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)


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!


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)


17 thoughts on “Why are Korean and Japanese Families so Similar? Part 1: Neo-Confucianism

  1. James, July 2015: In case of any confusion, please note that this post has been edited considerably since these comments were written. But the gist remains the same!

    When one considers the metaphysical presuppositions Neo-Confucianism makes about humans, the afterlife, and nature, it’s clear it is a religion as much as any western one.

  2. “”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 . . .””

    My first thought reading this quote was how analogous the situation is to the status of Christianity in (certain parts of) the US. I’m assuming liberal/progressives (particularly those with athesitic/agnostic leanings) would also spontaneously answer no if asked whether they think themselves Christian. But “the moral and ethical substratum” of social progress (I’m thinking of MLK’s sermon and it’s relevance to the recent election) is Christian thought.

    I’m not sure if this analogy is helpful (a wider issue?) or just a can of worms. But I should probably add I’m not proselytizing — I’m just looking for comparable situation where (grand) narratives are so deeply (ingrained?)(erased?)(substratum-ated-ified?) , the average person is unaware of them.

  3. And I’m not trying to bring up the Neo-Confucian vs 1950’s Christian American woman thing either.

    I guess what I’m getting at is, well, will you extrapolate more substratum in (the eagerly anticipated) parts 2 and 3?

    • Just a quick note to say thanks for the comments, but also that because of a crazy 12 hour shift at work tomorrow, I not only have to go to bed now (earliest in many many years) but won’t have access to the internet until late tomorrow night sorry. But Topher, Robert Smith actually does also mention analogies to Christianity and the US and so in his chapter, and so as soon as I have the time to do so I’ll make sure to pass on some juicy quotes and summarize what he says for you.

      Edit 1, 12:12am Wednesday 30th: Sorry, but better make that tomorrow. I have a good excuse though!

      Edit 2, 4:24pm Wednesday: And now I have food poisoning! Seriously! I’m off work, which would normally be great, but as soon as I so much as sit rather than lie on the sofa I’m apt to throw up again. Hell of a way for me to greet the New Year…

  4. dude, you have a great blog

    but your sentences are WAY too long and nearly all of them can easily be rewritten to be more pleasant on the eyes

    i come across the same problem when reading Metropolitician

    is it a sociology thing?

  5. James-
    Just wanted to point out that Tu Wei-ming is- how should I put this nicely?- viewed as something of an orientalist hack these days by many (if not most) anthropologists of East Asia, as well as others such as historians and critical theorists. Just sayin’…It’s awfully hard to find much about “the Asian family” that isn’t rather essentialist, but I’d recommend works by Cho (Han) Hae-joang for the Korean case (in English or Korean). Maybe you’ve read some things by her already…

  6. I have a lot to say, but I am also sick, and disinclined to put forth the effort to write an adequately academic response. But, as a former East Asian Studies major, I will say that I appreciate this post.

    Also, that top photo is adorable as hell.

  7. I have generally said that Korea seems more confucian than other east Asian countries, and so I am curious where you have seen it cited as the “most confucian”. I tend to agree, and I’d love some support when I give that opinion.

    • Sorry I’m taking so long to make a decent stab at comments, but I’m still quite sick, only eating solid food again this afternoon after 36 hours on Powerade, so I’m liable to need a rest after every 5 mins or so! This will have to be quick then, because I don’t feel like coming back to it repeatedly before passing out for the rest of the evening!

      Topher and (sort of) Baltimoron, I hope the addition to the end of the post I’ve made answers some of the issues you’ve raised. And thanks to Roger Wellor also for the note of support, although it probably is fair to say that I could have tried a little harder with the editing in this particular post. On the other hand alienman, it does kind-of go with the territory, newspaper and magazine articles being necessarily much easier and quicker to read, but usually missing out a great deal of information in the process.

      Bonnie, for now a simple thanks for passing that on, and to you and Drifitingfocus I’ll have to reserve a decent answer for when I’m fully better sorry.

  8. To follow up: the specific critique I am thinking of is in the book “Japan in the World,” edited by Harry Harootunian and Masao Miyoshi.

    • Driftingfocus, when I first read your comment my immediate thought was that once I was back on my feet then I’d head straight to my bookshelves and find some quotes from you to that effect, and now that I am I still can and am happy to do so if you like, but then almost all of them say it really. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s true of course, the phrase “More Confucian than China” having a nice ring to it that very general guides like the Lonely Planet or even Michael Breen’s The Koreans would readily use without examining it very critically, but it’s echoed in academic books too. But like I said, I can give you names, titles and even page numbers if you like, but personally I’d find it more useful to find out why this was the case. The Korea chapters in Tu Wei-Ming’s book would probably be a good place to start, but unfortunately my copy is in my desk drawer at work, where I photocopy chapters as I use them so I can highlight them and stick post-its all over them (terribly old-fashioned, I know). I’ll make sure to look at those on Monday though.

      Bonnie, thanks for the heads-up about Tu Wei-Ming, and while I think the rather general points Robert Smith makes in his chapter in it are probably still quite valid, they by no means constitute the last word on the extent to which Japanese families could be considered Confucianism. Should I decide to continue to look at Japanese families – and expanding the coverage of this blog to as a minimum Japan and Taiwan also is definitely something I frequently think about – then I’d definitely consider that book you mention.

      I had indeed heard of Cho (Han) Hae-joang, albeit only for her chapter in Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class, and Consumption in the Republic of Korea ed. by Laural Kendall (2002) but which I’ve still already mentioned on my blog here and will give quite a bit more than a passing mention in my thesis. Unfortunately, a quick search for her on the web reveals that she hasn’t really published anything in English since 2000 or so, and in fact she actually says at the end of that chapter that writing in English was immensely difficult for her and so that would be the last thing she did in that language! Sigh.

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  11. I’d like to pitch in about the fact that Korean & Japanese immigrants in the U.S. vastly diverge from each other. Korean adults– who also tend to be super conservative Christians– are still extremely traditional (i.e. still highly against co-habitation even after a couple gets engaged; an adult daughter (24+ years old) is not allowed to stay over at her boyfriend’s house, etc.), whereas Japanese adults are much more westernized and progressive (i.e. commenting on an adult children’s lifestyle is out of line). Religion seems to have a role in this disparity since more Korean immigrants are Christians and the adult generation strictly abides by the biblical teachings as well as the tradition.

    Furthermore, Korean immigrants also have high expectations that a daughter-in-law or a son-in-law should help out their in-laws to the extent their own children would; however, Japanese immigrants do not have that kind of notion and rarely have their married children’s spouses involved.

    • Thanks for your comment. It’s good to know that these old posts are still read sometimes, and I completely agree with your points.

      That said, thinking about them made me realize that this nearly 7 year-old post of mine was terribly written(!), my arguments incoherent at best. Frankly, I’ve spent the last 2 hours rewriting it, reducing it from 3000 to 2400 words in the process, and it looks like I’ll have to do the same for Part 2 as well.


      But seriously, that’s often the case with such a long-lived blog, and I’m editing or deleting old posts all the time, so it’s no big deal. Still, another thanks for indirectly drawing attention to this one! :D

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