Why are Korean and Japanese Families so Similar? Part 2: Couples Living With Their Parents After Marriage

Korean Wedding Party(Source: myllissa; CC BY-SA 2.0)

To refresh your memories, last month I came across this study that showed that Japanese women living with their husbands and parents-in-law were more than three times more likely than their husbands to have a heart attack: interesting in its own right, it led me to wonder how likely a similar study of Korean women would have been to have come up with a similar result, and why I so readily assumed that it probably would. This brief series is the result, a personal combination of learning new things, a healthy airing of some of my intellectual baggage, and, finally, some much-needed hard statistics about Korean families with which to analyze them from now on; without them, then I’ve been as guilty of relying on gut-feelings and generalizing about Korea just as much as the next expat.

As I discussed in Part One, most of those gut feelings about Korean women being under similar stresses were because I knew of the practice of eldest sons living with their parents after marriage and the great potential for the subordination and/or exploitation of the new daughter-in-law within, ethically and legally buttressed by Neo-Confucianism in much the same way that Christianity also heavily informs Western, historically unequal notions of marriage and family life. But are the same living arrangements also common in Japan? And if so, what role does Neo-Confucianism play in their numbers, and in the ways they internally operated so to speak?

Possibly I got the order in which I should have looked at those various questions mixed up, but I confess that prior to writing that post I knew very little about Japanese religion, and given Japan society’s relative progressiveness, and some important, decidedly non-Confucian features of it (most notably sexuality), would previously have assumed the virtual irrelevance of Neo-Confucianism in Japanese society today. Part One was about me investigating that, and I was surprised to learn that Neo-Confucianism permeates daily life in Japan just as much as it does here. Having done that, then this post is (mostly) about the actual numbers of couples and parents living together in Korea and Japan, and given how much I conflate doing so with Neo-Confucianism – or at least, permanently and willingly doing so – then probably I shouldn’t have been surprised at the high rates of that living arrangement I found in Japan also. Ergo, there are many daughters-in-law living with their husbands’ families in both countries, and they are likely to face very similar, stressful social expectations of filial duty and subservience in both countries. But much higher rates in Japan?Why?

Well, before getting to the “why stage” though, you’d be surprised at how difficult it was to find even the most basic of demographic data on Korea in particular, even with the plethora of sources that a Korea Studies geek like myself has. And the only(!) book I have which does provide some of the answers: Marriage, Work and Family Life in Comparative Perspective: Japan, South Korea and the US (click on the image for a link to Amazon), I was originally very disappointed with when I first bought it over a year ago, for while it was published in 2004 most of its data actually comes from 1994 or even earlier, a flaw not exactly highlighted by the accompanying notes at online bookstores either. But forced out of desperation to reread it, I realized that I’d dismissed it too quickly: like a visiting UN demographer who lectured at my university once pointed out to me, demographics is all about waves, and as I’ll explain, 15 years later Korea is definitely still feeling the effects of the processes highlighted in this actually rather good book.

And, once I realized that, then I confess that I got a bit lost in it at that point, for the similarities and differences between the three countries are simply fascinating, and go well beyond mere numbers of extended families. In particular, after hearing it first on some old Korea Society podcast, I’ve often said that one’s generation in Korea is as important a marker of identity as, say, race is in the US, but I doubt that whoever I heard that phrase from meant it as anything more than an allusion to Korea’s extremely rapid rate of development (I know that I certainly haven’t!). But then I read this on page 61:

Korea tends to differ from the other two countries on a number of structural characteristics that are likely to [strongly] affect intergenerational relations.

But first, the basics. Seeing as they take up an entire chapter, then I won’t get into all the technical details and potential flaws of the methodologies of the surveys in the three countries sorry: suffice to say that, unless stated otherwise, all the statistics in the remainder of the post refer to married couples at the time of questioning, with both spouses between 30 and 59, and almost all for Korea, Japan and the US are from 1994, 1994, and 1988 respectively. Starting off then, the number of couples that were:

  • Living with the wife’s parents: Korea 4%, Japan 9%, and the US less than 1%
  • Living with the husband’s parents: Korea 24%, Japan 37%, and the US less than 1%

Yoshi Sugimoto, in his excellent book An Introduction to Japanese Society (2003), also notes that in 2000 “about a half of persons at or above the age of sixty-five live with their relatives, mainly with the family of one of their children” and that “this pattern is inconsistent with the prediction of modernization theory, that industrialization entails the overwhelming dominance of the nuclear family system” (p. 175). Far from being because immutable and deeply-held Neo-Confucian beliefs however, in reality:

…most two-generation families make [the] arrangement for pragmatic rather than altruistic reasons. Given the high cost of purchasing housing properties, young people are prepared to live with or close to their parents and provide them with home-based nursing care, in the expectation of acquiring their house after their death in exchange. Even if the two generations do not live together or close, aged parents often expect to receive living allowances from their children, with the tacit understanding that they will repay the “debt” by allowing the contributing children to inherit their property after death. This is why aged parents without inheritable assets find it more difficult  to live with their children or receive an allowance from them. (p. 176)

But why do more Japanese parents and married children live together than Korean ones? Rather than giving you the answer straight up, let me highlight the other differences, so that hopefully you might be able to work them out for yourself:

  • Korean parents are the least likely to be alive.
  • One half of Korean married couples surveyed grew up in rural areas and now live in urban areas, against a third for Japan and a figure “somewhat lower” in the US.
  • Naturally more US parents live further away from their children in either Japan or Korea (50% of both the wife’s and husband’s parents live more than 25 miles/40 km away), but there’s still a big difference between Japan and Korea: 28% of the wife’s parents and 24% of the husband’s parents live in a different district or municipality, against 45% and 38% respectively for Korea.
  • Only 46% of Korean husbands were eldest sons, against 56% in Japan.

