Hahm In Hee, a sociologist at Ewha Women’s University told the International Herald Tribune in the early 2000s, Korean men tend to be perceived as being “self-centered and immature. They are dependant on their mothers and wives.” Many women who have a Korean guy as a boyfriend are anxious to find out if he is a “mama’s boy” and to what degree. Many women who get “twilight divorces”after 20 years of marriage do so because their husbands never outgrow their self-centeredness and traditional expectations of their wives.
The oldest son is usually responsible for taking care of his parents in their old age, providing a gathering place for family get-togethers, making funeral arrangement when a parent dies, and tending the parents tombs. He also has traditionally had the responsibility of carrying on the family name and received the bulk of his parents property and inherited wealth. These customs are largely shared throughout Asia, which is one of the main reasons there is a preference for boys. They have also been liberalized and now responsibilities and property are shared more equitably by all siblings.
Korean men can be very macho and tough. One reason of this is that nearly of all men in both North and South Korea endure military service, that requires often rigorous training. Military service in South Korea is generally around 18 months and has to be fulfilled between the ages of 18 and 28. Even famous actors and pop stars have to do it.
Korean men used to have a reputation for treating women very rudely. They often ordered women around, failed to open doors for them, entered a room first, and rarely helped out around the house. They are better now.
A professional international matchmaker once told AP, "Vietnamese women are good housekeepers and hard workers, and Taiwanese men are known to be more considerate than Japanese and Korean men, who sometimes beat their wives."
Confucianism and the Role of Men in the Traditional Korean Family
It is customary for the head of the family, the oldest living first-born son, to oversee all family matters. In the old days, men labored in the fields while women worked around the house. The eldest son became the head of the family upon the death or incapacitation of the father. When a baby was born, straw was festooned across the door of a house. Red peppers in the straw signified a boy and charcoal represented a girl. Husbands often called their wife Yobo, which translated to "Hey You," and no matter how badly a wife was treated by her husband or his family it was shameful for her to leave.
The view that males are dominate is rooted at least in part in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. Entailing a large number of reciprocal duties and responsibilities between the generations of a single family, the views of these belief systems have generally has been viewed as an unequal relationship in which the son owed the father unquestioning obedience. Neo-Confucianists thought that the subordination of son to father was the expression, on the human level, of an immutable law of the Cosmos. This law also imposed a rigidity on family life. The purpose of marriage was to produce a male heir, not to provide mutual companionship and support for husband and wife. The central familial relationship was not that between husband and wife, but rather between parent and child, especially between father and son. At the same time, the relationships among family members were part of a hierarchy. These relationships were characterized by benevolence, authority, and obedience. Authority rested with the (male) head of the household, and differences in status existed among the other family members.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Fathers and grandfathers are the main authority figures in Korean families. This has been true since the official adoption of neo-Confucianism as the state philosophy at the beginning of the Chosun period, around A.D. 1400, and it reflects the historic pattern of patriarchy in East Asian culture. The famous "five relationships" of Confucianism — ruler/subject, father/son, older/younger, husband/wife, friend/friend — make husbands responsible for wives and fathers responsible for children. Children, in return, are required to practice "filial piety." Filial piety (Korean: hyo) begins with the fact that people are eternally indebted to the parents who give them life, nourish them as helpless infants, protect and provide for them in childhood, and show them how to become good human beings. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
“During childhood people acquire an appreciation for the family heritage that is being handed down to them from previous generations through their parents. They learn that as adults they will be responsible for maintaining and preserving the family heritage and for passing it along to their own future children. They understand that they are part of a network of relatives, with duties and obligations to everyone else in the family. They also realize that they can call upon their family for support throughout their lives. The obligations are mutual and operate as an important source of identity and emotional security. Throughout every day, people are constantly figuring their relative positions and adjusting the way they speak accordingly. Filial piety is thus the model for almost all social relationships in Korea. Koreans accept filial obligations as part of life. The obligations set the patterns for getting along with other people and make it easier to know how to act in daily situations.”
Impact of Military Service of South Korean Males and Society
About 300,000 South Korean men are conscripted each year into the military or riot police in South Korea. Under law, all able Korean males who have completed high school are subject too conscription when they are 18. Those who refuse to fulfill their obligations face a prison sentence of three years, harsh treatment while in prison and tough parole terms when they get out. Many companies refuse to hire someone who has not served.
