Crossing Borders for an Elusive Betterment: Filipina and Chinese Women in Japan

Women have an advantage when it comes to marriage migration. Do you agree?

This essay will take an intersectional approach, and examine the layers of difference present when terms such as women and advantage are used. The lived experience of migration confers different female bodies with different advantages, and advantage should be broadened to not simply mean ‘winning’, as marriage migration in the East Asian context is largely underpinned by normative traditions that encourage economic hypergamy. Within these processes, although it is important to recognise that the mobility of women is often predetermined by cultural pressure, and whether or not they have agency is unclear, an advantage is all the same present through the fact that men rarely are afforded the chance to marry up.

I will use the movements between Filipina women migrating to Japan for marriage as an example to present how narratives of abroad are constructed, the ways migration infrastructure benefits Filipina women, and the ways that life in Japan affords them the chance to accrue capital and engage in a cosmopolitan life. However, the importance of marriage brokers, and fees, as well as the visa and migration laws dictated by the receiving country contribute to the erosion of a belief in feminine agency or personal self-development for women who out-migrate, and in this strand, I argue against the idea that women have an advantage in this context. I will also look at how this process differs for Chinese women, and how on the grounds of shared cultural heritage, history and even language, they can ‘pass’ in Japan, and the ways in which the power of patriarchal norms and institutionalised forms of male supremacy dictate much of the migratory process, furthermore eroding a sense of advantage through the predefined asymmetry of conjugal power relations.

Firstly, I will discuss the need for an intersectional lens when examining the migratory patterns of women in East Asia. The process of marriage migration in East Asia channels Clark’s (2001) reinterpretation of Massey’s (1993) concept of “power geometry”. This idea supposes the relational aspect of migration processes and offers an analysis that bifurcates into senders, and receivers of migratory processes. Essential to this is the idea that men easily cross transnational borders, while (Chinese) women, are “more on the receiving end of mobility” (61). Considering this, one might quickly come to the assumption that men withhold much of the power that determines migration and mobility, but this approach seems to obfuscate the feminine agency in these processes.

Furthermore, the concepts of advantage, and also that of women in this question are quite expansive, and are highly multidimensional; advantages are ascribed differentially across regions and cultures, and women cannot be applied to East and Southeast Asia in the context of this question because it elides the added depth of classifiers such as class and ethnic identity. Different women experience differential levels of advantage in marriage migration, and Clark (2001) attests that the regional is of equal importance as the global when discussing marriage migration.

For Chinese women, marriage remains an unequivocal emblem of adulthood, and the pressure to marry is enshrined in the normative traditions of Chinese familism, which enforces a double standard of age where marriage concerned, as women become ‘unmarriageable’ much faster than men. Geographic proximity and a shared cultural heritage with Japan facilitate a certain kind of advantage which is absent in the case of Filipina women: Recognition of Kanji, intimate historicity, and fair skin all bestow upon Chinese women an innate capacity to ‘pass’ in Japanese society.

Filipina women on the other hand are conspicuous by their skin, and perhaps more likely to feel alienated. Yamaura (2015) tellingly notes of her interlocutors that they considered marriage to “Blacks” (kokujin), Puerto Ricans, Filipinas, or Vietnamese women simply unimaginable (1039), and Appadurai (1996) also notes the political power of ethnicity as a global force to navigate certain borders (306). Therefore, considering this question with an intersectional approach can unearth added layers of depth to these migration patterns. In the context of East Asia, many women who cross transnational borders for marriage are confronted with various intersections that either impede or enhance their mobility, in some cases, this affords them advantages not possible for certain bodies.

Nonetheless, it can still be considered advantageous because marriage hypergamy for men from low socioeconomic backgrounds is very rare. This of course is not to say that the vertices of institutional power that regulate the reproduction of such marriage patterns are not wholly patriarchal, but there is space to suggest that women have substantial agency to navigate the male-dominated terrain.

I will now draw attention to the interplay between Appadurai’s (1996) hypothesis on the deterritorialization of boundaries, which contributes to the construction of dynamic narratives of ‘abroad’ and ‘imagined worlds’, and how the entertainment visas (generally reserved for females) that Filipina women use to enter Japan can create safe, legal channels to marriage migration and settlement.

In her work on Filipina migrants in rural Japan, Faier (2008) discusses how the concept of love was applied and how women originally on entertainment visas in Japan sublimated the love required of them for their profession into allegedly genuine love. It’s difficult to say whether most of the women in her ethnography had previously planned to marry in Japan and this seems omitted from her work. Nevertheless, Piper (2008) also discusses the interconnectedness between marriage migration and economic migration, suggesting that “many women are originally economic migrants and partly because of the temporary contract nature of their visa and work permits, they seek marriage to a local man as a strategy to enable them to remain in the destination country in a legally secure manner” (1293). This seems to be somewhat in conflict with Faier’s (2008) work, which suggests that despite the possibility of special marriage visas, the Filipinas were truly in love and wanted to remain for that reason. In this context, Filipina women have a certain advantage because of the existing infrastructure that facilitates regular flows of entertainers between Japan and the Philippines, who are ordinarily female. Related to this, is the ways in which Filipinas construct an idealistic narrative about an imagined life in Japan based on our understanding of Appadurai’s (1996) mediascapes and ideoscapes.

