The ICAS Lectures

No. 98-929-FRF

 Asian Values and Civilization 


Francis Fukuyama

ICAS Fall Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
September 29, 1998

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
Fax: (610) 277-3992

Biographic Sketch: Francis Fukuyama

Asian Values and Civilization
Francis Fukuyama

In the early 1990s, former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Prime Minister Mahathir bin Muhammed of Malaysia argued that certain Asian cultural values were the root of Asia's remarkable postwar success. These leaders maintained that in the political sphere, Asian values supported the paternalistic brand of authoritarian government that they both practiced, while in the economic sphere these values supported a work ethic, savings, education, and other practices conducive to economic growth.

In light of the severe recession that has gripped Asia in 1997-98, the collapse of the paternalistic Asian authoritarian government in Indonesia, and political instability in Malaysia itself, these arguments now ring hollow, and it is safe to say that "Asian values" have not figured prominently in the analysis and interpretation of the crisis. Lee Kwan Yew has publicly backed away from some of his earlier assertions,1 and many observers now claim that that Asian values, far from explaining Asia's economic success, lie at the root of the cronyism and corruption afflicting countries there.

While few people want to focus on the role of cultural values today, it is nonetheless useful to reconsider this issue in light of what has happened in 1997-98. There are two questions to be asked in retrospect: to what extent did Asian values genuinely contribute to Asian development over the past two generations, and to what extent were they responsible for the crisis that ended that period of growth in the late 1990s? And one question needs to be posed regarding the future: in what ways will Asian values continue to support distinctive political, economic, and social institutions? We will look at each of these issues in turn.


The idea that Asian cultural values are more hospitable to paternalistic authoritarianism of the sort practiced in Singapore, Malaysia, or Indonesia than to Western-style democracy has been put forward by politicians like former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir bin Muhammed of Malaysia.2 In this they have been supported by a number of Western academic observers. Samuel Huntington has argued that there is a broad zone of "Confucian" civilization that is hostile to democracy:

Almost no scholarly disagreement exists on the proposition that traditional Confucianism was either undemocratic or anti-democratic... Harmony and cooperation were preferred over disagreement and competition. The maintenance of order and respect for hierarchy were central values.3

Tom Gold has argued that there is much in the Confucian political heritage that suggests a continuing pattern of authoritarian politics.4 Tu Wei-Ming in a thorough account enumerates areas of difference between Confucian doctrine and Western values.5

The case that Asian values constitute an obstacle to democracy can be summarized succinctly. If we take Confucianism as the dominant value system in Asia, we see that it describes an ethical world in which people are born not with rights but with a duties to a series of hierarchically-arranged authorities, beginning with the family and extending all the way up to the state and emperor. In this world, there is no concept of the individual and individual rights; duties are not derived from rights as they are in Western liberal thought. While there is a concept of reciprocal obligation between ruler and ruled, there is no absolute grounding of government responsibility in either the popular will or in the need to respect and protect an individual's sphere of autonomy.

Apart from Confucianism, Asia's religions do not give particular support to Western democratic principles. Folk religions like Taoism and Shinto are animist and pantheistic. Westerners sometimes forget the importance of the transcendent monotheism of the Judaeo-Christian tradition to their political and social lives. The idea that there is an eternal realm of divine law superior to all positive law gives the individual with access to that higher law potential grounds for revolt against all forms of secular authority. It promotes both individualism and the concept of universalism. The universalism is the ground not only for the Western concept of human rights that are transferable from one culture to another; it is also the basis for abstraction in the observation of nature and human behavior that is at the basis for both the natural and social sciences.

On the other hand, there are a number of key values characteristic of many Asian societies, which, while having separate roots from their Western counterparts, are quite supportive both of a modern economy and of democratic politics. (Even if they were supportive only of economic modernization, they would still be conducive to democracy because of the link between development and democracy). Asian religions and ethical systems are remarkably tolerant in a way that monotheistic traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam historically have not been. Confucianism, with its exam system that opens up prospects for social mobility, can be highly meritocratic. It is a highly rational ethical system and does not have the obscurantist tendencies of, say, orthodox Shiism. The Confucian emphasis on education is well adapted to the needs of a modern technological economy, and the Confucian family system provides a certain protected sphere of private life that is relatively free of state intrusion.