James Griffiths of CNN wrote: “Beyond objections to violence, South Korean men have another very valid reason for seeking to avoid military service: the army is notorious for the hazing and abuse many recruits go through. In 2014, then President Park Geun-hye urged action after photos emerged of the bruised and bloody body of a 20-year-old private, who was beaten and abused every day for a month before he eventually died. [Source: James Griffiths, CNN, June 29, 2018]
“The tough experiences of many men in the military have been at the core of an anti-feminist backlash to the #MeToo movement in South Korea by men's rights groups, even as the country has made some progress in tackling issues of sexual harassment and assault. James Turnbull, a Busan-based expert on Korean feminism and popular culture, said this reaction is "overwhelmingly driven by (the) perceived unfairness" that men perform military service while women do not. But he said that their time in the army is largely responsible for the negative attitudes and behavior the #MeToo movement is seeking to stamp out.
“"It's difficult to overemphasize the role of the military as a socialization agent" for young men, Turnbull said, many of whom join the military "after their first year of university, barely out of high school" and have little interaction with women during that time except female K-Pop groups who perform at bases. "This vision of women and male-female relations that the combination engenders — that men's role is to do important work for the nation, while women's is to remain on the sidelines offering their support, especially through their youthful looks and sexual availability — is pervasive in Korean daily life."
The huge army of white collar workers that work in business and government are called salarymen. Describing a South Korea salaryman in the 1990s, one New York Times correspondent wrote, “Young men with bad haircuts...exhibit precisely the qualities encouraged by the stereotypical American 1950's corporation: loyalty, conformity, self-sacrifice.” On what he saw in an office of a Daewoo, a chaebol that has since been broken up, he wrote: “Rows of exhausted Korean men hunch over desks trying to look busy. Gray walls and decrepit linoleum floors are poorly lighted by exposed florescent lights. Half of the bulbs have been removed from each of the ceiling fixtures to save on the electric bill.” Things have improved somewhat since then
Many Korean workers and salarymen work on Saturday mornings. Although the number of companies switching to a five-day week has increasing, the majority still gave their workers only one day off in the early 2000s and some still insist they work at least on some Saturdays. On Sundays, Koreans are often so brunt out that all they want to is vegetate. According to one survey, 70 percent for workers spend their day off sleeping or watching television. Only 14 percent exercise, travel or do some activity.
The term salary man originated in Japan. In Korea, you can see busloads of salarymen heading off to work on company buses not long after dawn. In both the private sector and the public sector, promotions are often — at least in theory — based on exams.
Korean husbands are generally perceived as providers who spend all their time working or drinking and hanging out with fellow employees at the local karaokes or bar. Few Korean wives describe their husbands as romantic and some say they are glad their husbands rarely come home.
Reporting from Seoul, Hallie, a non-Korean married to a Korean man, wrote in thesoulofseoul.com: “ Work hours are long in Korea so, it’s no surprise that if the husband is working he may not be home until 11pm or later and then he is off to work again the next morning. Expectations of the Korean businessmen include not only finishing work during normal business hours, but also working after business hours and then drinking with your boss until the boss is ready to go home. I can’t say that this stereotype is completely false, but I don’t think it’s completely by choice either. [Source: Hallie, thesoulofseoul.com, August 5, 2014]
Myths of Korean Husbands
Reporting from Seoul, Hallie, a non-Korean, wrote in thesoulofseoul.com: “Since dating and then getting married to my husband, who happens to be Korean, it’s been interesting to get into conversations in which people tell me the stereotypes of the Korean husband. Some of these conversations happen innocently enough, a friend is about to get married and the “Korean men are good boyfriends, but bad husbands” saying is brought up to see what my thoughts are. Here are the top five stereotypes I’ve heard: [Source: Hallie, thesoulofseoul.com, August 5, 2014]
1) Korean men don’t do household chores: The women should cook, clean, do the laundry and pretty much everything around the house. I actually don’t see how that is different from most cultures to be honest. That stereotype isn’t particular to Korean men. It’s a stereotype of men, who were historically outside hunting while the women were home tending to things. Does it hold true? It depends on the man. In my house, my husband does the laundry, I’ve pushed the wrong button too many times… okay, you caught me, I wasn’t really trying that hard to do it correctly. We wash the dishes together, I scrub while he rinses. On Sundays, we clean the house together; I dust, he runs the vacuum and then I follow behind him with a Swiffer. We discussed early on what our expectations were and as I thought a relationship should be equal in all ways, the household chores were split to follow suit.
