Erin Chung on Her Book: Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies

Erin Aeran Chung is the Charles D. Miller Professor of East Asian Politics in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She previously served as founding co-director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship (RIC) Program and director of the East Asian Studies Program at Hopkins. She is the author of Immigration and Citizenship in Japan (Cambridge, 2010) and Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies (Cambridge, 2020), which received the 2021 ASA Asia and Asian America Section Transnational Asia Book Award, Honorable Mention for the 2021 APSA Migration & Citizenship Section Book Award, and the 2021 Research Excellence Award from the Korea Ministry of Education and the National Research Foundation of Korea. She is currently serving as co-president of the APSA Migration and Citizenship Section (2021-2023), co-editor of the Politics and Society of East Asia Elements series at Cambridge University Press, and co-P.I. for the Initiative on Critical Responses to Anti-Asian Violence (CRAAV) at Hopkins. Her research has been supported by grants from the Academy of Korean Studies, the Japan Foundation, the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies.
Labiba Hassan '25 interviewed Dr. Erin Aeran Chung on April 28, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Erin Aeran Chung.

What makes incorporation of immigrants a difficult challenge in East Asian democracies? Are there any examples of successful immigrant incorporation policies or initiatives in East Asian democracies or elsewhere that you believe could serve as models?

The incorporation of immigrants is a complex challenge in East Asian democracies, as it is in any country. No country has achieved definitive success in incorporating immigrants, primarily because there is no universal definition of successful immigrant incorporation. Additionally, the factors that affect immigrant incorporation across different contexts remain poorly understood. However, I propose a broader definition of immigrant incorporation that goes beyond mere naturalization or cultural assimilation. In my definition, immigrant incorporation involves immigrants and their descendants transitioning from being temporary residents to becoming political participants who assert their permanent membership in the receiving society. This definition does not solely depend on legal status or a specific form of cultural assimilation.

Regarding successful models or initiatives, East Asian democracies can learn from one another. Each country has implemented policies or programs that have shown relative success in engaging both native citizens and individuals with immigrant backgrounds as active members of their communities. 

Japan has witnessed success at the local level through the implementation of policies and programs that advocate for migrants, recognize their importance in the community, and encourage their leadership. These efforts have led to the acknowledgement of foreign residents as members of their local communities, regardless of their legal nationality. Some local communities have even established assemblies specifically for foreign residents to voice their interests.

South Korea stands out for its swift implementation of immigration reform, particularly in response to the arrival of large numbers of migrant workers since the 1990s. South Korea has prioritized human rights across its legislation, extending protections to migrant workers, spouses of migrants, and co-ethnic immigrants. South Korea is the only country among the three East Asian democracies that has changed its citizenship policies to allow for dual nationality. It also grants local voting rights to foreign permanent residents, distinguishing it in the region.

In Taiwan, migrant rights groups and activists have actively promoted political leadership and learning among migrant actors, particularly women. Through language training, collaborative networks with local Taiwanese activists, and public forums, migrant women have gained a platform to voice their concerns and establish migrant women's organizations. These organizations also establish networks with organizations from their home countries, mobilizing for their rights internationally.

What generally distinguishes immigrant spouses from other immigrants? Regarding migrant spouses, what common patterns have you found, especially with regards to socioeconomic status, education level, and cultural background, when compared to other types of immigrants? How do these factors hinder the assimilation of immigrant spouses or shape their view of citizenship in East Asia?

Immigrant spouses in East Asia are distinct from other immigrants in several ways. Unlike migrants with short-term visas, immigrant spouses enter as permanent settlers through marriage to native citizens, necessitating incorporation into both the receiving society and a specific family unit. This challenges traditional conceptions of familial and national membership based on blood purity and descent. Family migration has become a central immigration channel, with marriage to a native citizen being one of the few pathways to permanent settlement and citizenship acquisition. Notably, in Taiwan, marriage to a native citizen is the primary means for mainland Chinese migrants to enter.

The assimilation of immigrant spouses and their views on citizenship in East Asia are greatly influenced by their legal status and visas. Family migration policies tie the legal status and rights of migrant women to their spousal status. Divorce, particularly without children, can result in the loss of legal status, associated rights, and even the right to reside in the country. This precarious situation can lead to their undocumented or irregular status.

Since most migrant spouses are women, programs tend to focus on integrating them into traditional gender roles within the patriarchal family structure, rather than solely emphasizing language acquisition. This conservative implementation of legislation has posed risks for immigrant women and created challenges for their integration into South Korean and Taiwanese societies.

The spousal visa puts immigrant women in vulnerable positions. Those in marriages affected by domestic violence, for instance, depend on their husbands and in-laws to maintain their legal status. Reports indicate a significant prevalence of domestic violence in multicultural families, with a survey finding that 43% of such families in South Korea experienced domestic violence, compared to 40% in native South Korean families. Despite efforts to protect migrant spousal rights through legislation, domestic violence remains a persistent issue among female migrant spouses.

