active women the commercial was aimed at. It was a bizarre instance of slut-shaming from someone in a contraceptive commercial, but it matched my own anecdotal experience that all too many Korean women feigned ignorance of contraception for the sake of their reputations, the corollary of which was not insisting on condom use and relying wholly on their male partners to “take care of things”. Admittedly unpalatable-sounding when coming from a non-Korean male (although hardly a phenomenon unique to Korea), later I confirmed them using numerous Korean sources.

korean-unmarried-couple-thinking-about-sex(Source, all screenshots: 여자도 모르는 여자이야기)

In hindsight however, I may have misinterpreted her, and as the commercial itself is unfortunately no longer available (alas, I didn’t know how to save videos in 2008) then I didn’t need to think twice about removing that commentary, and consequently the comments (sorry). But the second half of the post was my summary of this survey on “condom-related behaviors and attitudes among Korean youths”, at the time one of the most rigorous and recent available (albeit based on data collected in 2003), and as the PDF is again no longer publicly available then I’m happy to keep that summary below for the benefit of readers.

Here goes (with only a little editing of the original post):

  • 27% of men 7.8% of women had sex before the age of 18
  • “Contrary to the reported Korean situation, there are no significant gender differences in the rate of premarital sex and age at first intercourse compared to that in many other liberal, developed societies.”
  • “Compared to other [developed] societies, although there are fewer sexually experienced youths under 18 in Korea, there has nevertheless been an increase in premarital sex and a substantial lowering of the age at first sexual intercourse….the rate for females has risen more rapidly than that for males.”

For an excellent discussion of public attitudes to teenage sexuality in the 1990s that provide a backdrop to those results, I highly recommend reading this post at Gusts of Popular Feeling, and it’s clear that little has changed over a decade later. Moreover, it’s just a thought, but in the almost complete absence of any information or adults talking to them about sex (although I admit there have been some improvements since this post was first written), then I invite readers to speculate about just whom exactly might be providing young Koreans with most of their sexual role models instead:

(Source: Textcube)
  • In December 2005, there had been 3,829 cumulative reported cases of HIV/AIDS, of which males accounted for 90.7%. Of the new HIV infections among Korean women in 2004, all were attributed to heterosexual contact.

By August this year, the total had risen to 5717, with almost exactly the same proportions of men to women. The survey notes that with such relatively low numbers, if women “were able to ensure that their partners use condoms consistently and properly, [then] HIV/AIDS would be prevented effectively.” They’re not, as we shall see, but on the positive side it should be noted that the majority of Koreans no longer see HIV/AIDS as a mere foreign, gay disease that doesn’t affect them.

  • According to previous research, mostly conducted in the five years before this survey, “the percentage of consistent condom use among young people as well as in the general population was relatively lower than in other countries. It was found that only 18.6% of never married, sexually active young people aged 18-29 used condoms consistently…[and]…the reported condom use at first sexual intercourse was 18.7% for men and 13.4% for women. The reported condom use of high school students was much lower at 10%.”

Personally, I’m surprised that that last figure was even as high as 10%, given that vending machines in public toilets and from older friends would be about the only place high school students would obtain them. But of greater note already, albeit not a hugely significant statistical difference in this particular case, is the I think counter-intuitive finding (to Westerners) that more men than women reported using condoms the first time they had sex. Indeed, this disparity continued afterwards:

  • “More men (17.3%) than women (13.6%) reported having consistent condom use with a steady partner…for other partner types, consistent condom use was less reported by women than by men. For experience with condoms, more men than women reported having used condoms.”

Why? Partially it is because Korean men are much more sexually active:

  • 50.4% of the single 19-30 year-old subjects reported having had sexual intercourse, but this disguises huge differences between men and women (67.3% and 30% respectively).
  • “Men reported a higher proportion of sexual experiences with two or more multiple partners during the previous 12 months than women did (57.2% vs 41.0%).”
  • “Single men were four times more likely to be [sexually] experienced than women.”
  • “According to a recent study, the median age at first sexual intercourse for Korean men (21.0 years) was three years lower than that for Korean women, even though men marry, on average, later than women do….This difference may be interpreted as an indication that young men have sex with prostitutes or older experienced women. About 13% of young men age 20-29 reported that their sexual partners were prostitutes.”

