Postindustrial Pressures, Political Regime Shifts, and Social Policy Reform in Japan and South Korea

By Peng, Ito | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Postindustrial Pressures, Political Regime Shifts, and Social Policy Reform in Japan and South Korea


Peng, Ito, Journal of East Asian Studies


This article examines how postindustrial pressures and political changes have shaped recent social policy reforms in Japan and South Korea. Postindustrial pressures are categorized into exogenous and endogenous factors: exogenous being economic globalization and internationalization, endogenous being changing family and gender relations and demographic shifts such as population aging and declining birthrates. (1) I argue that we need to attend more closely to the interactions between postindustrial and political factors to explain social and welfare policies in these countries. The conventional view on East Asian welfare states no longer adequately explains recent social welfare policy changes in the region.

Following a concise review of the traditional theoretical literature on East Asian welfare states and my account as to why we need to move beyond conventional characterizations of East Asian welfare states, particularly the productivist-capitalist view of Japanese and Korean welfare states, the article looks to analyze the various postindustrial pressures confronting welfare states in Japan and Korea. This will be followed by an analysis of social welfare policy reforms in these countries, set against postindustrial changes and shifting political dynamics in the 1990s. The last section will discuss the implications of welfare state reconfiguration in Japan and Korea on East Asian welfare state research.

Welfare State Development in Japan and Korea: Traditional Explanations and How to Go Beyond Them

It has been widely acknowledged that welfare state development in Japan and Korea shares a similar pattern that is qualitatively different from that of Western welfare states and that welfare regimes in these countries also do not fit in any of Gosta Esping-Andersen's welfare regime models. (2) What generally sets Japan and Korea apart from many of their European and North American welfare state counterparts is that for most of the postwar era both Japan and Korea were able to maintain sustained economic growth and, at the same time, improve on income and social equality. More precisely, two issues that warrant the Japanese and the Korean welfare states a separate consideration from Western welfare states are, first, that this phenomenon of sustained economic growth with equity has happened under rather conservative political regimes (and, in the case of Korea, under authoritarian military regime); and second, that the increased income and social equality witnessed in these countries cannot be easily accounted for by the size or the generosity of their welfare states (at least as far as the traditional measure such as social security expenditure in relation to GDP is concerned). Up until very recently both Japan and Korea had been under conservative rules. In Japan, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had the continuous rule of the government from 1955 to 1993, when it finally lost its majority in parliament. Korea was under military dictatorship from the end of the Korean War to 1987, when it democratized. Even after 1987, Korea was under relatively conservative rule until 1998, when President Kim Dae-jung took over. It is not difficult to surmise from this that neither the social democratic party representation nor the labor movement had much role to play in Japanese or Korean politics. Yet in both countries, the gap in income equality, as indicated by Gini Coefficient, has narrowed from 1960 to 1990. (3) As well, people in Japan and Korea also appear to have very little tolerance for income inequality. (4) Japan and Korea's postwar record of economic growth with equity therefore cannot be accounted for by the strength of the left political party or by class mobilization efforts, as may be the case for many European welfare states. The fact that these countries are able to manage economic growth with equity under conservative and authoritarian regimes has thus led scholars working on Japan and Korea to seek other explanations, most often in terms of a combination of developmentalist state and the Confucian cultural background.

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Postindustrial Pressures, Political Regime Shifts, and Social Policy Reform in Japan and South Korea
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