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The Oldest Societies in Asia: The Politics of Ageing in South Korea and Japan

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This chapter is a comparative piece on political demographics of two East Asian democracies: Japan and South Korea (hereafter: Korea). Our analysis shows that in spite of certain differences the two countries share similar demographic developments with Korea often following in Japan’s footsteps with a time lag of one or more decades, a phenomenon we ascribe to the belated economic development in Korea. By systematically taking stock of political institutions, elections and voters, policies and immigration, we find that the Korean governments have shown themselves not only more active in fighting negative consequences of demographic change but also more open to immigration compared to their Japanese counterparts.

General Demographic Development

Japan and South Korea (hereafter: Korea) both display typical demographic features of highly industrialized nations. The percentage of the young population (age group 0–14) is similarly low (2019: Japan: 12.1%, Korea: 14%), population ageing has been a well-known and well-predicted characteristic of both societies, and most people live in urban areas (2019: Japan: 91.7%, Korea: 81.4%) (UNPD, 2020) creating a high population density there while leaving rural regions to suffer from the effects of depopulation (cf. Table 1).

Table 1 Selected demographic data on Japan and Korea (2019)

Most of the demographic differences between the two countries indicate a time lag with Korea following in Japan’s footsteps, a development that the Korean War (1950–1953) and the belated economic growth in South Korea appear to explain to a large extent. The speed of Korea’s “catching-up” is partly determined by the difference in fertility between both countries. While Japan’s total fertility rate (TFR) belongs to the lowest worldwide (2019: 1.36), Korea not only became the first OECD country to fall below 1 in 2018 (0.97) but the country saw its TFR decrease even further in 2019 (0.92) (COJ, 2020: 10).

As Table 1 shows, the share of elderly people (65 years and older) in Korea (2019: 15%) is still lower than in Japan (2019: 28.4%), but growing steadily and expected to rise by a more than twofold increase predicted for the next three decades. The same is true for the working-age population (15–64 year olds), which in South Korea comprises a large share (2019: 72.2%), particularly when compared to Japan (59.5%), which is situated on the lower end of the OECD spectrum. However, once the “baby boomer” generation (1968–1974) in Korea retires (a process that Japan was undergoing from 2007 to 2011), the share of elderly people will increase considerably (UNPD, 2020).

The development of the “old-age dependency ratio” (OADR)Footnote 1 has shown a similar “trailing” of Korean development. In 1990, both countries featured the same OADR of about 43.5. While Japan’s ratio, however, began its rise from there on until it reached 68.3 in 2019, Korea’s OADR was still on the decline and continued to fall until 2014 (36.2) before it then followed Japan’s trend and increased to 38.5 in 2019 (Worldbank, 2020). Korea’s ratio is projected to surge in the coming decades to more than 50 (Schwekendiek, 2016).

Longevity contributes considerably to this effect. Life expectancy at birth quickly increased in Korea from 55.4 years in 1960 to 82.6 years in 2018, positioning the nation in the middle of all OECD countries, but the rate by which life expectancy has been growing over the last decades is remarkably high in comparison with other OECD countries. Korea has continuously closed the gap to Japan from twelve years in 1960 to less than two in 2018 (Japan: 84.2 years).Footnote 2 Research by the Imperial College London even projects that Korea will “take Japan’s life expectancy crown”, which is forecasted with 85.7 years in 2030, while the average for South Koreans is expected to be 87.4 years at that time (Harris 2017: n.p.).

In terms of overall population growth, a similar trailing effect could develop, but in 2019 both countries were still moving in different directions (cf. Fig. 1). Japan’s population had already begun to shrink in 2011, which, in 2019, had resulted in almost two million fewer Japanese than in 2010 (COJ, 2020). This is also reflected in the age structure graph for 2020 with a thinned-out bottom—a mismatch that will have exacerbated even more over the next two decades. The National Institute of Population Research (IPSS, 2017b) published forecasts that predict a decrease in the number of people to 100 million by 2053.

