In-depth Social Impact of a Declining Population
South Korea’s Explicit Family Policy and Japan’s Implicit Approach

Sōma Naoko [Profile]

[2012.09.19] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL |

South Korea has reformed its family policy to respond to its declining birthrate, aging population, and other changes, such as the increase in international marriages. Sōma Naoko examines the situation in South Korea to shed light on approaches to family policy that might suit Japan’s needs.

East Asia’s Falling Birthrates and Aging Populations

The countries of East Asia are facing a common social issue: how to construct more effective social welfare systems with limited resources in the face of sharply lower birthrates and aging populations. It will be difficult for them to achieve a soft landing for their demographic shifts unless they revise the way their existing welfare resources are distributed. They must consider the distribution of these resources not only within a generation, but also between generations (young people and seniors). In other words, they face both intragenerational and intergenerational issues.

In the decades following World War II, the countries of East Asia had “young societies” with high birthrates and rapidly growing populations. Reining in population growth through family planning programs was a high-priority task. In South Korea, for example, the government implemented an explicit population-control policy from the 1960s through 1996, taking the control of population as a key part of its plans for economic development. Ironically, though, only eight years after the termination of their population-control policies, South Korea has introduced measures to counter their low birthrates. Japan adopted policies to promote childbirth in 1990.

Table 1 shows the timing and degrees of the shifts in key demographic indicators that have occurred in East Asian societies since 1980.

First let us look at the total fertility rate, or TFR. Taiwan (with a population of around 23 million) and Hong Kong (around 7 million) have especially low TFRs. As of 2009, Taiwan’s figure was 1.03, and Hong Kong’s was 1.04. The next-lowest figure is that for South Korea (around 50 million): From a rate of 2.83 in 1980, the figure fell to 1.08 in 2005, after which it rose just slightly to 1.15 in 2009. The decline in Japan’s TFR has not been quite so pronounced: From 1.75 in 1980, the rate fell to 1.57 in 1989 (a social phenomenon that was dubbed the “1.57 shock”), and in 2005 it was down to 1.32, but it has since risen somewhat to 1.37 in 2009 and 1.39 in 2010.

Next, if we look at the share of the population aged 65 or older, we find that Japan’s figure is the highest, having reached 22.7% in 2009. Next is Hong Kong at 12.8%, followed by South Korea and Taiwan, both with shares in the 10% range, and China at 8.3%.

The final indicator in the table is the share of extended families (including a husband and wife and at least one of their parents). These figures have been declining throughout the region; as of 2005, South Korea’s 7.0% was the lowest, followed by Hong Kong (8.1%), Japan (12.4%), and Taiwan (14.3%)

Table 1. Demographic Indicators in East Asian Societies, 1980–2009

    China Hong Kong1 Japan South Korea Taiwan
Total fertility rate 1980 2.24 1.93 1.75 2.83 2.52
1990 2.17 1.28 1.54 1.59 1.78
2005 1.72 0.96 1.32 1.08 1.12
2009 1.04 1.37 1.15 1.03
Share of population aged 65 or over (%) 1980 4.9 6.7 9.1 3.8 4.3
1990 5.6 8.6 12.0 5.1 6.2
2005 9.1 12.3 20.1 9.1 9.7
2009 8.3 12.8 22.7 10.7 10.6
Share of extended families2 (%) 1980 16.0 20.7 17.0
1990 12.5 17.8 12.5
2005 8.1 12.4 7.0 14.3

Sources: National and regional statistics.
1. Figures for Hong Kong are for the years 1981, 1986, 2006, and 2009.
2. The share for Hong Kong includes vertically extended families (family households of three or more generations) and horizontally extended families (family households including aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives).

Compression of Family Changes in Japan and South Korea

In this article I will consider the key characteristics of the situation in Japan by focusing on a different angle, namely the “compression of family changes.” By “family changes” I mean the combination of three changes other than the shifts in the fertility rate, namely, the diversification of family forms (increased flexibility, globalization), changes in the divorce rate, and changes in the international marriage rate. And by “compression” I mean (1) the timing and synchronicity of the changes (whether the three changes occurred in tandem during a short period or occurred independently of each other) and (2) the degree of the changes (whether they were sharp or gradual). In other words, I will consider the nature of these changes with respect to whether they overlapped (meaning high compression) or did not overlap (meaning low compression).

