International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America

I went hunting backward through citations after reading in this book that while international marriages in Japan are predominantly between Japanese men and non-Japanese women, the opposite is true when one partner is “Western”.  Specifically, the book claims that 89% of international marriages in Japan where one partner is “Western” are between a Western male and Japanese female.

Statistically an unlikely pairing, unless that guy is Japanese and the girl is Chinese.

Basically, the author misread her source, but the truth isn’t much different.  The Japanese government statistics cited in the article that she cites say that 89% of marriages between Americans and Japanese have an American husband and Japanese wife.  That’s a fairly minor nitpick, since most people’s readings of the statistics (given below) would come up with a similar number with other countries included in “the West”.  However, I have a bigger nitpick with that article (citing the government figures, cited by the book), which is that it also needlessly dichotomizes gender roles for international marriages into a “Western model” and “Japanese model”, where the wife working part time is considered a “mixed Japanese/Western model”.  Never mind that mothers working part time is an extremely normal phenomenon in Japan – the author frames it as a departure from Japan’s traditional working culture, buying into the conservative myth of the nuclear family.  Part of the blame also lies with the nebulous and outdated term “Western” (hence my excessive scare quotes), which seems to be a way for writers to avoid saying “white”.  Post on that issue forthcoming.  Here I will just say that it rears its UV-sensitive head again as half of a useless Occidental-Oriental dichotomy that people should have stopped using during the Cold War.

By the way, both the article and especially the book are still worth reading.  The book in particular has a ridiculously thorough section on the history of English in Japan, which one wouldn’t necessarily expect in a book nominally on gender and identity.

But none of that is the main point of this post.  What follows is.

So I gathered the statistics from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (why British spelling?) page cited and found the following interesting facts for the year 2009 and put them in a Numbers spreadsheet.  In short:

  • 95.37% of marriages with at least one Japanese national (marriages between two non-Japanese nationals do no appear in the statistics) were between two Japanese nationals, i.e. not international marriages.  It is unknown how many of these are interracial, since the government doesn’t ask about ethnicity in its census.
  • Japanese men were in far greater numbers of international marriages than Japanese women: 26747 to 7646, almost 3.5 to 1.
  • Japanese men are much more likely than Japanese women to marry other Asians (from Korea, Thailand, China, and the Philippines).
  • Japanese women are much more likely than Japanese men to marry citizens of the USA and the UK.
  • International marriage numbers for Japanese men and women were nearly equal when the partners were Brazilians (48.4% of marriages with the Japanese half as the husband), Peruvians (50.1% of marriages with Japanese husbands), and “Other” (49.4% with Japanese husbands).
  • In terms of raw numbers, the greatest numbers of international marriages were with partners from China (13719), Korea (the name used, 韓国・朝鮮 kankoku/chousen makes it unclear whether it includes zainichi or resident Japanese Koreans, 5992), Filipinos (5911), Others (4687), and way down the list, Americans (1632).

So already you see the broad patterns: Japanese men marry internationally more and tend to marry other Asians.  “Westerners” are a minority overall but are far more likely to marry Japanese women than Japanese men.  The way I phrased that conjures up the image of a shipwrecked Englishman given the choice between a Japanese woman and a Japanese man and leaving the man crestfallen.

On Asians specifically:

  • Marriages where the Japanese partner is the husband are above 90% of all marriages in which the other partner is Chinese (92.8%), Thai (95.4%), or Filipina (97.3%).
  • For Koreans, the number is lower but still a large majority at 68.6%.

Are you seeing a pattern here?  The rates follow the exact same order as the countries’ GDP per capita.  Japan is #24, South Korea #28, China #72, Thailand #88, Philippines #123.  Interesting, that.

According to the government of the Philippines, Japanese grooms are the most common international marriage partners for Filipina brides, who greatly outnumber the number of Filipino grooms in international marriages.  Filipino men in international marriages, incidentally, also marry Chinese women more than they marry any other nationality.

On “Westerners”:

  • The rates of international marriages involving Japanese wives and US (89.1%), UK (86.8%) husbands are both way above parity, although in raw numbers more Japanese women still marry Koreans (1879) than Americans (1453) or Brits (367).
  • If we include only English-speaking countries in “the West”, then international marriages between Japanese women and Westerners are 88.6% Japanese wife/Western husband.  If we include South Americans, it’s 62.7%.

Again, the US GDP per capita is ranked #5 to the UK’s #13.  Brazil is #70 and Peru #85, well below Japan, which just as a reminder is #24.

A cursory glance at these numbers reveals shockingly large margins by which the two genders in Japan seem to prefer different countries for marriage partners, outside of the vast majority who marry domestic.  Japanese men monopolize international marriages in Japan with partners from the countries of Asia, while Japanese women do the same with the US and UK.  Meanwhile, Brazil, Peru and “Other” seem curiously balanced, with numbers of marriages with both Japanese men and women roughly equal. My first thought on seeing these numbers is that the fetishization of these nationalities (the Charisma Man and the Chun Li effect?) has gone a lot further than even I could imagine.  And certainly sexualized images of the exotic Orient and the sophisticated, egalitarian Occident have some role in creating these unbelievable imbalances (36 to 1 for Filipino brides with Japanese husbands vs. Filipino husbands with Japanese brides!).  A reason that just occurred to me for why Brazilians and Peruvians may be less exoticized than other nationalities is that they are more likely to be the descendants of Japanese migrants, which is how many of them (and me) got their visas (yes, Japan gives visas based on race).  If there are other possible reasons, e.g. the easier availability of visas in Thailand than Vietnam, I’m not aware of them.  From one perspective, the strangely high imbalances in rates of marriage between Japanese men and women with partners from different countries begs explanation.