Fig. 1
figure 1

(Note Males are to the left [black], females to the right [grey]. Source Computations by Richard Cincotta)

Population pyramids, Japan and Korea

In comparison, Korea’s population is still growing, although the looming stagnation has already become apparent. After having experienced a twofold increase from 20 million to 42 million between 1949 (right after the Republic’s establishment) and 1990, Korea’s population had increased by almost another ten million by 2017. Predictions for 2020 demonstrate a disproportionate middle-aged bulge with a simultaneous decrease in the youth population—a trend that will continue over the next twenty years. That is why the UN Population Division expects that negative growth rates in Japan and Korea will be similar around 2050, as will the age structures of both populations.

Political Institutions

Japan and Korea are parliamentary democracies scoring similarly to European states, for example, on the Polity IV Project scale of country regimes (CSP, 2016). The literature on both political systems also strongly suggests that Japan and Korea do indeed belong to the category of well-established democracies in free-market OECD countries (Choi, 2012; Kil & Moon, 2010; Klein, 2005; Krauss & Pekkanen, 2011; Mosler et al., 2018; Schoppa, 2011; Yang, 2001).

In both countries, political institutions are receptive to demands from society originating out of demographic change. They were occasionally altered to address changes in the countries’ populations, albeit in different ways. While in Japan only citizenship provides residents with voting rights, in Korea non-citizen foreign residents holding a certain visa were granted voting rights at the local and regional levels since 2005. Thus, Korea is the only country in Asia to have introduced enfranchisement of foreigners (cf. Mosler & Pedroza, 2016; Pedroza & Mosler, 2017). Although the number of foreign-born residents exercising their voting right is steadily increasing, by 2020 it has not yet reached a level that would incentivize all political parties to address this group of voters in party platforms. Still, in 2004, at least the leftist-progressive Democratic Labor Party (DLP) included respective items in their election pledge, and in 2012, other major political parties started to incorporate related issues and policy plans into their programmes. Furthermore, in the light of growing numbers of incoming foreigners and concomitant needs as well as social conflicts, it is predictable for the near future that parties will direct substantial attention to issues related to foreign residents, refugees and asylum-seekers.

Japan, on the other hand, saw a different kind of institutional change. All major Japanese parties agreed in 2007 to include the nation’s 2.4 million 18 and 19 year olds in the electorate for national elections (in Korea, the voting age is 19 years). The government’s explanation for this change may not comprehensively reflect the set of motives that led the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s dominant party, which has no history of appealing to the young in any prominent way, to initiate and implement this institutional change.Footnote 3 However, the main reason presented by all parties involved in the decision was the granting of more political weight to the shrinking younger generations who have to shoulder the burden of an aged society.

Demographic Change, Political Power & Voter Mobilization and Turnout

Election results in Japan show a mixed picture regarding the acceptance of this new opportunity. In the 2017 General Election, when overall voter turnout reached 53.68%, 47.87% of the 18 year olds and 33.25% of the 19 year olds cast their ballot. In other words, both groups showed less interest in their newly given voting right than the average population. Other cohorts are larger and also mobilized to a higher degree. Political parties in Japan would clearly find more incentives to address the group of those in the midst of their life (35–54) and the (soon-to-be) pensioners (60–74). In Korea, on the other hand, cohorts between 20 and 59 are of roughly equal size and retirees make up a smaller portion of the population (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure 2

(Source United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division [2017]. World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, custom data acquired via website,

Population by age (persons)

Over the last decades, there has been a positive correlation (with very few exceptions) in both countries between age and turnout that levels off at 60+ in Korea and 70+ in Japan (cf. Figs. 3 and 4). One part of an explanation could be that voting is a learned experience, which means that older voters are more likely to turn up at the polling stations than younger ones (cf. Goerres & Vanhuysse, 2012: 1). With regard to political influence of age groups, especially the 18/19–29 year olds seem to renounce their potential position in both countries. Consequently, political parties appealing to younger voters seem to fish in more difficult waters.