2) Korean men don’t cook. I’ve heard that this comes from the idea that since Korean children live with their parents late in life, they have their mothers cooking for them and don’t need to learn. I’d say that stereotype should then ring true for Korean women as well as they are just as likely to remain in their parents’ home. I have met more Korean women that have admitted they can’t cook a thing and know more Korean men that can cook well to believe this stereotype at all. We have two close couples for friends in which the wife doesn’t and can’t cook and the husbands make everything. In my house, I cook the western meals while he cooks the Korean meals. If I’m cooking then he is prepping, slicing and dicing and if he’s cooking, then I am slicing and dicing. I do have to say though that most of our close friends in Seoul are from Busan, as my husband is originally from there, and when they moved here, affectively moving out of their mothers’ homes, they had to learn to cook and feed themselves in order to survive. My husband and all of his Busan friends here in Seoul know how to cook and cook well, thankfully.
3) Korean husbands are aggressive and abusive. There are men around the world that are aggressive and abusive. There are women that are aggressive and abusive as well. These people exist everywhere and if you end up in a relationship with someone that hits you or berates you and causes you emotional stress, leave and don’t look back. There are good men and women out there. Along the same lines as this, I’ve heard numerous times that Busan guys are particularly aggressive. Busan guys may be loud and raucous and speak with an amazing accent that can sound aggressive, but don’t believe everything you hear.
4) Korean husbands cheat on their wives. When I heard this one, I sat my future husband down and asked him what he thought about this. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page with our mutual understanding that cheating was not for us. The way he put it, couples in Korea don’t all marry for love like we were about to. Some couples are set up by their parents, some couples are set up to maintain a certain status and some couples are set up so that someone can gain a certain status. These marriages come with some certain understandings on the parts of the wife and husband. They will even go as far as to make contracts sometimes outlining what is acceptable and what is not and often, as the marriage is due to status convenience over love, cheating happens. Though, I’d say it isn’t cheating anymore if both parties are aware and agree that it is acceptable for their relationship.
5) Korean husbands don’t help raise the children at all. Work hours are long in Korea...See Above...If you want to move up in Korea, you have to drink your way there and that means getting in a lot of face time with the upper management or whomever you’re trying to impress, after hours. Maybe some fathers don’t want to raise their kids, but with the cost of schools and after school programs what they are, these fellas gotta make quite the paycheck to support all of the activities their kids need to do in order to move up in society.
Study Finds Korean Husbands Do Least Housework in OECD
A report, published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said that Korea ranks lowest in a survey of time husbands spend doing housework in 29 countries. According to the survey Korean married men spend an average of 10 minutes on childcare and 21 minutes on house work per day. Yonhap reported: “The OECD analysis, based on statistics compiled from countries on how husbands spend their time, found that Korean husbands spend an average of 45 minutes doing house chores and childcare, disgracefully placing last following India, Japan and China. [Source: Yonhap, March 18, 2014]
“For Korean husbands, looking after children takes up 10 minutes, followed by Japan with seven minutes and India with six minutes. When it comes to house cleaning and doing laundry, Korean husbands takes the penultimate spot with 21 minutes spent, only followed by Indian counterparts with 19 minutes. In stark contrast, Danish husbands top the list with 186 minutes spent in housework, followed by Norwegian and Australian husbands with 184 and 172 minutes respectively. The report shows that Danish men’s house working time is comprised of taking care of families (20 minutes), housework (107 minutes), and shopping (22 minutes).
“Husbands in three Northeastern countries – South Korea, Japan and China – and Turkey, Mexico, India, etc. spend remarkably little time sharing housework with their wife. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)said in its analysis that women’s presence in social activity has increased over the past 50 years, which has diminished their unpaid work time. However, the decrease has not been offset by a rise in the time men spend in doing household work.”
Men Doing More Chusok Holiday Chores
Chusok — an autumn moon celebration with a lot of feasting — is the biggest Korean holiday. Robert Lee wrote in the Korea Herald: “A typical picture of Chuseok is a scene in which the men are gathered around the television or talking over a game of cards, with the women chatting in the kitchen preparing jeon — a Korean-style pancake with a wide variety of added ingredients. [Source: Robert Lee, Korea Herald, September 19, 2010]
“Some husbands were barred from helping their wives, for fear of repercussions from their parents. “When we first got married, no matter how difficult the workload was, my husband never helped because he had to make sure his parents were happy. He felt that by not helping with the work, he was in fact helping me in the long run,” said Lee Sung-ok.
“And now, Korean women, tired of the sexism that has been a part of their culture for so long, are speaking up. “I wish my husband would help me with making jeon,” said Ahn Jung-hye. “I’d like it if my husband would take care of our baby, not just on the holidays, but the weekends as well,” said Miyuki Takashima, a Japanese woman married to a Korean man. “Instead of the men just sitting around with each other, why not help set the table or help with the dishes so the woman can finish earlier,” said Kim In-sook. “I’m sure all women want that, we’re not asking for a lot.”