Since few people seem to be interested in making the case for Asia values as the basis for distinctive political or economic institutions today, criticizing the concept may seem a bit like beating a dead horse. For the sake of clarity, however, it is important to lay out the weaknesses of the original argument as a means of distilling from it those elements that might remain valid.

The first and probably most important problem with the Asian values concept was, as anyone who has traveled through Asia knows, that Asia is a very diverse place, and that values vary considerably from country to country.6 Lee Kwan Yew sometimes suggested that Asian values were tantamount to Confucian values, but then it is not clear why they should apply to the Malay populations of Malaysia or Indonesia. Confucianism is, moreover, interpreted very differently in Japan, Korea, and China. Mahathir argued that Asians value family more than Westerners. But kinship ties vary in importance throughout Asia: they play a minimal role in Japan and a very important one in southern China. Large lineages exist in the latter region, but not in northern China or in other parts of Northeast Asia. It is not even possible to argue that Asian families are more stable than their Western counterparts: during the first half of the twentieth century, divorce rates in peninsular Malaya were well over 50 percent; in contrast to most Western countries, they decreased with economic modernization and crossed over Western rates some time only in the 1970s.7

The second weakness of the original Asian values argument, which is shared by many cultural explanations of behavior, lies in the fact that values almost never have a direct impact on behavior; they must be mediated through a variety of institutions to make themselves manifest. Asian cultural values existed in something like their present form long before Asian societies began their periods of explosive economic growth. The causes for that growth are much more likely to be found in the institutions that were created in the meantime, like stable governments, systems of property rights and commercial law, as well as by the macro- and sometimes microeconomic policies carried out by those governments. Values and culture still play important roles in explaining a given society's ability to build and operate institutions and policies: were the United States, not to mention Brazil or Mexico, to try to create the equivalent of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) within its own borders, I suspect the result would be much less successful. But to jump immediately to the level of culture to explain outcomes without looking at institutions as an intermediate step is a typical mistake made by proponents of cultural interpretations.

With regard to political institutions, it is not at all clear that Asian values, however interpreted, constitute any kind of insuperable bar to modern democracy. There is a correlation between democracy and development; for a variety of function reasons wealthier societies tend to expand political participation. Since the original elaboration of the correlation by Lipset in 19988, it has been analyzed intensively using data from the Third Wave democracies formed in the 1980-1990 period. With some exceptions, the correlation continues to hold up rather well. Adam Przeworksi has concluded that there is not a single historical case of a reversal of a democracy in a country that had reached a level of $6000 per capita in 1992 parity purchasing power terms.9

If we presume that modernization creates conditions neither necessary nor sufficient but nonetheless very helpful to the establishment of stable democracy, the burden of proof then falls on those who argue that Asian values are so exceptional as to undermine the relationship.10 But the empirical record in Asia is relatively supportive of the democracy/development correlation: the first three Asian countries to industrialize, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, now have functioning democracies. While two of the highest per capita income entities, Singapore and Hong Kong, are not democratic, tends to disconfirm the correlation (as well as the fact that the Philippines has been a democracy while remaining one of the region's poorer countries), though these anomalies can be explained by other factors.

If we focus on economic institutions, it is clear that there were some that were unique to the region, and that these were ones which probably could not be created in other cultural settings. These included the so-called Japanese development model in which a technocratic elite overseas sectoral transitions through control over credit; Japan's system of lifetime employment among large corporations and their keiretsu networks; the chaebol in Korea; and the family-based networks of overseas Chinese businesses in southern China and Southeast Asia. While many of these institutions are clearly dysfunctional today, it is very difficult to know in retrospect the degree to which they either contributed to or constrained development during Asia's high-growth period. The most basic explanation for Asian economic development lies in conventional factors like inputs of capital and labor, combined with political stability and reasonably good government. But as the reaction to Paul Krugman's extreme version of this argument indicates, this view is not entirely satisfactory.11 Many uniquely Asian institutions violated precepts of Western neo-classical economics by interfering with market mechanisms; even so, their operation coincided with levels of economic growth that had no precedent in the prior economic history of the West. The least one can say this that (1) they were not as harmful to economic growth as many Western economists asserted in prior decades, but that (2) many have clearly become obstacles to growth now.

