The Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies 
Main Page Publications Download 
    The Life Instability of Intermarried Japanese Women in Korea  
    Eung-Ryul Kim (Korea University and University of Southern California, The Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies)


    In a society that employs a strong sense of ethnic and cultural unity, ethnic prejudice and discrimination typically prevent minority members from participating in main stream society. Both Japan and Korea are good examples of such a rigid society. Traditionally, the Korean government has been imposing various legal measures to prevent foreigners immigrating into Korea. However, Japanese minorities have been living in Korea, though small in number, for almost half a century. Most Japanese living in Korea today are elderly women with their Korean husbands, many of them now widowed. 

    During the colonial period (1910-1945), Japanese government encouraged intermarriage between Koreans and Japanese, as an attempt to implement its integration policy. Many Japanese women who married Koreans during that period moved to Korea followed by their Korean husbands after World War II. Some of them who were already living in Korea during Japanese occupation continued to live in Korea up until now. Ever since they came to the area with their Korean husbands, they have informally formed a Japanese minority group in Korea. . 

    The problems Japanese women in Korea face today include poverty, ill-health, social isolation from relatives and friends, family dissolution, discrimination and their unstable legal status. They are usually located in near bottom of socioeconomic ladder, experience poverty, and face institutional barriers that prevent them from achieving upward mobility. More than 60 percent of them live in poverty. A survey revealed that those Japanese women take the low socioeconomic position in Korea for granted. They think discrimination against the Japanese in Korea is inevitable because of Koreans' negative feeling against Japan and its 36 years of colonial rule. . 

    Many of them suffered from unstable marriage. Some of their marriages were forced into divorce because of harsh negative sanctions from relatives of their Korean husbands. Some of them were actually kicked out from their houses. Many divorcees and widows married again for survival in traditionally patriarchal Korean society but few of them were found to live stable life or maintain stable marriage. 

    Most common characteristics found among Japanese women in Korea are as follows: 

    1. Japanese one, some for dual nationality, and some have no at all.
    2. Sixty-seven percent of them experience poverty and cannot live aids from outside the family.
    3. They frequently move horizontally across jobs but hardly upward mobility.
    4. They experience high rates of divorce and remarriage. 
    5. Most women have lower education compared to their husbands.
    6. They already moved out from their hometown and lived as working women when they got married.
    7. Compared to their contemporaries, Japanese women showed more open-minded and non-traditional attitudes.


    Since the introduction of modern education, most school textbooks in Korea have proudly emphasized Korea's ethnic unity and its unique homogeneous culture. Although some historians questioned the uniqueness of Korean culture, especially in terms of its Chinese influence, most Koreans firmly believe that Korea consists of a single race and culture. They are very reluctant to accept inter-cultural marriages or emigration of foreigners to Korea in order to maintain a cultural homogeneity of their society. While Koreans show no apparent disapproval or hatred to foreigners in general, they have negative attitudes toward Japanese. Because of harsh memories of Japanese occupation period, a strong anti-Japanese sentiment has been prevailing throughout Korean society, especially stronger in the post-World War II era. Japanese women who were married to Korean men during the colonial period (hereafter described as 'Japanese women') moved to, or remained in Korea immediately after the war. 

    This study examines the life experiences of those small number of Japanese minority women in Korea based on the survey data gathered in 1983 and 1993. Recent History of Japanese Emigration to Korea 

    Currently, the estimated number of Japanese emigrants in Korea since 1945 is not available. By the end of the colonial period  (1945), more than 850,000 Japanese were living in Korea. Most of them returned to Japan along with the colonial government after World War II, but an estimated 30,000 of them remained in Korea. Unfortunately, no official statistics are available about the Japanese population that remained in Korea after 1945. 

    Three patterns of Japanese emigration to Korea could be described as follows: 

    1. Japanese women who married to Koreans in Japan during the colonial period, and moved to Korea with their husbands after World War II.
    2. Japanese women who were already living in Korea before 1945 with their Korean husbands, and remained in Korea after the War.
    3. Japanese who were living in China and Russia before 1945 but failed to return to Japan after the War. On their route to returning home, some of them remained in Korea.
    Of those three groups of Japanese emigrants, the first group forms most of the current Japanese population in Korea. 