Fig. 3
figure 3

(Source National Election Committee, Republic of Korea)

Voter turnout by age in the Republic of Korea (presidential elections, in percentage)

Fig. 4
figure 4

(Source Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications [Japan])

Voter turnout by age in Japan (general elections, in percentage)

While there is not yet enough research in Japan to understand the partisan positions of young voters, preferences of age cohorts in Korea have been analysed since the beginning of the 1990s. Whereas the majority of voters from their 20s to their 40s tend to vote liberal, the majority of voters from their 50s upwards traditionally tend to vote conservative (cf. Shin, 2001: 172–179). As a result of the ageing society, the number of eligible voters from their 20s to their 40s has been shrinking while the voters from their 50s upwards grew over the last two decades turning the relation between the oldest and youngest age cohort upside down. As a logical consequence, older citizens’ interests will increasingly affect policy decisions (cf. Kim, 2004).

Still, more decisive factors regarding voting outcomes in Korea are related to the regional distribution of voters. Regional sentiments or regionalism has been a pervasive factor in elections since the late 1980s and still is one of the major factors deciding elections. Many voters chose a candidate, party or camp based on their hometown’s province. People living in the south-eastern region of Yŏngnam tend to vote conservatively while those who reside in the south-western region of Honam vote liberally.

What is more, the number of inhabitants of the region of Yŏngnam is more than 2.5 times larger than the Honam population. This naturally translates into respective proportions of election districts for the National Assembly—there are more than twice as many districts of the Yŏngnam region (68) compared to the Honam region (31) (cf. Jung, 2015; Kang, 2015: 131). This regionalism, however, is not an expression of historically grown and/or based on religion, ethnicity or other typical cleavages, but is the artificial outcome of economic discrimination and political mobilization. This, in turn, provides the conservatives with a significant advantage, because they have their stronghold in the far more populous Yŏngnam region.

This advantage has been incrementally alleviated since the 1990s by the fact that the proportion of liberal candidates elected in Yŏngnam is higher than that of conservative candidates elected in Honam. In addition, while the recent years showed a somewhat decreasing impact of regionalism on voter behaviour, the nation is still far from a “normalization” of these peculiar voting patterns, even though lately age generation emerged as yet another significant factor (Kim & Park, 2018; Mosler, 2017: also see Goerres & Vanhuysse, 2012).

Public Policies of Population Ageing

Political debates on redistributive public policies in both countries have been taking place against different demographic and political backdrops. For reasons explained above, the economic burden that social systems put on state budgets is considerably smaller in Korea than in Japan. In addition, Korea’s general gross government debt in 2017 stood at 39.6% of the country’s GDP while Japanese governments had driven their state debt to 250.4%, by far the highest figure among all OECD countries.

There are more differences. In 2017, Korea’s social security spending stood at the lower end (11.1% of GDP) compared to European free-market democracies. Japan’s expenditure, however, reached 23.6% of the country’s GDP, similar to many European countries with considerably higher tax revenues (MoFJ, 2020). Even though social security expenditure in Japan is mainly funded by social insurance contributions, the Japanese Ministry of Finance commented on the situation in Japan: “This means that its fiscal balance is in a dire position” (MoFJ, 2017).

The cost of social security in Japan almost doubled from Yen 66.2 trillion in 1990 to Yen 123.7 trillion in 2020. The social security budget consumed 34.9% of the national budget in 2020, an increase from 17.5% in 1990 (MoFJ, 2020). Population ageing was the major factor behind the growth of expenditures in the fields of pension, health and long-term care. Especially, the increasing age group 75 and older has been contributing heavily to social welfare costs. According to data published by the Ministry of Finance in Japan (MoFJ, 2020), the state covered average costs per citizen in the age cohort 65–74 of Yen 14,000 annually for long-term care, while the same amount for citizens 75 and older amounted to Yen 137,000. The state share for medical care was Yen 81,000/person/year for the 65–74 cohort and Yen 335,000 for those 75 and older (data for 2017) (MoFJ, 2020).