Taking account, then, of both the diversity of Asian values and the importance of institutions, the original Asian values argument begins decomposing very quickly. The state-centric Japanese development model was never really implemented in Southeast Asia, many of whose societies possessed less stable and capable governments. There, problems tended to be more ones of under-institutionalization, such as in the case of Thailand, whose financial problems had much to do with an inadequate system of banking regulation. Japan and Korea need to dismantle certain of their state institutions and de-regulate; Thailand and Indonesia need to build up many of their state capabilities and implement more modern regulatory systems. In either case, the central questions concern institutional design and not culture. The latter may have an effect in promoting or constraining the political conditions for institutional change, but is otherwise not relevant only as mediated through institutions.


Just as explanations for Asian growth lie in the realm of conventional economics rather than culture, so too do explanations for Asia's current crisis. It would seem prima facie impossible for a cultural factor, which changes very slowly, to account for a rapid and unexpected development like the loss of foreign currency reserves or the sudden buildup of short-term credit.

There is, however, one cultural theme that has run through current analyses of the crisis, which is the tendency of many Western observers to lump all countries in Asia together under the broad heading of "crony capitalism" and to blame the latter for a serious misallocation of resources. Cronyism was widely acknowledged in Indonesia, and in fact all countries in Asia have experienced corruption scandals of greater or lesser seriousness over the past decade, including both Japan and Korea. Throughout East Asia business relations are probably conducted on a more personalistic basis than in North America or Europe, and there are cultural practices like reciprocal gift-giving that are widely practiced and often shade over into what many Westerners would label corruption. To what extent does this lie at the root of the Asian crisis?

Again, an abstraction like "personalism" hides many divergent practices. Levels of corruption vary widely throughout the region. According to Transparency International's rankings of perceived levels of corruption, Singapore ranks as number 7, ahead of European countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, while Hong Kong is perceived as less corrupt than Austria and the United States. The PRC, on the other hand, is tied with Zambia at number 52, while Indonesia is close to the bottom at number 80. While the rule of law may not have roots as deep in Asia as in the West, it has been effectively implemented in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It is therefore impossible to make a generalization that Asian societies are somehow more corrupt or more given to cronyism than their Western counterparts.

In fact, the case can be made that cultural factors contributed to a relatively low rate of corruption in Northeast Asia. One of the interesting features of industrial policy in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan is how little corruption there appears to have been during these countries' high-growth periods, in light of the enormous powers given to planning bureaucrats and the opportunities this provided for corrupt or rent-seeking behavior. Prior to the 1990s, the major corruption scandals in Japan all involved politicians rather than bureaucrats in the Finance Ministry or MITI. Most observers credit former Korean president Park Chung Hee for being personally uncorrupt, and for reigning in the Philippine-style cronyism that prevailed during his predecessor's administration. Others have argued that Korea's post-1987 democratization was responsible for the emergence of a large number of major corruption scandals in the 1990s, as a more inclusive political process posed temptations to a wider variety of politicians. These countries were able to cultivate a high degree of professionalism among their highly educated technocrats, norms that insulated them to some extent from the kinds of problems plaguing officials with similar powers in, say, Latin America. The problem in these countries was therefore not a cultural proclivity towards personalism and corrupt dealings, but rather a lack of institutional checks which over time could serve to control corrupt behavior.12


In the short run, the Asian crisis has produced a backlash against the United States, international financial institutions like the IMF, and Western values more generally. The chief example of this is Malaysia's Mahathir, who has blamed his countries troubles on the global economy and the Western policies that supported it, as well as individuals like George Soros. Malaysia has moved away from globalization by re-imposing capital controls. The recessions and/or depressions in Korea, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia have produced a substantial amount of misery, and therefore popular resentment against the West that is seen as the major proponent of globalization.

Assuming that the current crisis does not deepen into a global depression or is otherwise prolonged, however, it seems likely that it will lead to a greater convergence of institutions between East and West, and will tend to undermine arguments that there is a distinct set of Asian economic and political values. This is true both on an economic and a political level.

