Marriages between a national and a foreign spouse started to show a significant increase in the 1980s in Japan (Kosei rodo sho 2009a), and in the 1990s in South Korea and Taiwan with notable numbers of co-ethnic marriages (Belanger et al. 2010: 1110—13). Jones and Shen (2008: 13) estimate that in 2005, international marriages accounted for 32 per cent of all registered marriages in Taiwan, 14 per cent in South Korea and 5 per cent in Japan. Women make up the overwhelming majority of immigrant spouses. In South Korea and Taiwan, immigrant spouses have become the largest group of legal permanent foreign residents (Belanger et al. 2010: 1109).

In Taiwan, 2003 figures show that two thirds of immigrant spouses came from mainland China, followed by Vietnam and Indonesia (Jones and Shen 2008: 10). Most Chinese national women are of the Han ethnic group, while Indonesian nationals are of the Hakka group (Lu 2008: 128—29). Over 13 per cent of children born in 2003 had a foreign-born mother (Belanger et al. 2010: 1111). In South Korea, marriages of a national husband and foreign wife increased from 600 in 1990 to 31,180 in 2005: around 40 per cent of the female spouses were Korean – Chinese, followed by Han-Chinese from China and then Vietnamese nationals (Lee 2009: 64). In Japan in 2009, Chinese nationals were the largest group of foreign wives of Japanese husbands (47.6 per cent), followed by Filipino (21.5 per cent) and Korean nationals (15.7 per cent) (Kosei rodo sho 2009a). In the same year, 2.1 per cent of all births were of children with a foreign parent: of those, 56.4 per cent (12,707) had a foreign mother (Kosei rodo sho 2009b).

As a point of comparison, in the post-war period, up until around 1975, more Japanese women than men contracted international marriages in Japan. In 1965, 75 per cent of the total registered international marriages were between a national woman and a foreign man, usually from the United States. This proportion decreased to 22 per cent in 2009 (Kosei rodo sho 2009a), reflecting a surge in the number ofJapanese men marrying foreigners. At the same time, more Japanese women than men married abroad, moving to the husband’s country. As with marriage migration to Japan, marriage migration abroad shows a gendered pattern: in 2011, 62 per cent ofJapanese emigrants holding permanent residency in a foreign country were women. This proportion is a balance of higher migration to Western Europe (69 per cent), the United States (64.5 per cent) and Oceania, notably Australia (63 per cent), against lower movement to regions such as Asia or Africa (Gaimu sho 2012).

A range of factors contribute to the recent increase in marriage migration within East Asian countries. Local marriage scenes shifted in the last 30 years or so as gender relations and other social relations changed, including women’s educational and employment attainments. These changes created marriage difficulties for certain men, typically for those with low income, low education and a rural background, and for divorcees and those living with their parents (Jones and Shen 2008: 15; Liaw et al. 2010: 54—55). In South Korea male sex-selective abortions and an unbalanced sex ratio made the situation worse for men (Jones and Shen 2008: 15). A traditional cultural norm of filial piety and male-line succession puts the onus for elder care on the son, but with the expectation that his wife will perform physical work, especially in families with few economic resources. Men in such positions may have become unattractive to women in general, but they still hold on to the idea of marriage. Wang cites a blunt remark by a Taiwanese man: ‘I do not want to marry a beautiful wife. I only expect her to take care of the family and to give birth to a baby’ (2007: 717). To some of Suzuki’s male Japanese interviewees who married Filipinas (2007), local women appeared too demanding or not interested in marriage: but, as one man said, ‘If not [married], they [the public] think I am not a full-fledged man’ (Suzuki 2007: 435, insertions in original). Ideas of masculinity diversified during the 1990s in Japan (Dasgupta 2009: 80), but for some men marriage still equates with normative manhood, materially and emotionally, especially for those on the socio-economic periphery.

Regional economic integration has facilitated the movement of people for business, work, study or any other purpose, contributing to opportunities to meet and subsequently marry beyond national boundaries. One consequence of increased regional integration has been the emergence of transnational networks of marriage agencies. In Japan, their emergence was a by-product of industries such as tourism and trade in products expanding to other parts of Asia in the 1980s (Nakamatsu 2009: 197—99). Taiwan’s large capital investment in Vietnam in the early 1990s coincided with the rise of marriage businesses between the two countries, which has since developed into a robust industry (Wang and Chang 2002: 95—96). Multiple networks of intermediaries have been formed in both sending and receiving countries. They may involve personal connections, blurring the distinction between commercial or private introduction and circumventing regulations intended to control the business. Transnational marriage agencies capitalise on regional economic hierarchies, while playing on men’s desires for marriage, portraying marriage as normative ‘ordinary happiness’.

Politics has played a significant role in facilitating and influencing the course of marriage migration. In Japan and South Korea, some local governments actively encouraged transnational matchmaking activities. Some rural local governments in Japan funded marriage tours to the Philippines, China and South Korea, using the rhetorics of internationalisation and the social welfare oflocal residents (Nakamatsu 2005a: 410, 2009: 195—96). The internationalisation narrative did not conflict with the ethnic—homogeneous view of the nation, as ‘Asian brides’ were portrayed as assimilable: an official stated that Koreans are ‘the same race as Japanese, and they can understand us without explanation as we share cultures’ (Nakamatsu 2005a: 410). In South Korea, local governmental involvement aimed to facilitate marriages between Korean-Chinese women and South Korean farmers, providing subsidies to male participants in marriage tours and couching the whole within a framework of ethnic homogeneity (Belanger et al. 2010: 1112; Lee 2009: 64—66). The opening of diplomatic ties between China and South Korea in 1992 provided a larger political background that enabled officially-sanctioned marriage tours. The South Korean national government’s tightening of conditions for visiting relatives’ and tourists’ visas for Korean-Chinese in the early 1990s also resulted in an increase in marriage migration (Kim 2011: 2—3). Taiwan’s regulations reveal the state’s influence in shaping marriage migration: it began to restrict the entry of spouses from mainland China in 2003 because of political concerns, and to discourage Vietnamese women from marrying Taiwanese men in 2004 because of social concerns over the women’s educational background and their ability to raise their children properly — a ‘potential threat to “population quality”’ of the nation (Belanger et al. 2010: 1111). East Asian political apparatuses utilised local discourses to justify their support where immigrant wives were imagined to be already assimilated or to be assimilable, or their opposition where they were thought to lack such a quality.

Evidence suggests that initial cross-border marriages that were informed by a range of factors brought about chain migration of marriage migrants, linking particular localities and contributing to the popularity of marriage migration within East Asian countries.