Theological Analysis of Hoju-Je


Sunmin Cho (Brandon)

Jongwook Hong (Eric)

Rebecca Thompson (Julian)


About which country are the following explanations? The country that hosted Olympic Games in 1988 and the FIFA World Cup Game in 2002, that has the best know-how in manufacturing cellular phones, that has the second-to-none ship-making company, that is the top in distributed rate of superspeed internet, but that was ranked 63rd among 70 countries according to GEM (Gender Empowerment Measure), in the report issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) last year. This country is Korea. She grew considerably over the last couple of decades in economic terms, but not as much in social and political aspects. Women in Korea are still under the struggle against the inequality that had developed under the influence of Confucianism. As the report of the UNDP shows, Korea holds the lowest rank in women’s rights. One of the specific pieces of evidence that supports the findings of this report is Hoju-Je, which is the civil law that defines the manner in which members of a household are designated.

Additionally, there is an interesting report regarding males in Korea. While women’s rights had been extremely minimized in Confucian society, men’s responsibilities and social expectations were comparatively heightened. The report shows that the death rate of men in their forties and fifties is growing and is much higher in Korea than in other countries such as the U.S., Japan, and Sweden. The high death rate, which was determined from a medical perspective, does not necessarily correspond with the social stress of males in Korea. However, considering that the high death rate was caused by alcohol and smoking, factors closely related to social stress and the sense of responsibility of the male, it would be possible to conclude that the social stress of males results in their high death rate in Korea. Therefore, this report means that the stress of the male has increased and he who must deal with great social obligations in Korea faces as much stress as women who have had to endure social inequality.

By using the approaches of tradition, biology, and socio-biology, the groundlessness of Hoju-Je, which was formed through the period of Japanese colonization, Confucianism, and Sung-Confucianism, will be demonstrated. Hoju-Je can be justified neither through these perspectives nor from a theological interpretation, which designates Hoju-Je as the destruction of original created order and a barrier to the harmony and independent role of family members.


Definition of terms

Hoju-Je is a legal family registration system that exists only in Korea. A Hoju is the individual who is the legal representative of a family in civil law. The position of Hoju can be held by only one person and carries with it a life-long term. Each Korean family has documentation maintained by the government. This documentation paper is called a Hojeok. In the Hojeok, there is a description of each family member’s relationship to a Hoju. For example, in a family consisting of a father, mother, daughter, and son, the father is a Hoju. The mother would be described as the wife of Hoju, the daughter as the daughter of Hoju, and so on. Since the position of a Hoju is life-long, the order of succession of Hoju is: father, son, unmarried daughter, wife, father’s mother, and daughter-in-law. Therefore, in the case of the father’s death, the son becomes Hoju.


Many people are suffering from this groundless and baseless law in Korea even now. Joohee, a 27 year-old woman who got divorced and remarried another man provides an example of such suffering. Her ex-husband agreed to grant her full custody of their child. After a year, she remarried so that she and her child had a new husband, a new father, and new Hoju. One day she was surprised to discover that her child was not on her new husband’s Hojeok. The reason for this was that the child was on his biological father’s Hojeok. In fact, the Hoju of the child will always be his biological father. No matter what happens, the child can never be moved to the Hojeok of his new father. If the child wants to move his name to the new father’s Hojeok, he must be defined as an orphan in it. This would cause a series of sufferings to the child. First, the child can never change his last name to that of his new father, which makes him an official orphan. Secondly, Joohee and her child cannot get the Hojeok issued without the consent and assistance of her ex-husband. Hojeok is an essential official document that is necessary in obtaining a passport and preparing to travel. Joohee would have to contact her ex-husband as long as she wants to get the Hojeok issued, regardless of how long it has been since they got divorced or have been in contact with one another.

From the perspective of the male, it is also stressful for him to care for all his family members no matter whether or not he lives with them. He has the moral responsibility to respond to the demands of his ex-family until he or they die. This system causes people to think that male ought to be in charge of all aspects of his family members’ lives. Hoju-Je is unique system in Korea that negatively affects both males and females.

Raising Issues

Hoju-Je harms both men and women by failing to reflect the transition of modern families. Although it has been apparent that Hoju-Je has many problems, it has not been updated because it is deeply rooted in wrong and misguided prejudices from tradition and Confucianism. Hoju-Je impacts women in that it focuses only on the male. Women do not have their own Hojeok. They move to another male’s Hojeok whenever there are any changes of their Hoju. It is also damaging to children. If their parents get divorced, their suffering begins. If they have a different last name than their new father they are jeered by their friends and cannot be official heirs or heiresses of their new father. The apparent victim of Hoju-Je is the woman who is legally subjugated to a man. Who and what caused this? How could this have been accepted in Korean society?