“And it seems Korean men of all generations are starting to hear the call of their wives and are walking away from the traditional cultural belief that it is the woman’s duty to slave away in the kitchen, and their right to not even lift a finger. “He is on the helpful side. He doesn’t completely ignore what I do, if he did I’d be quite upset,” said Ahn. “Usually he plays baduk, but this year he said that he would take the children to go watch a movie, so I told him to go,” said No. “If I think about the holidays and compare the past to now, he has improved a lot. I would never have imagined him helping me with the shopping until five to six years ago when he started helping me,” said Lee.
Male Beauty in Korea
Male beauty became a big thing in South Korea in the early 2000s. Television commercials show men compliment each other for their nice skin. Sometimes it seems like all the make actors in Korean dramas wear lipstick and all male singers in K-pop groups have dyed hair. Entire lines of cosmetics and skin lotions have been introduced exclusively for men. One line of skin care products was pitched by Korean soccer superstar Ahn Jung Hwan
A South Korean cosmetic company boss told the Los Angeles Times, “Why shouldn’t men want to look beautiful and take care of their skin? Especially as they get older, they have to wear make up if they don’t want to look shabby.” A salesman of Ester Lauder told the newspaper that the link between men and make up has always existed. “Men would wear a little of their wives’ or girlfriends’ makeup. It is just that now it’s in the open and respectable.”
In the early 2000s, almost all the commercials for make up were geared for young men but the cosmetic companies found that most of their customers were older men. It is quite common for men over 50 to dye their hair. Many South Korean politicians — including Nobel-Peace-Prize winner Kim Dae Jung — have done it. Kim Young Sam’s hair suddenly became gray when he became president. In the early 2000s, young Korean men started streaking their hair with copper highlights. These days a wide variety of hair styles and colors can be found on Korean men, especially in the K-pop world, but not in the chaebol, salaryman world. By the 2010s, Korean male college student were routinely using black eyebrow pencils to lengthen and accentuate their eyebrows. Salarymen were using skin conditioners and less obvious high
History of Male Beauty and Cosmetics in South Korea
Hye Soo Nah of Associated Press wrote: “ The ideal South Korean man used to be rough and tough. Things began to change in the late 1990s, when the South Korean government relaxed a ban on Japanese cultural goods, exposing South Koreans to different ideas on male beauty, including popular comics featuring pretty, effeminate men. [Source: Hye Soo Nah, Associated Press, September 17, 2012]
“James Turnbull, a writer and lecturer on Korean feminism, sexuality and popular culture, said the economic crisis that hit South Korea in 1997 and 1998 also played a role in shifting thinking. Struggling companies often fired their female employees first, angering women who had already seen their push for equal rights take a backseat to protest movements against Japanese colonizers and the autocratic governments that followed. "The times were ripe for a sea-change in the popular images of men in the media," Turnbull said. Women, as a result, began questioning the kinds of men society told them they should find attractive.
“In 2002, large numbers were attracted to a hero of South Korea's World Cup soccer team, Ahn Jung-hwan, who became a leading member of the so-called "flower men" — a group of exceptionally good-looking, smooth-skinned, fashionable sports stars and celebrities who found great success selling male cosmetics. Men everywhere began striving to look like them, with the encouragement of the women around them, and a trend was born. A decade later, ads featuring handsome, heavily made-up male celebrities are an unavoidable part of the urban scenery.”
Male Cosmetics in South Korea in the 2010s
Hye Soo Nah of Associated Press wrote: “This socially conservative, male-dominated country, with a mandatory two-year military conscription for men, has become the male makeup capital of the world. South Korean men spent US$495.5 million on skincare last year, accounting for nearly 21 percent of global sales, according to global market research firm Euromonitor International. That makes it the largest market for men's skincare in the world, even though there are only about 19 million men in South Korea. Amorepacific, South Korea's biggest cosmetics company, estimates the total sales of men's cosmetics in South Korea this year will be more than US$885 million. [Source: Hye Soo Nah, Associated Press, September 17, 2012]
“The metamorphosis of South Korean men from macho to makeup over the last decade or so can be partly explained by fierce competition for jobs, advancement and romance in a society where, as a popular catchphrase puts it, "appearance is power." Women also have a growing expectation that men will take the time and effort to pamper their skin.
“Evidence of this new direction in South Korean masculinity is easy to find. In a crowded Seoul cafe, a young woman takes some lipstick out of her purse and casually applies it to her male companion's lips as they talk. At an upscale apartment building, a male security guard watches the lobby from behind a layer of makeup. Korean Air holds once-a-year makeup classes for male flight attendants.