To simplify the discussion, I will consider Japan’s case in comparison with that of South Korea, a country with which it is said to have a high degree of similarity. It is a useful comparison because South Korea has had some relevant experiences in advance of Japan: First of all, South Korean society has already experienced family changes more compressed than Japan’s. In addition, it experienced a major economic crisis in 1997, before Japan did. The South Koreans’ responses to these developments offer many suggestions for Japan.

To compare the degree of compression of the family changes in Japan and South Korea, I have prepared the line graphs presented in Figures 1 and 2. Figure 1 presents data for Japan and Figure 2 the corresponding data for South Korea, namely, the changes in fertility (TFR), the crude divorce rate (divorces per year per 1,000 population), and the international marriage rate (percentage of marriages in which one partner is a foreign national). The most prominent feature of this pair of graphs is the contrast between the gradual changes in all three indicators in Japan’s case and the substantial synchronous changes of the three in the case of South Korea. Since the turn of the century South Korea has experienced increases in the divorce rate and international marriage rate(*1) along with a decline in the birthrate, but Japan has seen no marked increases in either the divorce rate or the international marriage rate. In other words, the level of compression of family changes has been high in South Korea and low in Japan.

South Korea’s Explicit Family Policies

Here I would note three characteristics of South Korea’s responses to these changes.

First is the formulation of an explicit family policy framework aimed at embracing diversity in the shape of the family unit. The Framework Act on Healthy Homes(*2) was enacted in 2004, during the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun (2003–8), after which the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family drew up the First Master Plan for Healthy Homes; similar moves were seen at the local government level, such as the adoption by the city of Seoul of a basic plan for family policy.

The social issue of how to define the “family” is not just a policy issue; fundamentally it is a cultural issue as well. So reforming family policy involves reexamining society’s conventional image of the family, which is an element of the country’s family culture. It may require the acceptance of new diversity in the shape of the family unit. The image of the family determines the extent of the “family” that is the object of family policy, and various measures are implemented on this basis. In this context, the formulation of family policy is not just a matter of expanding and improving support measures for families (such as income redistribution) as conventionally recognized for policy purposes; it also involves the expansion and improvement of support measures for families of types that have not been conventionally recognized as such for policy purposes.

In South Korea, for example, the deliberations leading to the passage of the Framework Act on Healthy Homes were accompanied by an outpouring of debate on such issues as “What is a ‘family’?” “What is a desirable image of the family?” and “What sorts of support measures should be provided to which families?” In other words, the debate over the image of the family became an issue in the policy deliberations. Following heated debate on this point, a policy framework was formulated based on the perceived need to provide comprehensive support for diverse types of families, including families based on adoption, families based on international marriages, single-parent families, and families of old people. The resulting explicit family policy framework was one that sought to put together public policies to address the needs of the families encompassed by these diverse images.

In a related development, the Act on Welfare of Mothers with Dependents was revised in 2007 and renamed the Single-Parent Family Support Act; under this law both mother-and-child and father-and-child protection facilities were established. And the scope of “single-parent families” was defined to include not just single-mother and single-father families but also families consisting of a grandparent and grandchildren.

A second characteristic of South Korea’s responses is a strong focus on the social stratification perspective in determining child-raising needs and formulating family policy. The First Master Plan for Healthy Homes included the quantitative target of reducing the poverty rate of single-parent families from 36% in 2005 to 32% in 2010. The Second Master Plan did not include any such numerical target, and it has not been announced whether the 32% target of the First Master Plan was achieved. But the inclusion of poverty reduction as a quantitative target of government policy and the inclusion of a focus on social stratification within family policy are features not seen in Japan. (See Table 2.)