In terms of economic ideas, the crisis has lead to the unconditional defeat of the Japanese economic model of state-led development, which during the 1980s was trumpeted by leaders like Mahathir as an alternative to market-oriented Western modernization strategies. Whatever the past virtues of the Japanese model, seven years of stagnation punctuated by recession in Japan have put paid to this alternative. The Japanese themselves, albeit slowly and painfully, are in the process of dismantling many of the regulations and state institutions that set their country apart from the West; lifetime employment and the keiretsu system are unlikely to survive the current recession in Japan in anything like their earlier form. Institutions elsewhere in Asia patterned on Japanese practices like the Korean chaebol are under similar pressure.

The more important realm in which the crisis has undermined the case for Asian values is political, however. Lee Kwan Yew argued that Western democracies were excessively preoccupied with individual rights rather than communal interests, and that in Asia there was a broad consensus in favor of strong governments that would single-handedly pursue economic growth. While Lee from time to time tried to argue that traditional Confucian ideology could serve as a source of legitimacy in Singapore and other Asian societies, he never really had the courage of his convictions to make the case that he or any other Asian leader personally held the Mandate of Heaven. Rather, legitimacy was built on economic success and the view that authoritarian government was better at producing growth than democracy.

The Asian crisis has, needless to say, demonstrated the weakness of this position. A leader whose legitimacy rests on uninterrupted growth has nothing to fall back in times of recession or depression. Indonesia and South Korea constitute an interesting contrast in this regard. Indonesians understood perfectly well that the Suharto family was getting unusually rich over the past couple of decades, but many were willing to tolerate corruption on their part as long as the country as a whole was prospering as well. This good will dried up immediately in the wake of the financial crisis, leading to the fall of the regime and ushering in the current period of instability. Even for a relatively poor country like Indonesia, there was no alternative to democracy as a source of legitimacy. Malaysia has experienced instability as well, where the legitimacy of Mahathir's rule has been called into question and where the other great weakness of authoritarian government-its lack of effective mechanisms for bringing about political succession-are now plainly visible.

Korea, by contrast, when faced with a similarly grave economic crisis, suffered no similar political challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of its political institutions; indeed, Koreans managed to elect a long-time opponent of past military regimes, Kim Dae Jung, in the teeth of this crisis. There is no question that the crisis poses many severe problems for Korean democracy as workers and managers struggle with corporate restructuring, downsizing, and recession. Yet the existence of democratic political institutions provides a forum, however imperfect, for these societal forces to try to resolve their differences in a structured way.

As in the economic sphere, then, Asian values do not appear to suggest a serious alternative political model to that of Western democracy in the wake of the Asian economic crisis. It is possible, to repeat, that a dramatic worsening of the economic crisis will undermine support for globalization, democracy, and anything remotely connected with the West, but at this point there is no particular reason to think this will be a likely outcome.


While Asian values have produced distinct economic and political institutions, their most notable impact is probably social. I noted earlier that values regarding family differ widely across Asia. But Western social patterns have no counterparts anywhere in Asia, including among the region's most highly developed societies. The Asian members of the OECD, Japan and Korea, in particular look quite distinct from Western countries at a similar level of development. In both countries, crime rates are very low relative to Europe and particularly the United States (see Figure 1). In Japan, most types of crime have actually decreased over the past forty years. Postwar Korea has always been prone to greater violence than Japan, and Koreans have sometimes been characterized as the "Irish of the East" for their propensity to fight. Crime rates are therefore not surprisingly higher than in Japan, and picked up somewhat in 1982 apparently in connection with the Kwangju uprising and the political repression associated with Chun Du Hwan's rule. But overall, levels of crime in Korea have been remarkably flat. Low crime rates in these two countries ipso facto invalidates any general theory that urbanization and industrialization inevitably encourage higher levels of criminal behavior.

Crime Rates in Asia

Figure 1.

It is not clear what is responsible for the low crime rates in these two countries. It is possible that the answers are different in each case: while Japanese society tends to smother deviance in a web of informal communal norms and obligations, the Koreans have been more inclined to use the naked power of the state to keep people in line. Even after Korea's post-1987 democratization, police authority has been strong when necessary to maintain public order.