And this in turn led to them being much more confident and knowledgeable about using them than Korean women:

korean-unmarried-couple-having-sex
  • “Men were more likely to agree somewhat or completely that condoms protected against HIV and other STDs.”
  • “Compared with women…men reported a higher level of self-efficacy in condom use when they were drunken.”

But this is of course only half the story, and somewhat of a chicken (sperm?) before the egg one at that. For if you haven’t guessed already, the survey concludes that:

…these gender differences in sexual initiation and experience can be explained by strong, gender-based, double standards and values in the traditional culture. Single women in Korea are still expected to be passive and virgins at marriage. Although Korean women’s level of education and participation in the labor force has rapidly risen (albeit the latter still at the lowest levels in the OECD – James), the imposed attitudes on their expected social roles have not dramatically changed yet. Korean society still places emphasis on women’s virginity at marriage and women are supposed to be initiated into sex by their husbands.

And thus:

Premarital sex may be a more serious concern to women because of their vulnerability….young sexually experienced females reported that they had been pressured by their boyfriends or other men to have sex as a proof of their love and been forced not to use a condom at first intercourse.

durex-condoms-er-penetrate-the-korean-marketWhich makes Durex’s depiction on the right of its…er…penetration of the Korean market in August this year (source, right: The Korea Times) not a particularly accurate reflection of current Korean sexual mores, and unfortunately the women in it are less likely to be supposed role models as chosen simply because every public event in Korea requires scantily-clad females known as “narrator models.” More seriously though, the survey clears up a great deal of almost instinctive confusion I and I think many readers would have had recently over newspaper headlines such as “Women Inactive in Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy,” and “Korean Women Say Birth Control is Men’s Responsibility“, although I must confess that I never expected to be so, well…true, especially as my female Korean friends have all stated that they have to contend with Korean men often refusing to wear condoms, which unfortunately probably says much more about my choice of Korean female friends than it does of Korean men and women as a whole.

But I’m not merely covering all my bases when I say that it’s not all doom and gloom for Korean men and (especially) women, for I have seen teenage sex education centers, for instance, pop up around Busan since I first moved here, and, just like so many other Korean issues on which Koreans only appear to be unanimous and monolithic in their opinions to non-Korean speakers, the notion that contraception is solely a man’s responsibility is hardly a universally accepted and uncontested notion amongst young Koreans especially, as this blog post (for one) demonstrates (again, let me know if you’d like a translation). Moreover, and to put this post and myself to bed, while I may occasionally sound like a broken record when I point out this next (but someone has to), I think I’ve more than adequately demonstrated that increasingly sexual images of women in commercials  and advertisements in recent years can and are having an effect on these double-standards also. Combined with knowledge that the English-language media and books on Korea especially tend to have a considerable lag behind trends in Korea then, it’s going to be very interesting to see the results of any similar survey in the future. Watch this space.

korean-unmarried-couple-having-sexor-not(Korean women taking responsibility for contraception…only in the movies?)

Back to 2014 now, if you’re after more recent surveys, there are many more translated and discussed in the “contraception“, “sexual relationships“, and “teenage sexuality” categories here (all of which come under the voluminous “Korean sexuality” one), but probably the most recent is this one conducted in 2012. Unfortunately though, no mention is made of its methodology, so the results must be taken with a grain of salt. But if any readers would like to help me rectify that by going through the original 260- page Korean report with me, I’d be very grateful!

This wedding dress was cut for style…

(Source, all images: conan)

When I first saw this SKY (스카이) phone advertisement four years ago, naturally I noticed the extremely short wedding dress first, and wondered what on Earth the supposed connection to the phone was. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to find out by getting (very) close to a poster in a phone store window and appearing — to all intents and purposes — to be minutely examining the model’s thighs, which is what reading the very small Korean text would have required of me. But soon, the poster was replaced with others, leaving me wondering ever since.

But now that I’ve just stumbled across it, I confess to being a little disappointed: the text next to the woman merely reads “스타일을 위해 잘랐다”, or “It was cut for the sake of style”, and then next to the phone “안테나를 잘랐다”, or “The antenna was cut”. Not exactly as creative, or indeed, “different” as I’d imagined.

Still, apologies if this next point is too prosaic, too crass, and/or even too much information on my part, but I think that there’s something to be said for more (clearly) physically fit Korean women in Korean advertising and real life. That aside, I enjoy the series as a whole too (all from this source), so let me finish this post by passing on more examples, for the sake of any readers who may also enjoy them:

Update: See here and here for some higher-definition versions of the final advertisement.