The Politics of International Marriage in Japan

Anne Sokolsky

The Politics of International Marriage in Japan by Viktoriya Kim, Nelia G. Balgoa, and Beverley Anne Yamamoto (Rutgers University Press, 2022) is part of a series titled “The Politics of Marriage and Gender: Global Issues in Local Contexts,” edited by Peter Berta. A key aim of the series is to examine how the politics of marriage has affected the social, cultural, and political processes in countries around the world and what forms of inequality and conflicts might result from marriages that transcend national boundaries. In other words, marriage is not just a personal activity between two people. Various socio-political institutions and systems influence the points of view of the two people entering such a union along lines of gender, race, religion, and class.

The Politics of International Marriage in Japan investigates these points of view by looking at international marriage migration patterns in contemporary Japan with specific focus on “how wider state-level politics and policies toward marriage, migration, and gender affect interpersonal politics in the relationships of international couples living in Japan” (p. 2). The key questions they address are: (1) Who are the people entering international marriages?; (2) Why do they marry each other?; (3) What are their motivations?; (4) Why the increase in marriages in the 1980s and decline in the 2000s?; (5) What are the personal characteristics of couples?; (6) Who is likely to get married to foreigners and how do they meet their spouses?; (7) What are the experiences of wives and husbands in these marriages?; (8) How do they deal with child rearing in a bicultural setting?; and (9) What happens when conflicts lead to divorce? (p. 2).

Chapter 1 (“Cross-Border Marriage Studies”) and Chapter 2 (“International Marriages Past and Present”) serve as the background chapters. Chapter 1 identifies current trends, key ideas, and approaches that informed the authors’ study. Chapter 2 provides a good historical overview of international marriages and how these have been impacted by Japanese migration politics before and after World War II. Chapter 3 (“Spousal Choices”) introduces the participants in the study and provides general information about their socio-economic situations and cultural background. Chapter 4 (“The Politics of Love”) considers the motives for international marriages. Chapter 5 (“Spaces for Negotiation”) looks at individual issues that affect spouses and power balances within a marriage. Chapter 6 (“Choices and Constraints”) looks at the public sphere and the conditions that influence a spouse’s life paths. Chapter 7 (“Raising Bilingual/Bicultural Children”) looks at the bilingual and bicultural skills of children born into international marriages. The final chapter, Chapter 8 (“International Divorce”), considers what happens when international marriages do not work. The authors discuss marriage dissolution and its consequences in an international arena. Depending on the country of origin, each spouse might face varying laws regarding child custody, alimony, and even moral attitudes about divorce.

Through fieldwork and interviews conducted from 2007 to 2012, the authors divided their subject pool into three categories: (1) Former Soviet Union (FSU) women married to Japanese men (48 women); (2) Filipina women married to Japanese men (23 women); and (3) women and men from Western countries married to Japanese spouses (12 couples). All were heterosexual couples. The countries represented by the FSU women include Russia (29 women), Ukraine (9 women), Belarus (1 woman), Kazakhstan (6 women), Uzbekistan (2 women), and Kyrgyzstan (1 woman).

Overall, the book is well written and an important contribution to discussions about family practices in Japan. I particularly liked the way the authors challenge the assumption of the “feminization of migration” (p. 23), which assumes female migrants to be gold diggers seeking to secure a marriage with a foreign man from a developed country in order to escape the poverty of her undeveloped country. The authors provide a varied sample of international couples with varied motivations – in particular, those of the non-Japanese spouse marrying a Japanese spouse. Not all of the women whom the authors interviewed who chose to wed Japanese men did so to “marry up” socio-economically. This is particularly the case with FSU women. While the Filipina women might have entered Japan through the sex industry and married a Japanese customer to stay in Japan, these women are not necessarily passive victims in an industry that has an image of exploiting women. Rather, the authors show how these women exercise their own agency in the decisions they make. The authors do so by providing several case studies showing how Filipina female spouses went from being entertainers to bar owners, small business owners, or, in the case of two women, teachers and leaders in their Catholic communities.