Korea, too, increased its budget for social welfare from Kwn 129.5 trillion to Kwn 146.2 trillion, which is about one-third (34.1%) of the total 2018 budget of Kwn 429 trillion, and amounts to an increase of 12.9% in budget. The largest items related to population ageing are public pensions (Kwn 47.8 trillion), housing (Kwn 23.8 trillion), elderly and youth (Kwn 12 trillion), and basic social security benefits (Kwn 11.3 trillion) (No, 2017).

Clearly, with a growing share of senior citizens, the ability of the pension and health systems to sustain a satisfying standard of living at low costs is of high political significance. In addition, both countries reacted to the growing share of senior citizens and the weakening capacity and willingness of family members, especially women, to act as caregivers by introducing public long-term care insurance (Japan: 2000, South Korea: 2008). It is in these public policy fields that political parties immediately feel negative reactions of voters to measures that reduce social welfare benefits or raise costs like co-payments.

On the other end of the age distribution, however, younger voters are not only fewer in number but remain comparatively disinterested and unorganized in political matters. What makes their political influence even smaller than in many European countries is the absence or weakness of civil society organizations and other non-party actors that can function as stakeholders such as welfare organizations, labour unions or socially active religious organizations. Still, low fertility rates have created economic and social pressure on policymakers to facilitate having children. In both countries, measures directly related to pregnancy, birth, childcare and other forms of child support have been discussed and sometimes implemented.

A look at the composition of the state budgets for social welfare shows that only comparatively small percentages have been designated for child support. In Japan, Yen 35.9 trillion of the national budget for the fiscal year 2020 was allocated to social security. These resources complemented another Yen 84.4 trillion from insurance contributions and other sources to make up a total budget for social security of Yen 123.7 trillion. Of those, only 12.6% were designated as child support (childcare, child allowance etc.) (MoF, 2020).

For similar reasons, in Korea, childbirth and child-rearing are increasingly supported by the government, too. The 2018 budget saw a 13.7% increase in financial support for child-rearing, family and women in comparison with 2017. Child-rearing allowances payment was increased so that a parent can receive 80% of her/his salary for the first three months of parental leave, and a bonus system for fathers took effect as of July 2018 which amounts to a sum of up to Kwn 2 million (Ministry of Strategy and Finance 2018: 66). Starting from September 2018, another form of child allowance is a monthly payment of Kwn 100,000 to lowest income families with children of up to five years of age. In addition, one-parent families’ child allowance was raised from Kwn 120,000 to Kwn 130,000 per month (Ministry of Strategy and Finance, 2018: 96). Also, the budget for elderly and youth was enlarged by 15%. The largest increases among the social welfare items were in employment at 30.4% and general social security by 35.9% (Ministry of Strategy and Finance, 2018: 104).

While the public financial burden of demographic change is still comparatively small in Korea, Japanese governments have been looking for ways to fight an increasing gap in state budgets triggered by population ageing (MoFJ, 2017, see for a comparative analysis of Japan, Germany and Italy Sciubbba 2012). Since 1989, when a 3% consumption tax was introduced, most prime ministers were confronted with demands of their financial bureaucracy to increase this tax and use the revenue for social welfare services. With tax increases being unpopular and Japan’s industry continuously pointing at the risk a tax increase could pose for the country’s economy, the issue was often taken off the political agenda again. Prime Minister Abe Shinzô postponed the increase from 8 to 10% two times (in 2014 and 2016, Klein & McLaughlin, 2018: 56–57), finally implementing it in October 2019, thus considerably increasing tax revenues (cf. MoFJ, 2020).