Table 2. Numerical Targets Under the First “Master Plan for Healthy Homes”

Sector Principal indicators 2005 2010
Socialization of care Use rate of childcare facilities 47% 65%
National/public childcare facilities 1,352 2,700
Parents’ share of child-raising costs 62% 42%
Childcare support liaison cases 1,0002 25,000
Share of seniors in public care facilities 1.4% 4.1%
Support for work-life balance Share of women working outside the home 50.1% 55.0%
General use rate of child-care leave 26.0% 36.0%
Use rate of child-care leave among men 1.9%3 5%
No. of institutions participating in FFI (Family-Friendly Index) assessment New 1,000
Expansion of support for families GDP share of family-related public spending 0.1% 0.2%
Personal life satisfaction 47%1 60%
Poverty rate of single-parent families 36% 32%
No. of children in single-parent families receiving child-raising support 23,000 46,000
No. of users of Healthy Home Support Centers 100,000 600,000
No. of Centers to Support Families of Immigrant Spouses 512 200
Building a family culture of equality Share of housework done by husbands 8.1%1 15%
No. of cases of family life training and consultation 30,000 50,000
Share of at-risk youth 3.6% 3%

Source: Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
1. Figure for 2002.
2. Figure for 2006.
3. Share of men among those taking child-care leave.

The “We Start” Movement to Provide Equal Opportunity for All Children

A third characteristic of South Korea’s response is its adoption of strategies targeting children from low-income backgrounds. South Korea has the image of being a society that is extremely enthusiastic about education, and there has been a stronger recognition there than in Japan of the gap at the starting point between those children who receive preschool education and lessons and those who do not. The issue of child poverty has attracted significant attention in Japan only in the last few years, but in Korean society this sort of “starting-point inequality” and “disparity among children” has been recognized as a problem with a long history. And measures have been formulated to provide support for children from less privileged backgrounds.

Here I would like to introduce “We Start,” an undertaking that began as a civic movement (“We” stands for “welfare” and “education”). This is a Korean version of the “Head Start” program of the United States and Britain’s “Sure Start.” It was launched in May 2004, based on the proposition that unless the inequalities between children from low-income families and those from middle- and upper-class families are reduced from the earliest possible age, it will be impossible for children from low-income homes to escape the cycle of poverty when they grow up.

I have studied this movement in action in Yatap-dong, an administrative unit (dong, or neighborhood) of Bundang-gu, an administrative district (gu) in the Seoul suburb Seongnam. The district of Bundang-gu includes areas with high-rise condominiums occupied by middle-class and higher-income residents, as well as low-income areas such as Yatap-dong. The program We Start has been implemented in selected communities with around 200–300 low-income children. In 2004 the “We Start Mokryeon Maeul” (maeul meaning a village or town) was launched in Mokryeon, a community within Yatap-dong, and since then a variety of programs have been implemented there to support children from low-income homes and their families; the area covered has also been enlarged. The main aim is to assist children up to age 12. A joint effort is underway toward that end, involving the city, social welfare centers, childcare facilities, elementary schools, public health centers, hospitals, pharmacies, corporations, and others. The children receiving assistance include those who have been slow in developing their linguistic abilities because their mothers are migrants from Southeast Asia who do not speak Korean well. In such cases, the teacher at the childcare facility informs the We Start Maeul, which has nursery teachers and social welfare counselors on its staff, who are sent to visit the child’s home. They broadly determine the situation of the child and mother, and can assist the child’s linguistic development by having a nursery teacher read aloud to the child from a picture book, for example. As part of the support process, the staffers talk with the mother about what sorts of picture books might be beneficial to her child and what other efforts may be required. Also, they check on the child’s nutritional status and supply milk if needed. And with support for the child as the entry point, the We Start Maeul staffers go on to check on welfare issues affecting the child’s parents or other family members, including employment status and living conditions, and they offer comprehensive help in the areas of education, welfare, and health with the entire family in mind.

Seeking to Provide Support Without Fostering Discrimination

Other initiatives worth mentioning  are the community children’s center and youth academy programs for after-school hours. Community children’s centers are in operation around South Korea, organized by local groups, foundations, welfare organizations, religious bodies, individuals, and others. They assist not just children but also their parents, offering low-income families comprehensive support in the areas of education, welfare, and health. This program has been actively developed particularly since the Roh Moo-hyun administration. The youth academies are government-operated facilities to support children from low-income homes. These academies are for children from fourth grade through the second year of middle school (eighth grade); they operate after school hours up to 10 p.m. The academy that I reviewed in Seoul was being operated under contract by a religious organization, and it offered a highly tailored program.

The programs I have introduced are all aimed at offering entry-level support to children from low-income backgrounds. But there are difficulties inherent in programs that directly target those from low-income homes: When this targeting is explicit, it highlights the children’s low-income background, and it is possible that the children who participate will be stigmatized. In implementing the support, it is necessary to take care not to highlight the “low income” aspect. Those actually working on the front lines in providing the support must grapple with the extremely difficult issue of seeking to change community attitudes while respecting the pride of the individual children involved.

