Looking for Love in Other Countries

Officially there is no such thing as a “bride price” in the societies of East Asia. But demographic, economic and educational forces are combining to increase cross-border trade in brides. Furthermore there are links between the bride “markets” in the region, according to Soohyung Lee in a paper for the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI). It also appears very likely that demand for foreign brides will continue to increase while the supply – as least from within east Asia – will likely fall, forcing east Asians either to look to the darker-skinned ladies from southeast Asia or even south Asia to meet their needs.

In Korea itself foreign brides accounted for 8 percent of all marriages in 2007 compared with fewer than 1 percent prior to 1994 while for Japan the percentage has risen from 2 percent to 5 percent over a roughly similar period. In Taiwan the number is 22 percent and Hong Kong 39 percent (mostly from mainland China) and Singapore up to 40 percent -- though the latter number partly reflects the very large foreign resident population in the city state.

In none of these cases does choice of a foreign bride, usually arranged through an agent, reflect a significant actual shortage of local women. The main reason is the reluctance of educated local women to marry and endure second class status in the household when they enjoy almost equal status at work and elsewhere. At the same time many men seem to prefer uneducated brides who they expect to be more subservient and happy just to look after the home. Lee argues that it is necessary to run social campaigns to make marriage seem more attractive to educated women by changing traditional gender roles in the home and to make the tax system less of a burden for two income households.

South Korean men may in future find a new supply of brides from the North. But unless they do they look likely to find foreign brides harder to find at a time when the local gender imbalance has also increased. The main source for all five bride importers is China It accounts for 50 percent of Korean imports, 65 percent of Taiwan, 40 percent of Japan. But China suffers from a large and fast-rising bride shortage and is already importing (and, some allege, kidnapping) women from Vietnam. As incomes in China are set to rise much faster than those in developed East Asia, Koreans in particular – given their language and cultural differences – may find brides harder to find in China, at least against competition from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore as well as the newly prosperous in China itself. Relative incomes are a determining factor everywhere but ethnicity is also a factor, which explain why almost 20 percent of Japan’s bride imports are from Korea, mostly for Japan-born Koreans.

The second major source of supply for both Korea and Taiwan is Vietnam, supplying between 20 percent and 30 percent of their imports. Given its lower level of development Vietnam will probably continue to be an important source but competition from China itself is likely to grow rapidly. Vietnam also shows how interconnected these markets are. It used to account for 40 percent of Taiwan’s imports but fell sharply following changes in Taiwan’s regulations to require Chinese-language competence. The marriage market’s brokers responded by increasing Korea’s intake of Vietnamese women and reducing the percentage of Chinese while more Chinese went to Taiwan.

So far the Korean and Chinese societies have largely shied away from importing from beyond the Confucian belt. Taiwan has some –probably ethnic Chinese -- from Indonesia and Thailand but the number has been falling. However, Japanese, often viewed as even more focused on ethnic homogeneity, have been more adventurous, with the Philippines providing around 20 percent and Thailand 5 percent of their intake.

Certainly the Philippines and Indonesia look likely to become more important in the future both because of low income levels and a more plentiful supply of marriageable girls. The steep fall in Vietnam’s birth rate since the early 1990s, and continued economic growth, both suggest that supply a few years hence will fall. Thailand already has a labor shortage and an aging population so that it is importing women from Burma and Cambodia for the sex trade if not for marriage.

Whether the bride trade will help broader Asian integration is difficult to say. But clearly it is already doing at least a little to break down prejudices and notions of ethnic and cultural exclusivity. Perhaps we will only know how far that goes if and when China begins to import brides from Bangladesh.