Asian exceptionalism is also apparent in data on family structure.13 Family structure has changed dramatically in Korea and other modernizing Asian countries as various extended family systems are replaced with nuclear ones. The number of three generation households dropped from 22.1 percent of all households in 1970 to 12.2 percent in 1990, and the average size of a household went from 5.2 persons to 3.7 in that same period.14 On the other hand, modernization has had very different effects on family structure in Asia than in Europe and North America. In the latter areas, economic modernization broke down larger extended families, but did not stop there: the US crude divorce rate moved from 2.6 to 4.7 between 1950 and 1990, while the British rate went from .69 to 2.9 in this same period. Along with family breakdown came soaring rates of legitimacy, from the American rate of 32 percent currently to rates well over 50 percent in Scandinavia. While divorce rates have been rising slightly in Japan, they remain low relative to other OECD counties; the problem of poor, mother-headed families that is so pronounced in the United States is all but unknown in either Korea or Japan.

The reason for this difference, in my view, has a great deal to do with the role of women in Western as opposed to Asian societies. While female labor force participation is reasonably high in both Korea, Japan, and other parts of Asia, women tend to stop working when they get married and tend to return to labor markets, if ever, only when their children are grown. This tendency is reinforced by labor laws in Japan and Korea that discriminate against women in the workplace and make it much more difficult for them to earn an income sufficient to support themselves and their children over a lifetime.15 In one international survey where respondents were asked to agree with the statement that "Men should work outside the home and women should stay home," the highest numbers expressing agreement were found in Japan and Korea (30.6 and 35.9 percent, respectively).16 I would argue that the one characteristic of Asian values that differentiates them most dramatically from Western ones has to do not with attitudes toward economic life or politics, but to gender relations and the family.

Just as in the case of Asia's distinctive economic institutions, it is likely that there will be a convergence with Western practices over the next two generations in the social sphere as well. Due to its sharply declining fertility rate, Japan faces a shrinking labor pool; in the late-1990s, for the first time, the Japanese work force declined in absolute numbers. As we have seen, absent an unanticipated increase in fertility, Japan's total population will begin to decline early in the next century at a rate of well over one percent per year. The aging of Japan's population and the declining ratio of working-age to retired persons creates a huge future social security liability, which has already constrained Japan's ability to spend its way out of the 1998 recession. One method of mitigating this situation would be to allow more foreign workers into the country, something that Japan has resisted strongly up to now. The other possibility would be to encourage more women to enter the workforce, not just prior to marriage but throughout their working lives. Of these two possibilities, it would appear that Japanese policymakers are much more likely to choose the latter than the former. If that happens, many of the social problems like family breakdown and rising crime rates that have plagued Western countries may come to affect Japan as well.


It seems appropriate to spend a bit of time discussing Korean values specifically, and how they differ from those in other parts of Asia.

While there is a core of values that Koreans share with other Asians, they also differ markedly from other Asian societies-and particularly from East Asia's oldest and most developed democracy, Japan-in ways that would seem to have some implications for the quality of democratic politics there. These differences can be summed up as follows: Koreans seem to prize social order less, and are more willing to engage in social and political struggle more, than other Asians.

In a way, this conclusion should be obvious to anyone aware of recent Korean history. Korea has Asia's best-organized and most powerful trade union movement, one that played an important role in bringing down the military dictatorship in 1987 and that has succeeded in extracting large yearly wage increases from Korean employers over the past decade that have pushed labor costs up more than 600 percent. Korea also has Asia's most vocal and in many ways most radical student protest movement, one that also played a key political role during the 1987 events.

