In the three East Asian states of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the residential status of a non­national spouse is initially temporary, and access to legal citizenship is contingent upon the marriage being maintained during a set waiting period: two years of residence in South Korea and four years’ residency in Taiwan except for those from mainland China, who must wait eight years (Belanger et al. 2010: 1114). The stricter regulations on immigrants from mainland China stem from political tensions between Taiwan and mainland China over such matters as perceived threats to national security (Belanger et al. 2010: 1113). In Japan, the waiting period for immigrant spouses is three years for naturalisation; permanent residency requires three con­secutive years in a marital relationship plus one year of residency (Immigration Bureau of Japan, Ministry of Justice 2006). Having a child shortens the waiting period in South Korea (Belanger et al. 2010: 1114—15), and evidence suggests that this also works favourably for immigrants in Japan who wish to obtain a temporary residential visa after having lost their grounds for a spousal visa after a divorce or separation. Such policies place a newly intermarried wife in a vulnerable position as her right to stay is greatly dependent upon her husband and/or her child. Non-national spouses have to continue to prove the legitimacy of their marital relationship to the state in the initial years of migration.

A serious problem occurs when the state attempts to control directly the validity of cross-border marriages. According to Kim (2011: 7—9, 15), in South Korea, as stories of sham marriages gained momentum in the media and public discourses, the government increased control over marriage brokers’ activities. If an agency is convicted of arranging fraudulent marriages, the migrant wives served by those agencies lose their grounds for residency even if they have renounced their native nationality to obtain Korean citizenship and even if they remain in their marriage. The crackdown has made some Korean-Chinese women criminals and stateless (Kim 2011: 8—9). The state’s attempt to define the authenticity of marriage in this way denies the possible development of marital relationships that may encompass conjugal affection, even in marriages that were initially forged, and this has severe and paradoxical consequences.

While taking up nationality or permanent residency secures migrant wives’ legal status, building positive social spaces and identities for themselves contributes toward empowering their sense of self. Examples from Japan of the efforts made by women to participate in local communities or co-ethnic groups include teaching about their home culture at local schools, performing cultural dances, giving cooking demonstrations or organising charity events (Burgess 2004: 235; Suzuki 2008: 71—78). Having a social profile is particularly pertinent in times when negative representations of these women circulate in public discourse.

Governmental and community support eases migrant women’s efforts to raise their social profiles, but may have the effect of presenting them within a narrow definition of femininity and ethnicity. Those Japanese rural municipalities that became involved in cross-border matchmaking initially organised post-migration support programs such as language classes and cultural events. The migrant women appreciated the public recognition, but the repeated staging of stereotypical, gendered cultural performances made them feel they were being used for the town’s internationalisation promotion, while their requests for substantive matters such as better job opportunities were ignored (Nakamatsu 2005b: 172—75). These experiences prompted some groups to participate in community events independently to better manage their social profiles.

The state may define marriage migrants’ needs in a similarly limited manner. The Taiwanese and South Korean governments, which now endorse multiculturalism, started to implement inclusive policies for migrant spouses around 2002 and 2004 respectively, providing funding for large-scale surveys and resultant social services such as language classes, employment training and health care provision (Belanger et al. 2010: 1113—14). The questions on the surveys, Belanger et al. (2010: 1125—26) point out, are largely designed to measure the degree of assimilation and the migrant women’s adequacy as wives, daughters-in-law and mothers. Childcare and education, helping with homework, for example, are of particular concern to the state. All information is collected in such a way that co-ethnic wives, such as immigrants from mainland China in Taiwan or ethnic Koreans from China in South Korea, can readily be singled out (Belanger et al. 2010: 1123—24). In identifying the needs of migrant women, the state is self-interested and profiles them in a feminised and racialised manner, measuring their qualities as spouses and mothers but ignoring their social identities or the positive diversity they might bring to society.

Women themselves, however, may rely on a widely accepted heterosexual ideology of gender in their attempt to create social spaces. Suzuki (2008: 71—78) illustrates the way in which Filipinas in urban areas of Japan promote themselves using images and symbols of respectable womanhood — as Catholics, as good mothers and wives, and through public charity events they hold both in Japan and the Philippines. Legal citizenship alone does not make all social spaces accessible to marriage migrants, and they make use of available resources in the milieu in which they are situated: on their own terms.

Conclusion

Marriage migration is complex in its configuration, intertwined as it is with the power relations of gender, economy and ethnicity, all ofthem changing and hierarchical, across and within the sending and receiving countries. The study of marriage migration exposes the borders of inclusion and exclusion in the legal, social and discursive arenas that the various East Asian nations impose on marriage migrants and their families. It also shows distinctive patterns of heterosexual gendered mobility, offering transformative possibilities both to the women who decide to take part in it, and to their husbands, in-laws and natal families. It may open up life opportunities for migrating women, and their presence and practices in a new culture may challenge the dominant views on gender and ethnicity or the normative boundaries of marriage and the family. Marriage migration may limit women’s lives by constraining them within particular narratives of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic class that reinforce local family norms or ethnocentric views. Marriage migrants’ aspirations and experiences are, however, diverse and complex. Dichotomous views fail to observe both the nuanced ways in which the women express their agency, and the ways in which they are inevitably mediated by the constraints that surround them.

Marriage migration to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan started to decrease in the mid-2000s, reflecting changes in the social, political and economic climates. Taiwan started actively to discourage marriage migration, and South Korea, when it relaxed labour migration for Korean-Chinese in 2006, experienced a concomitant decrease in marriage migration (Belanger et al. 2010: 1111). Transnational marriage agencies were banned or strictly regulated at about the same time in all three countries — the worldwide economic recession in 2007 coincided with the decline. It remains to be seen if the decline will continue or if marriage migration will take new shapes. Perhaps migratory links will be formed between new places within and beyond Asia. Male marriage migration may increase. In the meantime, as marriage and migration are both processes, female marriage migrants in East Asia will continue to craft their lives, together with those of their husbands and children or alone, and learn to deal with the new challenges, opportunities and disappointments that emerge as they advance into middle and old age.