In 2017, Abe also announced a change in the designated use of the consumption tax revenue by dedicating a share of it to lowering the cost of education for families. By doing so, he addressed an important issue that has kept young adults (in both countries) from having (more) children. Surveys reliably show that the financial burden of an education system that promises better jobs mostly to those who attend expensive private schools and universities works as impediment for young couples. Educating children in Korea and Japan is an economic burden and, as Holthus and Klein (2010) suggest, produces an ‘educational spiral’ that has an increasingly negative effect on fertility.Footnote 4 As a consequence, the economic costs for children in both countries vary considerably according to—above all—the educational institutions attended. Based on the data collected by Benesse, a Tokyo-based private institute for social research, costs for child-rearing (from birth to the age of 22) amount to somewhere between Yen 26 million to Yen 41 million (Benesse, 2015). In Korea, recent calculations estimate an average amount of close to Kwn 400 million to raise an infant up to the age of around 20 years (Chi & Yu, 2017; Song, 2018).Footnote 5

Efforts were made by non-conservative governments in both countries to support young (potential) parents. During the little over three years that the LDP was replaced as ruling party by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009, a substantial increase in child allowance was proposed to support families with children. The DPJ hoped that giving more money to families would help them pay for education and thus encourage them to have more children. In the end, the policy had only been implemented halfway when the LDP regained power and shelved the increase. In Korea, the Moon administration introduced a monthly child allowance of Kwn 100,000 per offspring up to the age of five. In addition, a set of support measures was created to address marriage, childbirth and childcare. Public housing for newly wedded couples was to be increased by 30,000 households and favourable options to be provided when purchasing or renting houses or when taking out loans. Moreover, not only were medical centres for childbirth to be extended, but also an additional 150–450 different public kindergarten facilities to be newly created (Ministry of Strategy and Finance Ministry of Strategy and Finance, 2018: 30).

In Japan and Korea, women who stopped working after giving birth created the typical M-shaped curve of female paid employment.Footnote 6 This phenomenon can be observed in both countries, although the labour force participation rate of Japanese women is considerably higher than that of Korean females. In both countries, however, the ‘dint’ has flattened continuously over the last decades. In 2017, 82.1% of Japanese women of the age cohort 25–29 were employed. For the next two cohorts (30–34 and 35–39), the share does not decrease further than 75.2% and 73.4%, respectively, returning to 79.4% for the 45–49 year old (GoJ, 2020). In Korea, the labour force participation rate of women as of 2016 stood at 58.4%, even though in international comparison this level is still under the OECD average of 63.6% (Statistics Korea, 2018a).

These figures do not say anything about the type and quality of employment mothers can find after returning to the job market. As many studies showed, career options are drastically reduced, and many women work part-time and/or as irregulars with less social security and job protection than regular full-time employees. What is more, pressure from employers, general working conditions and a lack of daycare facilities impede efforts made by many women to reconcile paid employment with child-rearing. In both countries, women are generally expected to take responsibility for raising their children and household work, even though numbers of housemen and spouses who take longer child-rearing leaves from work are slowly rising. Still, giving care is constructed to be a female chore. Work-life balance has been declared a political goal by governments in both countries but remains unattainable to a large part for female and male employees (for Japan, cf. Aronsson, 2014; for Korea cf. Park, 2019)


Given the demographic development and budget restraints described so far, the immigration of younger working populations seems like a promising alternative solution to the challenges faced by both societies. Like in other advanced economies, however, there are various factors that keep governments from simply allowing the needed labour force to immigrate. One major factor is that while highly qualified workers are usually welcome in specified sectors, the ruling parties assume there is little enthusiasm among voters for substantial labour immigration from abroad, resulting in ‘stealth policies’ that open doors for (mostly) temporary foreign-born workers under the label of, for example, ‘internship programs’. Japan has proven more restrictive in this field than Korea.

In migration research, Japan and Korea belong to the group of ‘new immigration countries’ (Hollifield et al., 2014). Both countries have seen a steady increase in foreign-born immigrants and mixed (multicultural) families since 1990, albeit to different degrees. In Japan, the number of registered foreigners more than doubled between 1990 and 2015 from one to more than two million, equal to a share of 1.78% of Japan’s total population (IPSS, 2017a). In Korea, there was a 20-fold leap from about 50,000 foreigners in 1990 to more than 2 million students, blue and white-collar workers, and wivesFootnote 7 in 2016. Altogether, 2.3 million foreigners are registered as living in Korea, a share of 4.5% of the country’s total population (KOSIS).