In this way South Korea, which has experienced family changes more compressed than Japan’s and an earlier economic crisis, has reoriented its policies and adopted an explicit stance of supporting families, taking an inclusive approach toward families of diverse types. It has also adopted strategies specifically targeting the low-income stratum.

Three factors underlie these characteristics of the Korean experience: First, social movements and private-sector groups played a major role. The programs of support for children from low-income homes and for families of diverse types have been developed using community resources, on the basis of coordination among the members of existing social movements, such as the poor people’s and women’s movements. Second, academics and researchers played a role. As changes emerged for social problems and policy issues, they were addressed not only by the responsible organizations and social movements but also by researchers and academics working together to promote reform. Third, strong political will has contributed to the process. The provision of support to the low-income stratum got a major boost from the Roh Moo-hyun administration’s identification of this as a policy priority.

Japan’s “Implicit” Family Policy Approach

If we consider the situation in Japan in light of South Korea’s experiences, two points stand out.

First, unlike South Korea, Japan has not adopted an explicit family policy; rather, it has undertaken particularistic, implicit policy reforms. They are particularistic in the sense that the Japanese government has not undertaken to put measures together in a package under the name of “family policy.” The measures corresponding to what is called family policy in South Korea fall into various different policy categories in Japan’s case, including measures for child care, measures to counter the low birthrate, support for development of the next generation, support for child raising, gender-equality policy, support for single-parent families, and promotion of work-life balance. Instead of reconsidering the “image of the family” that serves as the premise for family-related policies, Japan’s approach has been to assume policies must be adopted that target all children, and the policy deliberations have taken children as their entry point.

Also, when we look at the approach taken by local governments with measures to support children’s development, we find that, for example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s action plan to support development of the next generation (phase 1) includes references to “ordinary child-raising support,” “families raising children that require support,” and “families and children requiring special support.” Referring to “ordinary child-raising support” seems implicitly to assume the existence of “ordinary families raising children.” The Japanese approach has thus been implementing what I call “implicit, particularistic reforms.”

One reason Japan has not explicitly adopted “family policy” or “family policies” is historical, namely, the reaction against the wartime drive to get Japanese women to have more babies; this has led to avoidance of explicit population policies. Another factor worth noting is that, unlike South Korea, Japan has not experienced compressed family changes (declining fertility, an increasing divorce rate, and an increasing international marriage rate) all at the same time. The declining birthrate alone has become a policy issue, and the conditions have not been conducive to the treatment of compressed family changes as policy issues to be addressed as a set.

Public discussion of reviewing the “image of the family,” as seen in South Korea, has not been completely absent in Japan. There has even been some discussion of a possible revision of family law to recognize greater diversity in the shape of the family. The image of the family was a topic of deliberation in the Council on Population Problems during the first half of the 1990s, and the 1998 White Paper on Welfare also referred to this subject. But the discussions did not lead to any concrete new legislation or revision of existing laws. Since the 1990s this issue has been left pending. Even though, in real life, the shape of the family has become diversified, government policy has yet to cast off the implicit image of the family inherited from the past: a family where the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays at home to care for children and grandparents and do the housework—and where, if the mother does work outside of the home, it is only to supplement her husband’s earnings. Individual measures, including support for families raising children and support for single-parent families, have been adopted without reforming this implicit image of the family in the background.

The second point is that, unlike in South Korea, where child-raising needs have been addressed with a clear linkage to the issue of social stratification, in Japan these needs have tended to be viewed with reference to the psychological aspects. Since the turn of the century “child-raising stress” and “child-raising anxiety” have emerged as social issues, and the discussion has centered on the need for support to ease such anxiety. Meanwhile, it has become difficult for the child-raising needs of economically insecure families to emerge as an issue. Instead of considering expansion of economic support for the low-income stratum, people have focused on what is required to alleviate child-raising anxiety and help parents enjoy raising their children, and so the political discussion has revolved around the psychological aspects of the support required, with a focus on easing the burden of child raising for middle-class parents. A major factor behind this has been the insufficient political conviction among successive administrations that more needs to be done to support low-income citizens.