In Taiwan, mainland Chinese migrant spouses face greater surveillance and exclusion compared to their foreign counterparts. Their legal status is complicated given the influence of cross-strait relations and security concerns. Until recently, mainland Chinese spouses had to undergo a waiting period of eight years between gaining permanent residency status and obtaining full citizenship rights, including voting rights. This waiting period was twice as long as that for non-Chinese foreign spouses.

What are your recommendations for how East Asian countries should reform their approach to immigration?

One important necessary change is to stop viewing immigration as a solution to demographic challenges and labor shortages. Categorizing migrants based on their contribution to specific national goals limits their potential and overlooks the broader value of immigration beyond population replacement. Reforms in immigration policy and equitable incorporation policies are necessary to provide all immigrants with pathways to permanent settlement and citizenship. Such reforms could contribute to revitalizing the economy, society, and democracy of each country.

The first significant step is to make permanent residency and citizenship accessible to all migrants, rather than a select category. This would require distributing institutionalized rights and programs currently offered selectively to specific migrant groups, such as migrant spouses and co-ethnic immigrants, more equitably among all migrants.

Despite being classified as liberal democracies, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have stringent descent-based citizenship policies that extend indefinitely, surpassing second or third generations. Consequently, these countries have five to six generations of legally foreign residents, even if they were born and raised there, making them stand out among other democracies that typically grant citizenship to immigrant descendants from the third generation. Formal naturalization remains the sole path to citizenship in these countries, regardless of whether one is a recent immigrant or a fifth or sixth-generation descendant. This inequity needs to be addressed and corrected.

Another reform that should be considered is the implementation of dual citizenship, although it may be more challenging for Japan and Taiwan. South Korea already introduced dual citizenship in 2010. Studies have shown that dual nationality increases the likelihood of naturalization among immigrants and can contribute to diversifying the concept of citizenship.

What approaches adopted by other liberal democracies in incorporating immigrants may be applicable to East Asian democracies? What approaches would be counterproductive?

All three countries in East Asia can learn from each other and present a combined model. East Asian democracies should consider Canada's original multicultural model, before it was revised and reinterpreted in various contexts. The early implementation of multiculturalism was a response to assimilationist policies tainted by colonial forced assimilation and racist immigration and citizenship policies. This original model emphasized the right to difference, and prioritized equality, democratic inclusion, and cultural pluralism. This approach moves away from one-sided assimilation and burdensome expectations placed on individual immigrants. 

It is important to move away from models that assume incorporation is synonymous with assimilation, particularly cultural and social assimilation, or models that equate incorporation with naturalization alone. The older melting pot model in the United States is also counterproductive, especially in societies where immigrants are not always perceived as indistinguishable. In the context of East Asia, a melting pot model could lead to the erasure of immigrant identities and backgrounds. Additionally, civic integration policies observed in the European Union (EU) can be dangerous and counterproductive. While these policies may not explicitly aim for cultural assimilation, they can still reproduce colonial forced assimilation and impose assumptions about what constitutes a civil society.

The role of civil society and social movements in advocating for immigrant rights is a significant theme in your book. How have these groups engaged with debates around multiculturalism, and how has this affected policy in these countries?

In my book, I discuss the significant role of civil society and social movements in advocating for immigrant rights in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. While all three countries have embraced the concept of multiculturalism as a model for immigrant incorporation, there are notable differences in their approaches. 

In Japan, the concept of multiculturalism, particularly the idea of multicultural coexistence, originated from the Zainichi Korean movement, which emphasized the importance of coexistence and living together harmoniously. However, the notion of multicultural coexistence in Japan has evolved over time, focusing more on tolerance rather than an embrace of diversity. The roots of multiculturalism in Japan can be traced back to civil society and social movements led by former colonial subjects and their descendants.

In South Korea, the term "multicultural" emerged in the 1990s as a way to address the increasing diversity within Korean society, particularly in reference to mixed-race families and populations. Previously, the term "mixed race" carried negative connotations, reflecting a society that emphasized blood purity. As international marriages grew, advocates for migrants and women began using terms like "double culture family" or "multicultural family" to shift the focus from foreignness to the growing cultural diversity within Korean society. The term "multicultural family" has been adopted by both the larger society and the government. However, this co-optation of the term has led to exclusions, with specific categories of populations, such as mixed-race individuals and families with two foreign parents, being excluded from these policies.

The concept of Taiwan as a multicultural society was primarily used in reference to native Taiwanese populations, excluding migrant populations and their offspring. It took years of advocacy for migrant women and their advocates to include migrant women within Taiwan's ethnic groups or multi-ethnic society, alongside the so-called "four great ethnic groups" (ethnic Taiwanese, Hakka, Aborigines, and mainland Chinese). Although migrant women were recognized as the fifth group, this homogenizes migrant women regardless of their ethnicity and remains a gendered category. 

Civil society and social movements have played a crucial role in shaping the debates around multiculturalism and influencing policy in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. However, the extent of inclusivity and the recognition of diverse immigrant populations vary among these countries.

Labiba Hassan '25Student Journalist

Akitoshi Iio, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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