Surveys of Asian values, like that of David Hitchcock, show that overall Asians prize social order much more than Americans.17 This appears to be least true in Korea, however. Take, for example, the willingness to engage in various forms of political protest. Table 1, based on Gallup data, shows the willingness of young people aged 18-29 from Europe, Japan, and Korea respectively to take part in various forms of protest. In all but one category, young Koreans score higher in willingness to protest than do young Japanese; indeed, they score higher than young Europeans in all but two categories.18 There is a clear generational shift at work here, since the table shows that for respondents aged 50 and up, Koreans are generally less willing to partake in protest than their European or Japanese counterparts, particularly for the more serious forms. The willingness to protest sometimes shades over into a outright cynicism about the law; in another survey, 25-32 percent of the sample expressed a disregard for the law.19


Willingness to engage in protest

Ages 18-29 Ages 50 an up

EuropeJapanKorea EuropeJapanKorea
Sign a petition425458322336
Join in boycotts445455174431
Attend lawful
Join unofficial strikes322523784
Occupy buildings27917631

Table 1.


The lesser value accorded to social order by Koreans is also borne out in a poll taken by the Far Eastern Economic Review of their readers. Koreans stood out for "placing greater emphasis on personal achievement, achieving financial success and individual rights," and "less on orderly society, respect for authority, self-reliance and accountability"20 (see Table 2).

The World Values Survey shows Korean trust levels to be approximately comparable to those of a number of Catholic developed countries in Europe, slightly below Japan, and considerably below that of the United States and a number of European Protestant countries. While Japan's relatively low trust score seems anomalous, these findings are roughly consistent with the view that familism and regionalism continue to be relatively strong factors in Korean culture, as they are in parts of Latin Catholic Europe and Latin America, limiting the radius of trust to smaller groups.21


The values that really count in my culture

HonestySing.,Phil.,MalaysiaKorea, Taiwan
Hard workSing.,Phil.,Hong KongJapan, Korea
Helping othersThai., Indon., Phil.Korea
Respect for learningSing., Phil.Australia
HarmonyIndon., MalaysiaAustralia, Western expats
Self-relianceSing., Phil., malaysiaKorea
Orderly societySing., Phil., MalaysiaKorea
Freedom of expressionAust., Phil., Western expatsSing., Taiwan
Respect for authorityPhil., Sing., Malay., Indon.Korea, Japan, Western expats
Table 2.


I have argued elsewhere that Korea has a relatively low level of generalized social trust between people who do not belong to common families, kinship groups, or other, rather small-scale social structures, an assertion that is generally borne out by the data presented above.22 In this respect, Korean culture is closer to that of traditional China than Japan, and the problems of inadequate trust should resemble those of the former country. There is no ready counterpart in Korean culture to the Japanese concept of amae, the unwillingness to take advantage of other people's weaknesses that is important in establishing bonds of mutual dependence in Japanese society.23 Many observers have consequently argued that Korean culture is more individualistic and Western than that of Japan.24 While this perception is in many ways an accurate one, true Western-style individualism is less prevalent than a certain kind of small-group solidarity within what Koreans call the uri, or we-group defined by family, friends, neighbors, classmates, military academy graduating class, or the like.25

The problems created by a small radius of trust have rather to do with the quality of governance within a democracy. Strongly familistic societies tend to develop a two-tier system of ethical values, with higher standards of behavior reserved for relations within the family or other types of personal relations and lower ones for public life. One consequence is a relatively low level of civic obligation and hence a greater propensity for political corruption. Political corruption has, of course, been a serious problem plaguing any number of Latin Catholic countries from Italy to Mexico and Brazil. Corruption produces economic inefficiency and, from the standpoint of democratic order, increases citizen cynicism over the political system.

Beyond these obvious and relatively recent sources of social distrust are longer-term cultural patterns of hierarchy and authority. By all accounts, class structure in premodern Korea was more rigid than its Japanese and Chinese counterparts. The gulf between Yangban and Chonmin was large and for all practical purposes unbridgeable, and the history of dynastic Korea is marked by periodic peasant uprisings. Class cleavages and sharply hierarchical authority persist under the current democratic regime, most notably in the internal structure of large Korean corporations. Most Korean chaebol are much more hierarchical than the Japanese zaibatsu or postwar keiretsu on which they were modeled, though practice varies from one group to another. The Korean chaebol have never practiced corporate paternalism like extensive in-company welfare and support services to the extent of Japan.