Less than demographic developments, it was the labour-intensive industries in both countries that created pressure on governments to allow for immigration. With growing income and higher education levels, fewer Japanese and Koreans needed to accept physically demanding and dangerous jobs, resulting in labour shortage in the respective industries including agriculture. With East Asia having turned into a migration region in the 1980s (Chiavacci, 2014), governments in both countries seemed to have a new option to tackle their respective labour shortages.

In Japan, however, many voters have associated low-skilled labour immigration with potential social tensions, wealth gaps and a loss of public safety (Tajiri, 2017: 20).Footnote 8 Politicians closer to industry interests, however, pushed pro-immigration initiatives. The relevant ministries fought for their respective (sometimes conflicting) agendas. Consequently, the political debate on immigration over the last three decades has been characterized by phases of different intensities and a number of different policy approaches, most of which resulted in backdoor immigration as a compromise, while the issue was mostly ignored in the public debate. As a result, by 2020, Japan had not developed any kind of (social) integration policy but continued to open its doors to immigration.

In 2016, Prime Minister Abe had declared in the Japanese Parliament that his LDP government “is in no way thinking about immigration policies” (Tajiri, 2017: 19), even though measures leading to similar results had been in place for years. One such measure had been ‘educational visas’ that created a considerable increase in applications of potential language students who would rather work and not attend lessons. Liu-Farrer referred to this as “disguised labor migration”.Footnote 9 Another measure was the government’s 1990 strategy targeting so-called nikkeijin, Japanese emigrants and their offspring, mostly living in Latin America. The expectation was that even though nikkeijin were born in a foreign country, their Japanese heritage would enable them to adapt with little difficulty to Japanese society. They were offered renewable working visas and mostly found employment in blue-collar professions. Starting in 1990, about 300,000 second- and third-generation Japanese made use of the offer. Adaptation to the Japanese work environment, however, did not always go as desired and when the financial crisis in 2008 hit, the Japanese Government even offered money to those immigrants who would return to their home country.

Another political compromise was created in 1993 with the so-called technical intern trainees programme which has allowed participants to stay in Japan for up to five years. The official reasoning behind this programme was to offer people from developing countries an option to acquire (technical) skills during their stay in Japan. Avoiding the label ‘immigration’, this programme has allowed hundreds of thousands of foreign workers into the country as ‘trainees’, most of whom were placed with SME, providing these companies with a badly needed and cheap labour force. The wide-spread abuse of this programme, however, led even the U.S. State Department in 2016 to state in its ‘Trafficking in Persons Report’ that the programme “has effectively become a guest-worker program” with many interns being “placed in jobs that do not teach or develop technical skills” (Iwamoto, 2016).

In late 2017, the government also included caregivers to the groups permitted into the country on the trainee programme. This decision was among others the result of an unsuccessful attempt to attract care workers under an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) from Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Insisting on care workers from these countries to pass the same national care examination as Japanese care workers in Japanese proved too much of a hurdle for the vast majority of those who tried (Hirano, 2017). In 2018, pressure from labour-intensive industries (agriculture, construction, the hotel industry, elderly care, etc.) moved the government to allow for the immigration of up to 345,000 low-skilled workers for a period of five years.

Based on these programmes and labels (and similar to some Western democracies), the de facto labour immigration did not show in official statistics. In the case of Japan, the government’s definition of immigration only includes those in Japan with a permanent resident status, a definition that is substantially different from that of the United Nations. According to the count of Hennings and Mintz (2018: 112), the “size of Japan’s foreign workforce has been continuously underestimated, mainly because the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has published, on behalf of the Japanese government, incomplete and flawed data, which has been disseminated in research publications and mass media reports”. In fact, in late 2016, close to 20% of foreigners working in Japan belonged to the above-mentioned trainee programme. Another 20% were students who were allowed to work up to 27 hours per week and since the late 1980s increasingly filled positions in restaurants, shops and services (Hennings & Mintz, 2018).

To keep labour immigration as low as possible, measures were implemented to facilitate workforce participation of women and senior citizens. In the field of care, the LDP also expected technology to lighten the workload (e.g. care robots). There was no attempt by any LDP government to change the (sometimes not at all) subliminal narrative of labour immigration as a threat to social peace. This goes hand in hand with the almost complete refusal of the state to take in asylum-seeking refugees. For the time being, pointing at the experience of other democracies with large-scale immigration seems to suffice to leave the narrative as it is.

The first important trigger for immigration to Korea was government-led programmes in the early 1990s—the Industrial Trainee System—which invited foreign workforce to do dangerous, difficult and dirty work, which the uprising Koreans did not want to do any further. At the beginning of the 2000s, a new system—the Employment Permit System—was introduced to meet the rising needs of Korean SME allowing foreigners to stay for three years with the option of one-time extension for another two. Under the new scheme, even foreigners enjoy Korean labour law protection and are eligible for the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance.

Yet another increase in the influx of foreigners was due to marriage immigration that also began to take off in the beginning of the 2000s, only to grow from almost 5,000 marriages in 1990 to more than 20,000 marriages in 2016 (KOSIS) with wives coming mostly from China and Vietnam, and husbands from China or the US. A major share of the foreign spouses (about 72% in 2016) is female (KOSIS). Marriage immigration has been strongly supported and promoted by the central as well as local governments for two reasons: foreigners were welcomed because they could alleviate the lack of women willing to marry Korean men living in the countryside, and to ease the general labour shortage.

The Korean Government initiated the legislation of the Act on Treatment of Foreigners in Korea in 2008 as basic framework on the basis of which central and local governments can react to challenges in the process of increasing foreigners pouring in. Also in 2008, the Multicultural Families Support Act (MFSA) was legislated, which focuses mostly on marriage migrants and children of mixed families as well as the whole family. Since then, based on the MFSA, every five years, government agencies develop another Basic Plan for Multicultural Families Policy. The current Basic Plan stretches from 2018 to 2022 and envisages that state agencies assist not only in bride recruitment and family formation, but also in integration and family stability, raising the next generation, and integration into the formal labour market (Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, 2018: 10–12; cf. Kim & Kilkey, 2017: 7–10).

Additionally, the government has been actively promoting a systematic immigration policy for which there are continuously updated versions of the Basic Plan for Immigration Policy (BPIP) since 2008. At its centre is an Immigration Policy Committee that serves as a hub to coordinate policy planning and implementation between the involved government ministries. The government evaluates immigrants as a determinant to the creation of new jobs and innovation in society and thus plans to invite more talented foreigners to contribute to the economy (Immigration Policy Committee, 2012: 18).

The perception of Korean residents about immigrants is increasingly negative though the degree is not dramatic, yet. In general, Koreans have become more reserved in their attitudes towards an increasingly multicultural society, which also has negative repercussions for the adaptation of immigrants (Choi & Lee, 2016; Kim & Kim, 2017; Yoon, 2016). Still, more and more Koreans tend to thinkFootnote 10 that crime rates increase because of immigrants (33.1%→46.6%), and that immigrants steal the jobs of Koreans (23.6%→29.7%). Fewer Koreans think that immigrants help the economy (53.9%→44.9%), and that through them new ideas and culture will be introduced (28.6%→22.4%). In line with that evaluation, less Koreans think that the number of immigrants should be increased (25.4%→15.6%). At the same time, people tend to think the present number of immigrants should be maintained (38.4%→58.7%), and even less think the number of immigrants should be decreased (36.2%→25.7%), which makes clear that the attitude is not necessarily in principle against immigrants as such, but against ‘too many’—a phenomenon that can be observed in many other countries as well.

However, this does not seem to translate into pressure for anti-immigration policies or such content in party platforms. Rather, it pressures political parties and the government to develop policies to alleviate related issues, which is why political parties have recently become increasingly interested in the issue of immigration and multicultural society. Since the early 2000s, more and more parties and individual candidates include immigration- and integration-related items in their platforms and campaign pledges. In 2004, the minor leftist-progressive DLP was the first political party that mentioned respective items in their manifesto. Major mainstream parties only started from 2012 on to incorporate related issues and policy plans in their programmes.Footnote 11


In offering an overview and comparison of Japan and Korea, this chapter has added evidence that political reactions to demographic change are crucial and complex but because consequences of demographic change develop incrementally, political decision makers can easily be tempted to procrastinate and postpone the search for appropriate policies into the future. Pressure to act, however, is clearly increasing due to labour shortages and a rapidly ageing and shrinking society—a trajectory that Japan has been on for decades and Korea has entered with considerable speed.

While the demand for foreign workers is expressed by labour-intensive industries in both countries, governments are also facing an unwillingness of large parts of the population to allow (more or ‘too much’) immigration. With the share of foreign-born citizens still much lower than in European and Anglo-Saxon democracies, many in Japan and Korea look at social developments in the West and conclude that their country would be better off pursuing different approaches to counter labour shortages and an ageing society. It remains to be seen whether technology and the ‘activation’ of women and senior citizens for the labour market that Japanese governments are striving for will be an attractive option for Korea to copy. If not, it will be of great interest to observe whether both countries will see xenophobic, populist parties grow into relevant political forces as soon as immigration takes place on a larger scale. So far, and in contrast to many democracies in Europe, the political systems of Japan and Korea do not feature such parties.


  1. 1.

    The OADR “is the ratio of dependents--people younger than 15 or older than 64--to the working-age population--those ages 15-64.” Data show the proportion of dependents per 100 working-age population (Data taken from: Accessed 19 September 2020). The World Bank calculated the values based on data of United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects: 2019 Revision.

  2. 2.

    World Bank at Accessed 19 September 2020.

  3. 3.

    Lowering the voting age was very much the result of a political deal struck in 2007 that won the opposition’s approval to a bill regulating a public referendum on constitutional reform. In exchange, the LDP agreed to the opposition’s demand to also allow 18- and 19-year olds to vote.

  4. 4.

    Holthus and Klein argue that education-related social processes reinforce each other in their impact on fertility.

  5. 5.

    To offer some comparison: the average annual wage (2019) in Japan was Yen 4.4 million; in Korea, it was Kwn 41.8 million ( Accessed 19 September 2020).

  6. 6.

    In many countries, graphs illustrating female employment rates by age group resemble the letter “M” because they show high percentages for women gainfully employed in the years after graduation from school/university and again from their late 30 s on. In between those years, however, fewer women are employed, mostly because of child-rearing.

  7. 7.

    These are women mostly from Southeast Asian countries who marry farmers in the South Korean countryside who have difficulties to find domestic women who are willing to work in agriculture.

  8. 8.

    Among others, in a large-scale survey (n = 6,000) conducted in late 2015, Facchini et al. (2016: 19) found that only 29% of Japanese “supported an increase in levels of immigration.”

  9. 9.

    Personal communication, June 21, 2018.

  10. 10.

    See Pak (2016) on survey results comparing answers from the year 2003 with those from the year 2015.

  11. 11.

    This is also the year in which the Philippine-born Jasmin Lee who married a Korean man entered as the first foreign-born Korean naturalized the National Assembly for the conservative New Frontier Party (NFP). The only other representative-turned immigrant is Cho Myŏng-Chul (NFP), who fled North Korea.


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Klein, A., Mosler, H. (2021). The Oldest Societies in Asia: The Politics of Ageing in South Korea and Japan. In: Goerres, A., Vanhuysse, P. (eds) Global Political Demography. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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