Males are also burdened by Hoju-Je by the great deal of responsibility which is expected of them. Men are expected to be the primary providers and protectors of their families. The death rate of males in their forties and fifties is the highest in the world. This demonstrates that males in Korea are over-worked and have a great deal of stress. This may also show the negative impact of wrong social policies in the lives of males.

Currently, Hoju-Je plays little more than a nominal role in Korean society, but still causes harm to both females and males. First, it can affect women directly by causing them physical and mental distress. Second, it interferes with a healthy family life for reconstructed families. Third, by creating an atmosphere in which men are expected to be in charge of the family and be the sole provider, it stresses men in Korean society so greatly that it mentally and physically harms them.

Arguments against Hoju-Je

Historical Causes

Hoju-Je is a traditional custom transmitted from generation to generation. It is hard to speak of the exact origin or cause although many people in Korea would think of Confucianism as its foundation. However, long before Confucianism flourished in Korea, a similar law to Hoju-Je existed during the Coryo Dynasty. That of Coryo was a similar system to Hoju-Je in that one person represented the family, but differed in its treatment of women in the family. Women could inherit property the same as men, lead veneration as men did, and had equality with men in terms of family.

Also important to the history of Hoju-Je and Confucianism is the Yi Dynasty. The Yi Dynasty was founded on Confucianism in 1392. The basic society of the Yi dynasty was patriarchal. Centering on a king who was considered to be the father of the country, all societal systems were formed and operated. Fathers in families were small kings in small societies. From the beginning of the Yi dynasty to the18th Century, however, the understanding toward women was different. Although in that society the idea that men were superior to women was still prevalent, the mother of a family held an important administrative role. The word ‘inside-owner’ was often used for wives, which explains that women took charge of the households.

After the 18th century, especially when Sung Confucianism’s patriarchal ethics came to flourish, the attitude toward women became different. Sung Confucianism emphasizes clan rules and manners. ‘Three kinds of ways to follow’ as a rule for women to follow was established. This rule indicates to whom a woman should listen; the first one is her father before she marries, the second is her husband after she marries, and the third is her son – especially the first son – when the husband dies.

At this time, the concepts of yin and yang, which often represented women and men, became distorted in Confucianism. Yin and yang should harmonize with each other, not contrast or confront each other.[1] The concepts of yin and yang became confused as they were assimilated into Confucian ideologies about good and evil. As light was seen as good and darkness as bad, yang became good and yin became bad. The problem is that the concept of yin and yang as the bad and the good was often compared with women and men. Thus, a patricentric family system with the predominance of men over women became firmer. Along with this, women were excluded from inheriting, remarrying, and so forth. This kind of tradition was firmly established and made it possible to inherit paternal blood according to men’s last name.

The present Hoju-Je began in the colonized period by the Japanese. The word ‘Hoju’ generated from when Japan transplanted their Hoju laws to Korean law systems. The Japanese used this law for the purpose of counting every person in Korea. By giving each Hoju absolute power over his family, the Japanese were able to effectively gain control of the Korean people by controlling the Hoju of each family, which suited their colonial plans well.

As examined above, though there existed similar laws before the colonized period, those were different from that of Hoju-Je at present. Before the Yi dynasty, one can see that women and men were more like equals. Even until the 18th century, family law did not really appear to be unfair for women. After the 18th century, one could see the tainted concepts of yin and yang which provided the groundwork for Hoju-Je. This generated unfairness for women, and thus, women were under the pain of injustice. It was a useful custom for Japanese colonialism; the Japanese used this law to control the Korean people.

Biological Perspective

The role of women in Hoju-je is very different from women’s biological role. From the perspective of biology, one cannot say that Hoju-je is sufficient in explaining the relationship of men and women. There are some interesting facts pertaining to the process of fertilization in human beings which can explain this further.

Women are born with two million oocytes[2]. Compared to the number of spermatozoa (sperm), which is three to four billion for once, the number of women’s egg cells is relatively low. Furthermore, forty thousand out of two million dominant egg cells survive after women reach puberty. One oocyte makes four cells, but only one becomes an egg cell, and the remaining three cells degenerate. Darwin designates this as ‘female choice,’ or ‘intersexual selection.’[3]


Jae-Cheon Choi, a professor at Seoul National University, recently submitted a report against Hoju-Je to the government. According to him, Hoju-Je carries unfairness for women in modern times based on socio-biology, which is his field. When one looks at genes in terms of genealogy, it becomes more interesting, and demonstrates an opposite understanding of the roles of males and females than Hoju-Je. In sexual reproduction, half of both the female’s and male’s genes are combined. Neither party is allowed to transfer more than 50 percent. