The changing marriage market in East Asia..

A fascinating paper by Daiji Kawaguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Soohyung Lee (University of Maryland) (HT: Al Roth Blog). It is always exciting to read papers which give an economic perspective to basic human activities like marriage (thanks to Gary Becker).

It seems there is an increase in foreign brides in countries like Korea and Japan. These brides are usually coming from countries like Vietnam and Philippines.

Every year, a large number of women immigrate as brides from developing countries to developed countries in East Asia. This phenomenon virtually did not exist in the early 1990s, but foreign brides currently comprise 4 to 35 percent of newlyweds in these developed Asian countries.

Why this rise?

This paper argues that two factors account for this rapid increase in “bride importation”: the rapid growth of women’s  educational attainment and a cultural norm that leads to a low net surplus of marriage for educated women. We provide empirical evidence supporting our theoretical model and its implications, using datasets from Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan.

So you have two things happening in Japan and Korea. More women are getting educated and unwilling to do typical household work and take care of in-laws. They have become more career oriented and want sharing of household work. However, as cultural norms have hardly changed with growth, most Korean/Japanese brides still want the brides to do most of the household work and not really be a part of workforce. This is leading to a demand/supply gap where K/J grooms are finding a short supply of desired women. Hence, they are taking the  route of finding wives in other places like Vietnam etc where education profile of women is still low. So, they are more willing to do household work.

This paper explains this marriage immigration by emphasizing the rapid improvement of women’s labor-market opportunities in East Asia, together with an imperfect adjustment in institutions that affects an individual’s net gains from marriage. For simplicity, suppose that natives prefer marrying one another to remaining single or marrying a foreigner. If an East Asian marriage market clears according to a standard marriage model following Becker (1973), then net gains from marriage will be adjusted through transfers between men and women according to the increase of women’s outside option resulting from improvement in their labor-market opportunities. Therefore, there will be no inefficient marriage market equilibrium, which East Asian countries appear to have, as described above.

Alternatively, suppose that the allocation rule of net gains from marriage, which we refer to as “cultural norms” hereafter, does not change as fast as marriage-market conditions. For example, if a woman’s net gains from marriage remain the same despite  the increase in her outside option, she may remain single because she cannot find a “good match.” Under this setting, the rapid improvement of women’s outside option, together with slow adjustment in cultural norms, implies that women with a high outside option may remain single, resulting in an effective sex-ratio imbalance, and that consequently some men, particularly those who are least preferred by women, may not find a spouse among native women and thus may turn to a foreign country to search for a wife.

The modelling bit of the paper is very interesting:

We model the story sketched above in a simple two-sided matching framework. To incorporate the idea of an imperfect  adjustment in cultural norms, we use a non-transferability utility model, where an individual’s socioeconomic status and payoff
from marrying a certain type of person are exogenously determined (see related discussion in Smith (2006)). In our model, a man is referred to as “modern” if he suffers less from participating in home production than the rest of men, called “traditional.” We define a woman as modern if she has higher utility from remaining single relative to the rest of women, who are called traditional. In our model, traditional men prefer modern women among native women the least, whereas modern women prefer remaining single to marrying a native man with low socioeconomic status.

A key implication of our model is that even if two countries have the same distribution of education and balanced raw sex ratios, only  one country, not two, may need to import brides from outside if the number of modern men relative to modern women is small in one country (e.g., developed East Asian countries) but large in the other (e.g., the United States). Thus, in our model, cultural norms are accounted for by the amounts of modern men relative to those of modern women in a marriage market. Similarly, if the number of modern women increases rapidly (because of gender equality in education, for example), then the fraction of those who are single among native women and the fraction of native men marrying a foreigner increase unless cultural norms can change sufficiently.

Read the paper. Very elaborate though gets confusing in parts.

Some other findings:

We interestingly find positive sorting along occupation. For example, all else being equal, a Korean farmer is more likely
to have a Vietnamese bride, who is more likely to have experience in farming production than a Chinese or Filipino bride.


There is also a very active brokerage market in both the demand and supply countries who make the meetings possible..

From an eco perspective, it helps three kinds of literatures:

The first is the rich literature on marriage. Following a pioneering work by Becker (1973), many researchers have conducted theoretical and empirical studies of the clearing mechanisms in marriage markets and agents’ underlying preferences.

The second body of literature studies the interactions among work, marriage, and family options (see Goldin (2006) for review)

Last, this paper is related to the vast number of economic studies on immigration. Our paper provides evidence that just like work-related immigration, economic factors significantly account for marriage immigration and that marriage immigration has important socioeconomic implications for both immigrants’ home and destination countries.

Unlike the typical modelling kinds of papers, this one comes explaining a trend from an economic lens. Very nicely done and interesting throughout. It has some amazing reference list at the end as well.

Further, China likely to follow the path of Korea and Japan as well:

Another importance future research topic is China’s possible impact on the world’s marriage markets. We expect that China will soon face a demand for foreign brides like that of Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. China not only has imbalanced raw sex ratios but also shares similar cultural norms that discourage accomplished women from marriage markets (see a recent media report at, 2012). Once Chinese men less preferred by Chinese women can afford the associated cost of “importing” a bride (and relevant regulations allow them to do so), then, because of the population size, China’s demand for foreign brides will immensely affect other countries’ marriage markets and socioeconomic conditions, much more than what the four East Asian countries may have done.

Furthermore, those four Asian countries may not be able to rely on foreign brides to clear their marriage market if China starts to be an importer of female marriage immigrants. First, the supply of female immigrants from China on which they heavily rely may be reduced if Chinese women get a better match from their own marriage market because of a sex-ratio imbalance favoring women. Second, based on our gravity model estimation, we expect that as a major source country of foreign brides, China is likely to turn to similar sets of countries as those on which the four developed Asian countries currently rely. This implies that these four countries may have to compete against China over women in Vietnam, for example, to meet their demand for foreign brides.

The threat from China is in all markets – whether real goods or matrimonial ones…:-)



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