    Socioeconomic characteristics of Japanese women in Korea

    Since no official statistics on Japanese women in Korea were available, I utilized the membership list of 'BUYOUNG HOE', a Japanese woman's association in Korea, as to depict my study sample. The association includes 771 members in 1983, and 451 in 1993. Their legal status in Korea could be classified into four types, as shown in Table 1. 

    Table 1 shows that more than half of the Japanese women still do not have Korean citizenship. The process how these Japanese women get various legal statuses is somewhat complicated. During the colonial period marriage between a Japanese and Korean was not regarded as inter-national marriage. Inter-married Japanese women during that period did not have to give up their Japanese citizenship. After the San Francisco Peace Treaty between the United States and Japan went into effect in 1952, however, the government of Japan confiscated Japanese citizenship from Japanese women who were married to Koreans and registered their marriages before 1945. Those women who wanted to keep their Japanese citizenship did not have any choice. Those who could maintain Japanese citizenship status or dual citizenship status include women who could not legally register their marriages for various reasons. For example, Japanese women who could not get approval of their marriages from family members are still cohabiting without legal registration. They could get Korean citizenship without giving up Japanese nationality shortly after the Korean War when the Korean government gave citizenship to the refugees from North Korea. Japanese women who have no citizenship in Table 1 are women whose relatives in Japan reported them as missing. After the turmoil of the Korean War (1950-53), subsequent anti-Japan policies were all responsible for the unstable legal status of Japanese women. 

    Socioeconomic Status

    Residential distribution of Japanese women in Korea is scattered through all regions of Korea, but generally centered around big cities. They typically avoid homogeneous rural communities, and move to big cities where they enjoy anonymous city environment and an open labor market. Table 2 shows the socioeconomic status of households with Japanese women married to Koreans. The classification is based on interviews asking about 'whether they own house or not', 'their occupations', 'household income', and 'necessity to get outside financial help'. 

    Table 2 shows that, in 1983, 57.9 percent of urban households and 82.4 percent of rural households, respectively, were located in the lower section of socioeconomic ladder of Korean society. Though Table 2 shows some gap between urban and rural households in terms of their socioeconomic level, both regions show high concentration of this population relegated to low and poverty level status. Most rural households with Japanese women do not possess their own land. They work as unskilled agricultural laborers. Because of the exclusive nature of rural community life, it is hard for minorities (and their family members) to get decent jobs and, consequently, they face fewer opportunities to improve their living standards. In urban areas, most lower class Japanese women were engaged in low-level jobs like peddlers or house maids. In both areas, poor Japanese women were mostly widows or divorcees, or those who could not work because of their ill health. 

    Life course of Japanese women in Korea

    I conducted two face-to-face interview surveys of Japanese women in both 1983 and 1993, and explored several characteristics of life experiences of these women. The sample includes 101 women in 1983, and 43 women in 1993, which were drawn from the 'BUYO NG HOE' membership list. The average age of respondents was 63.0 in 1983, and 70.2 in 1993 survey. In 1983, 40.6 percent of respondents were living with their spouses, 58.4 percent were without spouse. Of those married women, over three quarters of them were remarried. In terms of educational background, 54.5 percent of Japanese women were elementary school graduates, 30.7 percent of them had junior high school degree, 8.9 per cent had high school degree, and 5.9 percent of them got no education at a ll. These figures show a little higher educational achievement of Japanese women in Korea compared to their counterparts in Japan. 

    Difficulties in life that Japanese women suffered from were many. When respondents were allowed to choose between multiple items, the following was reported as major problems: language problem (93.1 %), financial hardship (85.1 %), racial prejudice and discrimination (45.5 %), husband's infidelity (25.7 %), unemployment of their husbands (17.8 %), Korean War (16.8 %), and cultural difference (14.9 %). 

    During their early years of emigration, their utmost concern was to improve their poor financial situation, living environment, and their very unstable status. Without proper language skills to achieve these goals, however, their situation deteriorated as they were left behind the expanding opportunities of Korea's rapid economic development. 