Life in Japan is assumed to be a gateway to modernity, and many of Faier’s (2008) interlocutors also discuss the ways in which they perceived life in Japan would somehow make them seem more beautiful. Even though they begin as labour migrants, the work they engage in encourages them to regularly perform affective labour, which eventually seems to induce genuine feelings and emotional attachment to their clients, and in some special cases, this furnishes a path to marriage and settlement, which appears unavailable to the aforementioned Chinese marriage migrants. Therefore, the intersectionality of ethnicity confers differential advantages on marriage migrants.

Moreover, in this context, there are certain social stigmas and racial prejudices involved though, and Faier (2008) discusses the stigma associated with so-called ‘Japayuki’, which is a disparaging term for Filipina hostess workers, and mislabels them as sex workers. Considering ‘advantage’ once more, if we specifically examine the case of Filipinas and Japanese men, Faier (2008) suggests that through the act of professing love, Filipinas were able to “claim both globally translatable senses of modern personhood and a sense of humanity” (157), and moreover, this implies that this profession of love is perhaps a natural human response to the social stigma directed at these women.

In light of this, we can argue that in this case, marriage migration afforded these women certain socioeconomic advantages unknown to them beforehand. For example, the accumulation of social and cultural capital abroad, learning to navigate a new and challenging social atmosphere of a highly homogenous country, and furthermore, to construct a modern identity amidst this setting. Faier (2008) seems to corroborate this by suggesting that their work as hostesses allowed room to articulate identities as successful, desirable, and cosmopolitan women (154).

Here, I will discuss Suzuki Nobue’s (2005) ethnography on marriage migration between Japan and the Philippines, insofar as it displays the ways in which women possess a gendered advantage through hypergamy that is seldom experienced by men. It is clear that the remittance income women send home after marrying abroad can improve the socioeconomic conditions of one’s family. This is not only positive for the family unit as a whole, but also has the impact of reshuffling normative gender roles. Suzuki (2005) researched one such family, and found that after a Filipina girl had married a wealthy Japanese man, the girl latterly became the head of the family, as it was money remitted thanks to her husband that had transformed her family’s life. This is an unequivocal indication of the economic benefit that migration can bring to developing regions, but not only that, it can also prompt people to challenge social norms and institutionalised forms of patriarchy. Despite this, women’s advantages seem to be hemmed in by power inequalities, and sometimes women even ironically reproduce these inequalities themselves by becoming a dependent again.

Suzuki (2005) glosses over the implied breakdown of gender norms through this process, and instead focuses on the stark differentials of wealth between the Philippines and Japan. This once more seems to echo Piper’s (2008) suggestion that marriage migration and economic migration are inextricably linked, and perhaps even share a causal relationship. Women at times can find greater accessibility to economic status and resources through ‘up-marrying’, which can afford them much greater respect in sending communities. Despite this, Suzuki (2005) reveals that although the interviewee’s family life was much changed in the Philippines, her life in Japan was far from luxurious, and her personal income depended on her husband and what she earned as a cleaner. This echoes Sherry Ortner’s argument, that people exist within multiple social structures (local, regional, global etc.), and may have agency in one, but not in another. She did not feel that the exotic life her family envisaged her leading was a true representation of the reality of what she experienced in Japan. Although there are clear advantages and positives to draw on from this experience, this character constitutes a minority of women who marry someone willing to remit regularly.

This seems to allude to the definitive power of patriarchal institutions over women, in spite of their agency. This woman was able to make significant changes and improvements in her sending community, yet her own life seemed to plateau and ultimately depended on her husband. Piper (2008) synthesises this succinctly, arguing that migration is rarely a first choice for women, but rather a reflection of dynamic labour markets that continue to change across regions. Furthermore, such marriage migration processes are difficult to divorce from the idea that women migrants’ opportunities for personal socioeconomic empowerment are few and far between (1300).

There is also much to be said for the asymmetrical nature of power in the conjugal relations of those who participate in marriage migration. This idea that the male party approaches the arrangement from a position of privilege tends to skew the balance of power in their favour, and this suggests that men in fact are much more in control of this process. This is emblematic of the commoditisation of feminine bodies, and marriage its final price. The at times convoluted mechanisms that govern marriage migration seem to relegate feminine agency to sexualised markets, reducing women’s capacity to be independent and construct modern identities to masculinist body politics that equate women with economic transactions. Chia-Wen Lu (2005) points out that “commercially arranged marriages turn women and marriages into commodities, placing women in vulnerable and exploitative situations” (276). Her argument underlines this patriarchal nature of marriage migration, and asserts the deflation of feminine agency in the process of migration in Taiwan.