If seen through another lens, however, every number makes sense except for the South American and Other ones.  Recall that the proportions for marriages with men from the US and UK (for women); and women from Korea, China, Thailand, and the Philippines (for men) follow the exact same order as those countries’ GDPs per capita.  That is, women are more likely to “marry up” in terms of the economic statuses of their spouses’ countries of origin; Asian women marrying “up” to Japan, and Japanese women marrying “up” to the US and UK.  From the men’s perspectives, their wives in international marriages in Japan tend to be from countries less well-off than their own, in order of likelihood (again) mirroring the GDP per capita of those countries.  Notice how anomalous Brazil’s and Peru’s GDPs look in the following spreadsheet:

Screen Shot 2016-08-24 at 4.43.59 PM
Column B being the blue one.

I find the strength of this correlation a bit mysterious, since after all you marry a person (with his or her own income), not a country.  Marrying “up” by GDP doesn’t mean an automatic move up in lifestyle.  The data suggest though that GDP plays some role, if indirect, in women’s choice of partners, and the opposite role in men’s, uncomfortable as the implications of that may be.  Some more information on the demographics of people likely to enter into international marriages would help to add contextualizing detail to the unflattering picture this correlation paints.

I’m tempted to look at statistics for international marriage in Europe to see if the same pattern holds – women marrying men from richer countries, men marrying women from poorer countries – but can’t find them now and don’t want to spend another 2 hours on this post.

So in conclusion, rather than the very different rates at which Japanese men and women marry out to citizens of China or the UK, the anomaly is the 2 South American countries, Brazil and Peru, whose citizens seem to marry Japanese men and women in almost equal numbers despite being economically much weaker than Japan.  Is the answer in their (perceived) shared ancestry and therefore immunity to fetishization?  Or is men’s desire for lower-status wives balanced out by the stereotype of the domineering non-Asian woman?  I’ve known more than a few Japanese male/Chinese or Filipina female couples in my time here, and since joining JALT I’ve come to know quite a few more BANA (Britain, Australia, North America) male/Japanese female couples, but I’ve only known one where the non-Japanese half is South American (many more where both are South American).  That couple consisted of two working class types, the Peruvian one of which was a 2nd generation immigrant with native Japanese and unknown levels of Spanish.  Perhaps the answer to my conundrum is in that South Americans’ status as longer-term minorities in Japan, along with a large proportion of the Koreans (assuming as above that the statistics include zainichi Korean residents), blunts their foreignness and makes marrying them seem quite similar to marrying another Japanese citizen.  If this is true, we can expect the descendants of Chinese, Thai, American, etc. immigrants in Japan, who unlike the South Americans and Koreans will likely be partly Japanese by ancestry and carry Japanese citizenship, to also marry non-immigrant Japanese men and women with roughly equal frequency.  Of course, this will be undetectable in statistics unless the Japanese government starts treating ethnicity and nationality as distinct concepts.

11 thoughts on “International marriage in Japan – a correlation broken in South America

  1. Very interesting. I approve of checking pronouncements found in published materials and re-examining to look for correlations. This pattern worked very neatly, and the interesting (unprovable?) part has to do with motivation. Instinct and experience tells me that it’s not economics, or at least not entirely. Many Japanese farmers choose Asian brides out of necessity or desperation, since young people in the country are scarce anyway and few Japanese women would choose such a physically hard life. In other words, I don’t think they’re necessary “exoticized”; they’re just willing to marry Japanese farmers and life in the boondocks. Many Japanese women, on the other hand, find the idea of an American or British husband glamourous and interesting compared to marrying a Japanese company employee. Those are just two of the most common stereotypes that ring true and are often spotlighted in TV specials. I’m also interested in Brazilian or Peruvian/Japanese couples. As for me, my Japanese husband and I met abroad in a neutral country. I don’t think either of us considered the other’s nationality overly much until our kids were born and we moved to Japan. And then? Reminded of it on almost a daily basis!


    1. The really interesting part for me is how the willingness of foreign brides to marry out scales directly with the strength of their home country’s economy vs. the husband’s. It matches stereotypes, but stereotypes don’t explain why brides from the Philippines should be more willing to take up this life than those from China or Thailand. Unfortunately there isn’t any data (that I found) on the economic circumstances of the people in these marriages – stereotypes would indicate well-heeled women with enough money to travel would marry Americans or Brits, but the economic argument might suggest that poorer women are more likely to marry out (and poorer men are more likely to as well, but from poorer countries rather than richer). Thanks for the comment and


  2. I married a Japanese man in 1982 and for a period of time lived as the yomesan in his 500 year-old estate on the island of Sado for time. You can imagine how rare it was then.


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