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The ‘strangest others’ at home?

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Migrant wives, dressed in the apparel of their native countries, after graduating from a Korean-language course. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

The most significant change in inter-Asian migration in recent years has been the shift from male-centred production migration to reproductive migration. Of all migrants in Asia, women represented 42 per cent in 2015. Reproductive migration is voluntary migration to form partnerships, help raise children, or work as nurses or domestic carers.


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The number of female reproductive migrants in Asia has increased dramatically. This has resulted in the ‘feminisation’ of migration.

Reproductive and caregiving labour has increasingly become a marketable commodity with concrete value in the global market. This is not only due to the widening economic gap within Asia, which has activated intra-Asian migration parallel to that from Asia to the West. East Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, and Taiwan, have successfully sustained economic development, improving well-being through activities including childbearing, childrearing, labour and welfare. However, the recent crisis of social reproduction experienced in these countries has played a significant role in the change.

These nation–states have been facing a demographic crisis of considerable proportion since the 1980s, due to low fertility rates, a rapidly ageing population and a decline in able-bodied workers. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have each sought to tackle these demographic problems through interventions in marriage and family structures that aim to secure a stable population and build the workforce. Women who enter these countries as marriage migrants are accepted as potential citizens in an effort to restore a balanced ratio in the marriage market, especially for lower-class local men. These women legitimise their claim to citizenship on the basis of their reproductive role as bearers of children.

It has become increasingly difficult for women in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to stay at home and perform the traditional household duties of wife and mother within the family. More women have joined the labour force and the size of the ageing population has increased, so many men and married women seek substitutes to perform these duties. These nations have thus turned the rising need for care work into a profitable market niche. Migrant women from less developed Asian countries are recruited to provide reproductive labour. This includes migrant domestic workers and marriage migrants.

Women currently form the majority of foreign residents of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, representing 53 per cent, 55 per cent, and 72 per cent of the foreign resident population, respectively. Social reproduction, which in the past had been largely conducted by the family and the state, is now becoming de-regionalised through inter-Asian gendered migration.

This was mainly due to the significant increase in the tuition fees with the marketisation of education and the lack of welfare benefits to support care for children and the elderly population. These have brought substantial financial burdens on families, and hence have thwarted the expectations for a better quality of life through having a family. People are increasingly likely to postpone marriage and have fewer children.

But these so-called ‘intimate mobilities’ into the domestic sphere do not necessarily enhance affective connections of Asian people in terms of cultural contact. Women migrants in these countries, who have come to occupy the most intimate spaces and perform the most intimate functions, are often regarded as the ‘strangest others’ due to their embodied ethnicities and class status.

The presence of foreign wives, domestic workers and nannies, especially those from Southeast Asia, has often sparked anxiety among the public in the host countries. Northeast Asian societies have traditionally regarded the reproductive sphere of family and marriage as being at the core of their national culture and ethnic identity, but this private domain now faces critical challenges from the growing dependence on foreign women. Chief among these challenges is the question of how to preserve a homogenous ethnic society in the face of the increasingly hybrid culture that has emerged with the reliance on reproductive migration.

Ethnocentric responses to female migration are common in these countries. The discourse on women migrants is strongly racist. It is often based on the idea that foreign women are inferior and their mere presence diminishes the quality of the host society and its people. Policy has emphasised their biological otherness, and their maternity rights are often denied. In Japan, for example, a child born out of wedlock to a foreign woman is given citizenship rights only when a Japanese biological father proclaims his fatherhood of the baby before it is born (that is, when it is still a foetus).

The South Korean government designates families formed out of international marriages as ‘multicultural families’. The government has implemented a strongly assimilationist model through a variety of programs designed to quickly ‘Koreanise’ ethnically different marriage migrants. In Taiwan, anxiety over migrant women and their children has given rise to a racialised discourse that conveys a eugenic attitude of ethnic inferiority. The Singaporean government deports women migrants working as domestic helpers or nannies who become pregnant or give birth while they are in the country.

On the other hand, there have been some positive efforts to accommodate multiculturalism. Since the 1990s, the concept of multiculturalism has been introduced in these countries as a new way to manage the ‘differences’ that exist between the mainstream majority, ethnic minorities and migrants. ‘Multicultural coexistence’ in Japanese society, ‘multicultural society’ in South Korea and ‘multiculturalism’ in Taiwan have been adopted in social discourse to promote coexistence of locals and foreigners.

Although there is increased acceptance of multicultural realities and lifestyles, the shift from a mono-ethnic ideology to a multicultural society has triggered a rise in jingoistic rhetoric and anti-foreigner sentiment. The discourse of aversion and suspicion around foreign migrants on the internet and social media are ample evidence that deep-seated views of what it is to be Japanese, Korean or Taiwanese have yet to substantively change.

Despite controversies over the term ‘multiculturalism’, new social accommodations have yet to reduce inequalities in power among diverse groups, especially ‘women migrants at home’. The problems of equality, gender rights and citizenship are not fully addressed in the age of high female migration in East Asia.

Hyun Mee Kim is Professor at the Department of Cultural Anthropology, Yonsei University, South Korea.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Gender and sexuality’.

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