“While U.S. cosmetics companies report growing sales in male cosmetics, American men are often wary of makeup. "Men Wearing Makeup a Disturbing Trend" was how American columnist Jim Shea titled a recent post. In South Korea, however, effeminate male beauty is "a marker of social success," according to Roald Maliangkay, head of Korean studies at Australian National University. Amorepacific Corp. offers 17 men's brands, with dozens of products to choose from, and operates two Manstudio stores in Seoul that are devoted to men's skincare and makeup.
South Korean Men Who Use Cosmetics
Hye Soo Nah wrote: “ Cho Won-hyuk stands in front of his bedroom mirror and spreads dollops of yellow-brown makeup over his forehead, nose, chin and cheeks until his skin is flawless. Then he goes to work with a black pencil, highlighting his eyebrows until they're thicker, bolder. "Having a clean, neat face makes you look sophisticated and creates an image that you can handle yourself well," the 24-year-old college student said. "Your appearance matters, so when I wear makeup on special occasions, it makes me more confident." [Source: Hye Soo Nah, Associated Press, September 17, 2012]
Cho's meticulous efforts to paint the perfect face are not unusual in South Korea. "I can understand why girls don't like to go outside without makeup — it makes a big difference," said Cho Gil-nam, a tall, stocky 27-year-old insurance fraud investigator in Seoul who starts important days by dabbing on makeup after finishing his multistep morning cleansing and moisturizing routine. He carries a multicolored cosmetics pouch so he can touch up in public bathrooms throughout the day.
“South Korean men are barraged daily with messages in popular media suggesting that flawless skin is a crucial part of any plan to get ahead at work and romance. "In this society, people's first impressions are very important. A man's skin is a big part of that impression, so I take care of my skin," said Kim Deuk-ryong, a 20-year-old student.
“Kim Jong-hoon, a 27-year-old tech industry worker in Paju, said the endless media exposure to famous men with perfect skin helped steer his progression from soap and water to an elaborate regime that includes as many as eight steps, from cleanser to eye cream and lotion to a small amount of makeup powder. "My skin wasn't bad, but the media constantly sends the message that skin is one of the most important things, so I wanted to take care of it," Kim said.” Make up s also a good source of conversation, said Kim Ae-kyung, 35, a female office worker. "I feel like I have more to talk about with guys who use makeup — we have more in common," Kim said.”
Metrosexuality and Men with Purses in South Korea
Many men carry purse-like handbags. Some regard them as symbols of their success and spend quite a bit of money on them. Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and other companies have introduced men's handbags aimed specifically for the Asian market.
Aly posted in his blog alyinkorea.blogspot.jp: A man holding a purse “is something you would be hard-pressed to find in America: In Korea, I see it everyday. At first I thought there was some sort of man purse phenomenon in Asia that I was unaware of (although that may account for a percentage of these sightings). After further inspection I noticed that the men were actually carrying their girlfriends purses. How romantic...in the weird, metrosexual sort of way. [Source: alyinkorea.blogspot.jp, March 9, 2006]
“I am trying my hardest to imagine a scene in America which involves a man carrying his girlfriends purse. Maybe on a deserted alley in the middle of the night? Maybe... if she had no means to carry it herself. But I doubt it. Maybe if she was dying. But then again, who cares about a purse when your girlfriend is dying? I just can't conjure up the image of a steak-eating, beer-drinking, football-watching man, carrying a purse, ever. (I should also say that I don't think you would see too many non steak-eating, beer-drinking, and football watching men in America carrying their girlfriend's purses either.)
“I shouldn't be too surprised by this trend because in Korea, metrosexualism seems to be the look right now. Not only do they carry purses, but I think they borrow their girlfriend's clothes (in particular, anything pink, purple or flowered) and take their bi-weekly hair appointments. These metrosexual men dress, gel, moisturize, file and accessorize in hopes of resembling the latest Korean pop star. They spot their reflection in a shop window or a subway mirror and spend more time looking at themselves than a insecure teenage girl, except they're doing in front of hundreds of people!
“The most surprising aspect is the number of these pretty boys who have a girlfriend hanging off one arm (while a purse occupies the other). It's strange how much Korea has embraced the metrosexual fashion considering how anti-gay Korea is (in general). Maybe metrosexual is the next best thing for Korean men who are repressing their true sexuality because of their disapproving culture. Or maybe a pink shirt is just a pink shirt and carrying your girlfriends purse is just that.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021