And finally here are some more interesting facts, albeit more indicative and/or the cause of Korean women’s extremely low economic and political empowerment (possibly – make of them what you will) rather than why Japan has more extended families than Korean does:

  • Korea has the lowest number of couples in which both spouses are working: 22% against 57% in Japan, and 66% in the US. Undoubtedly these figures will have changed in the 15 years since then, but Korea is still exceptional in this regard, with the lowest number of working women in the OECD.
  • Korea has the lowest number of couples where the wife is older than the husband (4%), and the most where the husband is substantially older. In contrast, the figures for Japan and the US are 10% and 18% respectively.
  • Korean women don’t change their names when they get married, Japanese women do. The maintenance of “bloodlines” via male descendants continuing the family register known as hojuje (호주제) being more important in Korea then (at least until it was abolished last year),  until roughly a decade ago Korea had one of the most skewed sex-ratios in the world, and Koreans were notorious for refusing to adopt unwanted children, generally sending them overseas instead. The similar koseki (戸籍法) system in Japan does still continue, but there continuing the family name is important, leading families without a son to often adopt one for instance.

I confess, there appeared to be rather more noteworthy statistical differences and interesting tidbits when I began writing this post: I expected to have much more to say, and yet I find I’ve gotten through those in *cough* only 1470 words as I type this, half of which was an introduction/recap, albeit probably necessary. On the plus side though, I do see much of my role as a blogger as being to do condense (very) much larger pieces of work into their key points, thereby making them much more accessible to a wider audience, and so even if you can’t see the reasons for the differences in the numbers of extended families between Japan and Korea yet, if you just read the part of the authors’ summary below, then go back and look at the four points above the last (rather stylish) photo above, and then finally say something like “Ahh! Of course!” once you do…then I’ll know I’ve been doing the right thing!

…from a number of socioeconomic and demographic perspectives, Japan and the US are more like one another, and Korea is more distinctive. Korea’s mortality and fertility declines are more recent than either Japan’s or those the US. In Korea, the generation of middle-aged adults examined here has experienced all the dislocations and opportunities that go with a recent and rapid shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing and service economy, from a rural to an urban settlement pattern, and from a low level to a higher level of educational attainment. In the US and Japan, these transitions occurred somewhat earlier, and it is expected that the timing and nature of these transitions would affect patterns of intergenerational relations. (p.74, my emphases)

If you’re also interested in why so many unmarried Korean and Japanese children live with their parents, see here and here.

3 thoughts on “Why are Korean and Japanese Families so Similar? Part 2: Couples Living With Their Parents After Marriage

  1. Besides early industrialiization, the US is also distinguished from Korea and Japan by its tradition of expecting a daughter, rather than a son, to care for her parents in their old age as reflected in the adage A son’s a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all of her life and still seen in gender-skewed statistics on elderly caregivers. My grandfather’s eldest sister remained unmarried, working as a school teacher for forty years before retiring and moving in with her ailing mother. I believe this arrangement was not uncommon in city-dwelling families. I don’t think my great aunt was asked to forgo marriage. It’s that a single daughter is a preferred caretaker to a daughter-in-law tending to her own children. When I shared this custom with some Korean women, one remarked, “Of course I’d rather care for my own parents and have my own daughter care for me, but this is our culture.”

    When Koreans would brag to me about Korean family values and multi-generation households, I would inform them that when ethnic Koreans move to the US, elderly parents are less likely to live with their children and take advantage of government-subsidized housing. Especially considering the high poverty rates of the elderly in Korea, living separately from one’s children just isn’t an option for many in Korea.

    • Sorry I overlooked this amongst all the other comments yesterday, and thanks for passing on the extra information. In hindsight, I shouldn’t really have discussed extended families at all without also mentioning the famial-based model of social welfare here, but I confess that I really wanted to get it finished (it’s 3 weeks late!), and the otherwise good book on Korean social welfare – the name of which escapes at the moment (I’m at work) – didn’t have a nice, convenient section on extended families, so I flagged it. But one thing I didn’t mention in the post but which was discussed by both sources I used is how the burden of practical care for aged Japanese and Korean parents overwhelmingly falls on a daughter-in-law and/or daughter, so it’s kind of ironic that that duty is viewed as a son’s responsibility when in practice son’s do very little of it. Maybe even less than American sons too: I’ll try to find the stats on each country’s divisions of labor when I get home.

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