The consequences of this authoritarian business culture are manifest in labor-management relations, which given the current economic crisis will probably be the most significant source of social conflict and perhaps even instability over the next few years. The militancy of Korea's trade union movement was evident in the 1996-97 showdown between the unions on the one hand and the employers and the government party on the other, a confrontation in which neither side acquitted themselves well. The unions, for their part, which had been responsible for driving Korean labor costs up to perhaps 70 percent of Japan's by 1996, were uncompromising in the face of employer demands for greater flexibility in wages and hiring. The government, facing intransigence from both the unions and from the opposition party, forced through new labor legislation in a special early-morning session to which only its own members had been invited, while using the occasion to pass new national security legislation that many observers feared would give the government new powers to restrict individual rights. The economic crisis that Korea now faces will increase the stress of class conflict by increasing unemployment, wage declines, and bankruptcies dramatically.

There is, on the other hand, an important up side to the all-too-evident divisions within Korean society. To any Western observer, Korean politics looks much more recognizable than does Japanese democracy, despite the latter's greater age and degree of institutionalization. What seems strangest about Japan is the fact that the different social actors are so reticent in asserting their interests against various forms of authority. The interests of workers are somehow smothered in a system of corporate unions and lifetime employment, while the long-ruling LDP is run on a personalistic basis that amalgamates a wide variety of frequently contradictory societal interests (e.g, rice farmers and industrialists). Korean interest groups, on the other hand, are not reluctant to challenge authority, and do so at times violently; workers and managers dislike each other and fight vigorously for bigger pieces of the pie. In an authoritarian political system, this might be a formula for instability. But to the extent that Korea's interest groups begin using democratic political mechanisms to advance their interests, Korean politics might well develop along more European lines where the development of societal interest groups occurs hand in glove with broadening of political participation and the growth of distinctive political parties representing those interests. One of the unfortunate things that Korea has imported from Japan is the concept of a broad, all-embracing majority party that will remain in power for extended periods of time instead of alternating in power with smaller but more focused parties. Whether the election of Kim Dae Jung will halt this trend and force the definition of a multiparty system based not on personalities but on underlying societal interests remains to be seen.

One further aspect of Korean values that will affect its future social stability has to do with sex ratios. As a result of advancing medical technology, parents have been able to choose the sex of their children and, given the traditional cultural preference for sons, have shifted sex ratios in favor of boys throughout much of Confucian Asia (with the exception of Japan). According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, this has produced sex ratios in China of approximately 118 males to 100 females in recent years, and in Korea 122 males for every 100 females.26 This does not bode well for Korea's social stability fifteen to twenty years down the road, given the fact that young, unattached males are responsible for the vast majority of crime, violence, and general mayhem in any society. With as much as one-fifth of the male population unable to find Korean brides, there will be strong competition for women, a competition that will spill over into the north if the peninsula is unified by that time.


Asian values in all their diversity have had played a role in shaping the economic and political institutions of East Asia, and in giving Asian societies a very different degree of social order than the developed countries of the West. The impact of these factors can be easily overstated, however, both in terms of the degree to which they facilitated Asia's postwar economic growth, and in the extent to which they are responsible for the region's current troubles. In all three areas, however-economic, political, and social-there are good reasons for thinking that the distinctive institutions and practices fostered by Asia's cultural systems will converge over time with the patterns seen in the West. That is, economic life will be more open and subject to market forces; governance will be increasingly democratic; and social structure (as well as social problems) will come to resemble that of postindustrial Western societies. Far from reinforcing Asian exceptionalism, the current economic crisis will accelerate homogenizing trends in all three areas.

