top of page

(Anti-)feminist Trajectories in East Asian Politics

Yige Xu | East Asia Fellow

Image credit: Makoto Lin via Flickr.

In 2017, former South Korean president Moon Jae-in campaigned on a promise to ‘become a feminist president’. But not five years later, in 2022, President Yoon Suk-yeol ran on an anti-feminist campaign accusing feminists of reverse sexism and pledging to abolish the gender equality ministry — and won.

How did this regression transpire so quickly? And how does the role of feminism in South Korean politics compare to other East Asian democracies?

While South Korea, Japan and Taiwan share cultural roots of Confucian patriarchal hierarchy and trajectories of rapid industrialisation, feminism occupies distinctly separate places within politics.

South Korea: feminist progress thwarted

When South Korea’s #MeToo movement launched in early 2018, women’s rights initially appeared to be on an upward trajectory. But this feminist discourse was quickly met with backlash. The 2021 Seoul mayoral by-election saw a dramatic turn towards conservatism, particularly among young male voters. 72.5 per cent of men in their 20s voted conservative, a proportion even higher than male voters in their 60s (70.2 per cent).

Despite waves of feminist progress, patriarchal ideals remain deep-seated within South Korean society. South Korea was the world’s 13th largest economy by GDP in 2023, yet it ranks 114th out of 146 in terms of women’s economic participation.

The current anti-feminist turn is a response to wider structural issues within South Korea’s economy and society. Raised within a highly competitive education system and facing rising unemployment rates, South Korean youth are increasingly pessimistic about their future. Economic instability is preventing men from fulfilling traditional conceptions of masculinity, such as being the ‘breadwinner’ and buying a house. Additionally, government initiatives to bring more women into the workforce are seen as ‘reverse sexism’, despite South Korea having one of the largest gender wage gaps in the OECD.

An online surge in male chauvinism has normalised scapegoating feminism for structural ills. This discourse was exploited prior to the 2022 election by Yoon, who won the top vote of 59 per cent of men in their 20s and 53 per cent of men in their 30s.

Upon entering office, Yoon has scrapped government gender quotas, removed gender equality from textbooks and cut funding to grassroots programs against sexism. In demonising feminism, Yoon conveniently overlooks the structural factors behind the social and economic anxieties within South Korea — though time will tell how well this approach will serve beyond his term.

Japan: a sexist status quo

The place of feminism in South Korean politics seems to be converging with Japan, where despite rapid economic advancement, misogyny remains the status quo.

Despite being the world’s fourth largest economy by GDP in 2023, Japan ranks even lower than South Korea (125th out of 146) in the 2023 Global Gender Gap Index. Japan also ranks among the lowest globally in terms of gender parity in politics, with only five women in Prime Minister Kishida’s cabinet. Unlike South Korea, Japan’s #MeToo movement never took off, owing to strong stigma around reporting sexual assault.

The lack of women’s perspectives within politics has immense consequences, best illustrated by Japan’s struggles to mitigate its shrinking population. Pro-natalist measures have been largely ineffective as such approaches fail to address enduring expectations around gendered labour, with mothers still doing 3.6 times more housework than fathers.

Japan’s economic boom has expanded access to education and economic opportunities for women, encouraging many to have fewer children later. But despite their indispensability to the country’s economic growth, the blame for Japan’s shrinking population continues to fall largely, and wrongly, on women. By denying women the political space to challenge the status quo, Japanese authorities fuel these narratives, and by extension, the country’s demographic crisis.

Taiwan: a new wave of feminist change

Taiwan is an outlier in East Asia, where feminist activism is increasingly occupying a larger role in politics and public discourse. This upward trend was sparked by Taiwan’s #MeToo movement in mid-2023, following allegations against Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) officials and staff of sexual assault. Since then, more than 150 women and men have come forward with allegations against high-profile public figures, sparking political and legislative change.

Why is Taiwan seeing a new feminist wave in politics, as regression and stagnation persist in South Korea and Japan?

While Taiwan, Japan and South Korea all transitioned to liberal democracy in the 20th century, in Taiwan, this was accompanied by a transition to a liberal gender regime. Women’s movements have been central to progress towards gender equality since the 1990s, setting Taiwan apart from the rest of the region where similar movements remained weak and fragmented.

Taiwan’s major parties have successfully taken advantage of gender equality issues for electoral purposes, while similar attempts in Japan have failed. Moreover, democratic accountability remains limited in South Korea compared to Taiwan — allowing for rights to be revoked and anti-feminist discourses to flourish.

Though patriarchal hierarchy remains embedded in Taiwanese society, the historical and continuing presence of strong women’s movements provide a level democratic accountability missing within other East Asian democracies. This has carved out valuable space within politics and society for feminist discourse to proliferate, and actions towards gender equality to be taken.

What next?

The contested place of feminism within East Asian politics shines light on the irreconcilable tensions between rapid economic and technological progress, and slow-changing historical and cultural dimensions of patriarchy.

Now that the era of economic boom has passed, East Asian democracies are left to grapple with demographic crises, hyper-competition, and economic slowdown. While feminism is being wrongly attributed as the cause for these challenges in South Korea and Japan, Taiwan is seeing a new wave of feminist activism in politics.

Surface-level solutions do little to mitigate the structural issues behind these economic and demographic anxieties, which require inflexible views around gender to be addressed. A comparison of South Korea, Japan and Taiwan reveals the importance of feminist politics in unseating traditional gender roles — a crucial first step towards mitigating the multifaceted crises facing the region.


Yige Xu is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She studies the Bachelor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, where she majors in International Relations and Chinese.


bottom of page