    The majority of their Korean husbands originated from rural areas and, thus, most of the Japanese women began their emigration life in rural areas with their spouses' extended family members. Together with their language problems, negative sanctions on intermarriage from family members led many of their marriages to dissolve. Japanese women could not rely on kinship support after the family breakdown as the ordinary Korean women could do. Therefore, the best way they perceived to survive was to remarry. However, still surrounded by a discriminating social environment, these remarriages often led to more disasters. 

    Before 1965, their job opportunities were limited to either domestic servants or street vendors due to the discrimination against the Japanese. After the Korean-Japanese normalization treaty in 1965, however, their legal and economic status has been imp roved somewhat. In fact, the year 1965 was the turning point for the life of Japanese women in Korea. With the reopening of diplomatic relationship between the two countries, Japanese women who still kept Japanese citizenship could travel or return to Japan. Those who lost their Japanese citizenship regardless of their intentions were denied return to Japan by the Japanese government. With the increase in Japanese investment in Korea which began in 1965, their job opportunities expanded to some degree. As the demand for learning Japanese language increased among Koreans, some Japanese women could find tutoring jobs. Or, some could even find teaching positions in the university setting. However, these opportunities were restricted to quite a few proportion of Japanese women. The majority of them did not benefit from this opening opportunity structure. After 50 years of residence in Korea, some elderly Japanese women maintained a stability in life because of the safety net they could assemble. Many others, however, suffer from poverty and poor health. Due to the inter-generational transfer of poverty which is more prevalent among households with Japanese wives, these elderly women cannot expect to receive economic support from their children. In the absence of social security programs for old age, such family circumstances make these women much more vulnerable. 

    Financial Insecurity

    One of the most serious problems that Japanese women experienced is the issue of poverty. About two-fifth of our sample responded that their marriages broke up relatively soon (average about four to five years) after they moved to Korea. Over two-third s of these women said that they fell under the poverty level because of their family breakdown. Only 8.2 percent of our sample experienced upward mobility after the family breakdown. About four-fifth of those women who experienced marital dissolution worked out of economic necessity, receiving no economic assistance either from their spouses or spouses' relatives. 

    Japanese women were concentrated in the unstable low wage market. Occupational distribution of the Japanese women looks like what follows: 22.8 percent worked in agriculture or as agricultural labor, 35.6 percent in domestic services, 7.0 percent in semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, 21.8 percent in sales and retail trade, 2.0 percent in clerical, 5.9 percent in home-based subcontracting labor. Their occupational status after the marriage was lower than they had maintained before the marriage. The factors that affected this downward mobility include language barriers and negative image toward Japanese among Koreans. The jobs that Japanese women have held are characterized as temporary, unstable and low paid. Thus, their earnings did not increase with the years of work experience. About 55.2 percent of those who changed jobs held extremely unstable jobs, and about 34 percent of them experienced downward mobility and fell into poverty. 

    Poor health conditions are another serious problem among the elderly Japanese women. Fifty-six percent of our sample are ill or disabled. Many of those who are sick have to work sporadically because of economic necessity. Their health conditions are worse than their Korean counterparts, because they lack family support that most Korean women get, to a certain degree, during their old age. 


    In sum, Japanese women's social and economic disadvantages are determined by a) marital breakdown, b) unstable jobs, c) poor health conditions d) isolation from social and kinship network, and e) neglect from both governments. Currently, social programs that offer income security for older age are minimally provided in Korea. Therefore, many Koreans rely on their own savings or on their children for their old ages. Unlike Korean elderly women, Japanese women in Korea had fewer chances to accumulate their assets, nor they can rely on their offspring’s because their children are also poor. 

    Prevailing prejudice and discriminations against the Japanese in Korean society set barriers to economic success of these women and their offspring’s. This prejudice and discrimination is largely originated from Koreans' resentment at the Japanese colonial rule. For any reason, these women had to bear, throughout their lives, the consequences of Japan's integration policy implemented during the colonial period.