1.  See
2.  See Fareed Zakaria, "A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew," Foreign Affairs 73 (no. 2, March-April 1994): 109-127.
3.  Samuel P. Huntington, "Religion and the Third Wave," National Interest no. 24 (Summer 1991): 29-42.
5.  Tu Wei-Ming, Confucian Traditions in East Asian Modernity: Moral Education and Economic Culture in Japan and the Four Dragons (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)
6.  This point is made by Amartya Sen, in Human Rights and Asian Values (New York: Carnegie Council on Ethics and Public Policy, 1997).
7.  See Gavin W. Jones, "Modernization and Divorce: Contrasting Trends in Islamic Southeast Asia and the West," Population and Development Review 23 (1997): 95-114.
8.  Seymour Martin Lipset, "Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy," American Political Science Review 53 (1959): 69-105; Lipset, "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited," American Sociological Review 59 (1994): 1-22; Larry Diamond, "Economic Development and Democracy Reconsidered," American Behavioral Scientist 15 (1992): 450-499, and Michael Coppedge, Inequality, Democracy, and Economic Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
9.  Adam Przeworski and Michael Alvarez, "What Makes Democracies Endure?" Journal of Democracy 7 (1996): 39-55.
10.  This case has in fact been made: with a limited number of well-known exceptions, virtually all developed democracies are also countries with a Christian cultural heritage. Samuel Huntington has argued that it is that cultural heritage rather than level of development per se that is the determinant of stable democracy. See Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).
11.  Paul R. Krugman, "The Myth of Asia's Miracle," Foreign Affairs 73 (1994): 62-78.
12.  This is not to say that institutional checks were lacking. In the case of the Japanese practice of amakudari, where a bureaucrat after retiring would go to work for a corporation, there were rules preventing regulators from working directly for his former regulatees.
13.  Other parts of Asia run counter to European patterns of modernization. In peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia, divorce rates have fallen sharply in tandem with economic modernization. See Gavin W. Jones, "Modernization and Divorce: Contrasting Trends in Islamic Southeast Asia and the West," Population and Development Review 23 (1997): 95-114.
14.  Republic of Korea, National Statistical Office, Social Indicators in Korea 1995, p. 228. On changes in Korean family structure, see Yeonoak Baik and Jin Young Chung, "Family Policy in Korea," Journal of Family and Economic Issues 17 (1996): 93-112.
15.  On Korea, see Insook Han Park and Lee-Jay cho, "Confucianism and the Korean Family," Journal of Comparative Family Studies 26 (1995): 117-133, and Hyoung Cho, "The Position of Women in the Korean Work Force," in Eui-Young Yu and Earl H. Philips, eds., Korean Women in Transition (Los Angeles: Center for Korean-American and Korean Studies, 1987); on Japan, see Eiko Shinotsuka, "Women Workers in Japan: Past, Present, Future," in Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley, eds., Women of Japan and Korea (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), pp. 95-199.
16.  Shinotsuka in Gelb and Palley (1994), p. 102.
17.  David Hitchcock, Factors Affecting East Asian Views of the United States: The Search for Common Ground (Washington, DC: CSIS, 1997), p. 73.
18.  Data in Figure 6 is taken from Aie-Rie Lee, "Culture Shift and Popular Protest in South Korea," Comparative Political Studies 26 (1993): 63-80.
19.  Aie-Rie Lee, "Values, Government Performance, and Protest in South Korea," Asian Affairs 18 (1992): 240-253.
20.  Far Eastern Economic Review (August 1, 1996).
21.  Whatever the levels of social trust compared to other societies, public trust levels in Korea appear to be improving over the past two decades. This would seem a natural development given the shift from military authoritarianism to democratic government in this period. In Korea, 77 percent of respondents said they approved of the present regime in 1997, compared to 17 percent who said they approved of the previous one. 41 percent of Korean respondents said they felt "people like me" can have more influence on government in the present than they could under the previous regime, compared to 29 and 23 percent for the Czech Republic and the Russian Federation, two other countries that made the transition to democracy in this same period. Rose and Shin (1997), Figure 1 and Table 1.
22.  See Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 127-145.
23.  For a discussion of this point, see Fukuyama (1995), p. 135.
24.  Byong-Nak Song, Rise of the Korean Economy (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 199.
25.  See Diane Hoffman, "Culture, Self, and "Uri": Anti-Americanism in Contemporary South Korea," Journal of Northeast Asian Studies (1993): 3-20; and Yun-Shik Chang, "The Personalist Ethic and the Market in Korea," Journal for the Comparative Study of Society and History 33 (1991): 106-129.
26.  Nick Eberstadt, "Asia Tomorrow, Gray and Male," National Interest (No. 53, 1998): 56-65.

This page last updated 9/24/2010 jdb

ICAS Fellow
Speakers &
Lectures &