All is not rosy, however. The authors recognize the legal practicalities of international marriages and how this might impact or limit a spouse’s agency. An important term considered in this book is the idea of “marital citizenship,” which is the legal status “granted by a state to a migrant by virtue of his/her marriage to one of its citizens and that confers him/her rights, responsibilities and duties” (p. 99-100). The authors recognize that while international marriages might have some benefits, such marriages can also “undermine the foreign spouses’ agency and independence” (p. 100). The authors also consider the social and economic capital that a foreign spouse might bring to the marriage. Most of these cases, in which the spouse brings foreign capital to the marriage, were instances of a Western spouse to a Japanese spouse. In nine of the 12 such instances, the foreign spouse was a man from a Western country.

For those who do not know much about this topic, Chapter 2 provides an excellent and concise summary of the history of international marriages in Japan, the socio-political significance of Japan’s family system (ie seido), and the importance of the koseki (family registry) in Japan. Much of this section draws from Allison Alexy’s Intimate Disconnections: Divorce and the Romance of Independence in Contemporary Japan (2020). The authors provide a nice summary of the different patterns of international marriage that have occurred in Japan, and of the historical and political reasons for such waves. The First Wave they consider is right after WWII with the war brides. The Second Wave from the 1960s to the 1970s is associated with Japan’s rapid economic growth, which led to Japanese salarymen working overseas and meeting women from other countries. The Third Wave was in the mid 1980s, when the Japanese government supported the importation of foreign brides to marry men in rural areas. Such brides were called “nôson hanayome.” Finally, the Fourth Wave, which started around the 1990s and continues to this day, is characterized by a diversification of foreign spouses and pathways to marriage. More recent couples have met through various “marriage pathways,” including not just the entertainment industry, but also marriage agencies and the internet.

I do have two criticisms of the book. First is how the authors begin Chapter 4, “The Politics of Love.”  Love is a complicated emotion that means different things to different people in different cultural settings over time. The following statement seems too Eurocentric to me: “While the roots of love can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, where the notion of love was not bound to marriage and sex, and then later to the Christian concept of love for God, these days romantic love has become a barometer of equality, where women and men make choices and decisions based on the intensity and continuity of relationships” (p. 66). This statement seems to ignore the rich East Asian literary tradition, both premodern and modern, in which the Chinese word qing (情) and the Japanese words iro (色), koi (恋), and nasake (情け) fill many a premodern text found in the Chinese and Japanese literary canons. Love and Emotions in Traditional Chinese Literature1 Eifring, Halvor (ed.). 2004. Love and Emotions in Traditional Chinese Literature. Leiden: Brill. or Saeki Junko’s “From Iro (Eros) to Ai=Love: The Case of Tsubouchi Shôyô”2 Junko, Saeki and Indra Levy (translator). 2008. “From Iro (Eros) to Ai=Love: The Case of Tsubouchi Shôyô.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 20: 71-98. are just two scholarly examples that discuss the long history of “love” in East Asian culture, and I wish the authors had considered sources like these in their own discussion of love to avoid the Eurocentric view that they present.

My other criticism is tied to the first. I found the “Western” data set limited. The “West” in this study is represented by spouses from England, Canada, and the United States. I think it would have been interesting to include international marriages of couples where one spouse is from a European or Scandinavian country. The cultural, political, economic, religious, and gender dynamics of countries from Western Europe (Northern vs. Southern), as well as of Scandinavian countries, would provide a more complicated picture of international marriages between a Japanese person and a person from the highly essentialized category the “West.” While the authors do recognize the limits of their datasets, they try to draw conclusions about patterns from these limited datasets.

Despite my two caveats, I think this is still a useful book for any discussion of contemporary marriage practices in Japan. I would use this book as a secondary source in my Japanese literature classes. It provides important background information as well as nice case studies that I could use as points of comparison with the fiction I assign for my students to read.