Another factor underlying the differences between the South Korean and Japanese responses is the differences in the relationships among social movements (civic groups), academia, and the political world—particularly the distance between these actors. In Japan, the academic and political worlds are further apart than in South Korea, and it is rare for academics, politicians, and concerned groups and movements to work together to identify policy issues and address them by enacting legislation and launching projects.

Formulating Policies to Match Japan’s Needs While Learning from South Korea

South Korea’s experience of compressed family problems during the first decade of the new century forced it to reconsider the image of the family as a social issue. In addition, the 1997 economic crisis awoke a shared sense of crisis, as people realized their comfortable lifestyles might not continue indefinitely.

I would like to conclude this article by considering what direction Japan should take in reforming its family-related policies if compressed family changes occur in tandem with more severe economic downturn. I wish to do this while taking into consideration the differences between the policy approaches and administrative cultures of South Korea and Japan.

First, it seems that in Japan the tendency is to frame the policy debate about family-related matters by taking children as the entry point, rather than directly reexamining the image of the family, as was done in South Korea. So I think the realistic approach is to formulate family policies that include children from all sorts of households, thereby supporting the full range of children regardless of the shape of the family or type of household. While learning from South Korea’s experiences, it is important for us to find a path that suits Japan’s needs.

Second, I would suggest that in Japan there is a tendency to avoid directly targeting support at children from low-income homes, and an administrative culture of avoiding explicit reference to “children from low-income backgrounds.” Up to now the approach in Japan has been one of providing extra support to children from low-income backgrounds within the context of measures directed at all children. But now, as poverty among children emerges as a social problem, we need to revise this approach. I believe that is important for us to provide a combination of universal support for children in general, as well as more narrowly targeted social support for the disadvantaged.

Finally, it is my belief that unraveling the traditional image of the family (including the images of husband-wife and parent-child relationships and of children and adolescents) will make it possible to foster a society that embraces a diverse range of family shapes. How, for example, can we come up with policies that are inclusive of the rapidly growing number of single-member households? Can we include them within the scope of family policy based a broader definition of the family? This is the approach taken in Denmark, for example, where they are considered “families of single persons.” Or is there some other way of including them? With the prospect of compressed family changes and the growth of single-member households, we are now facing the very contemporary issue of how to find a Japanese approach to inclusiveness and to revision of the targeting of the policies directed at children, the family, and young people—policies that in other advanced countries are handled as a set under the title of “family policy.”


Sōma, Naoko. Rebuilding the Family Unit or Defamilialization?: The Politics of Family Policy for Social Risks in South Korea. Chapter 5 in Risk and Public Policy in East Asia. Edited by Raymond K. H. Chan, Mutsuko Takahashi, and Lillian Lih-Rong Wang. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

Sōma, Naoko, Junko Yamashita, and Raymond K. H. Chan. Comparative Framework for Care Regime Analysis in East Asia. Journal of Comparative Social Welfare 27 (2): 111–21.

(*1) ^ South Korea started admitting foreign laborers in substantial numbers in 1991. Starting in 2004 a system of employment permits for foreigners was implemented (allowing them to work legally as unskilled laborers rather than as “trainees”), and a number of laws relating to the admission of foreigners have been enacted in recent years to respond to the rapid growth in employment of foreigners and marriages between Koreans and foreigners, notably the Act on Foreign Workers’ Employment (2004), the Act on the Treatment of Foreigners in Korea (2007), and the Support for Multicultural Families Act (2008), which focuses on immigration accompanying international marriages.

(*2) ^ Article 1 (Purpose) of the Framework Act on Healthy Homes declares: “The purpose of this Act is to contribute to the realization of healthy homes by specifying the rights and duties of citizens and the responsibilities of the State, local governments, etc. with respect to healthy home life and the maintenance and development of families, by strengthening those assistance policies which are capable of contributing to the promotion of the welfare of their members, and by working out appropriate resolution methods of home problems.” Article 3 (Definitions) includes the following definition of “healthy home”: “The term ‘healthy home’ means a home in which the desires of family members are satisfied and their human lives are guaranteed.”

  • [2012.09.19]

Associate Professor, International Graduate School of Social Sciences, Yokohama National University. Specializes in social policy and welfare studies. Author of numerous comparative studies of family policy and welfare policy in East Asia.

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