Furthermore, Wilson (1982) also discusses the marketisation of feminine bodies, especially Filipina bodies, that are essentially sold to American men as exotic, oriental beauties. In Wilson’s (1982) argument, the asymmetrical nature of power is again evoked, in the sense that Asians must communicate their identity and personality with Americans in fractured English, and play on obsolete stereotyped roles and notions of womanhood to ultimately be chosen by Americans abroad. Clark (2001) also seems to agree with this, suggesting that in marriage introduction processes, “women are positioned passively, as it is men overseas who initiate courtship through their positionality of privilege and movement” (121).

Yamaura (2015) additionally points out the preferential treatment of males in marriage migration brokering between Japan and Liaoning Province in China, mentioning that Chinese women were not allowed to freely choose the men they wished to meet, or access the men’s profiles (1034). In this context however, the idea of ‘passing’ served to placate Japanese men’s fears about brides who were not Japanese enough. She argues that “Japaneseness was a norm to which the brides were expected to aspire, enabled by the precondition of visual passability” (1043). In this sense, this is perhaps an advantage that Chinese women have over other Asian women, owing to their shared history and culture with Japan, and similar phenotypes. Such advantages could not easily be applied to other Asian women considering brokering a marriage with a Japanese man and this invokes the aforementioned idea of Clark’s (2001) that regional is equally significant to global.

Despite this, it is difficult to say what advantage this truly constitutes on a macro scale, as it seems to hark back to body politics and the sexualisation of markets. It is interesting to also consider the concept of ‘passing’ as it also relates to transgender bodies who attempt to ‘pass’ in daily life too. Considering this, there is also a sense that Chinese women in Japan trying to ‘pass’ experienced a similar need to conceal a former identity in order to fully realise the new one, except in this scenario, the concept of ‘passing’ was imposed upon them by Japanese men. This evokes the inescapable power of patriarchal desires over feminine needs, in spite of this, Clark (2001) maintains that for Chinese women, foreign marriage remains a secure means of social and economic mobility worth having to reinvent oneself for (121).

In conclusion, it appears clear that this question implies a need for far-reaching and extensive research to fully be understood, as the multitude of angles from which it can be tackled unveil layer upon layer of difference. Underlying marriage migration is this idea of the geographics of power, and the differentials in mobility and agency between sending and receiving communities. In many of these processes, women fall beneath the male vertex of institutional power and remain on the receiving end of migratory decisions. I have proposed that channelling Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality is beneficial to unearthing and grasping the layers of depth implicit in this question, and that primarily ethnicity should be considered important when evaluating the differentials of advantage conveyed upon various women. Chinese women and Filipina women both experience a different version of marriage migration when crossing the border into Japan, and both are impelled there by distinct factors.

In the case of Chinese women, I have shown that a shared cultural heritage with Japan, as well as their similar phenotype, they are more able to pass in Japan, yet the fact remains that the catalysts pushing them to Japan are entwined in patriarchal Chinese culture. For Filipina women, their darker skin and unfamiliarity with Kanji are factors that make them more conspicuous in Japanese society, making Japanese men hesitant about marrying them. However, existing infrastructure provides channels for them to successfully up-marry and resettle in Japan, and furthermore, provides fertile soil for the acquisition of various forms of capital through navigating foreign territories, learning to deal with social stigma, and attempting to construct cosmopolitan identities.

Others, though perhaps minorities, also have shown that some women can inspire huge socioeconomic improvements in their home communities, and even find themselves situated at the head of the family through the economic power marriage hypergamy affords them. Despite all of this, the patriarchal presence encountered in much of these migratory patterns is difficult to ignore, and at times it seems that men are ultimately in control of much of women’s agency and decision-making.


Piper, Nicola (2008), “Feminisation of Migration and the Social Dimensions of Development: the Asian case.”, Third World Quarterly29, No. 7: 1287-1303

Wilson, Ara (1982), ‘American catalogues of Asian brides.” In Anthropology for the Nineties: Introductory Readings. Johnnetta B. Cole, ed. The Free Press

Chia-Wen Lu, Melody (2005), “Commercially Arranged Marriage Migration: Case Studies of Cross-border Marriages in Taiwan”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 12: 275

Clark, Constance D. (2001), “‘‘Tradition,’’ and the Politics of Border Crossings”, China Urban: Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture: 104-122

Yamaura, Chigusa (2015), “Marrying Transnational, Desiring Local: Making” Marriageable Others” in Japanese–Chinese Cross-border Matchmaking”, Anthropological Quarterly: 1029-1058

Suzuki, Nobue (2005), “Tripartite Desires: Filipina-Japanese Marriages and Fantasies of Transnational Traversal”, In Cross-Border Marriages: 124-144

Faier, Libra (2008), “Filipina migrants in rural Japan and their professions of love”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 34. No. 1: 148-162

Tommy Gough is a recent Oxford graduate with an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies. In the past, he has worked in editorial and publishing roles both in China and the UK. Since graduating, his gaze has shifted towards the completion of his debut novel — a fantasy epic replete with spells, monsters, and eccentric wizards that also explores the complexities of a mixed-race identity and growing up queer in a religious family. In addition to this, Tommy writes regularly on Medium for a variety of publications, with a focus on racial and LGBTQ+ topics and develops his plant-based Instagram food account.


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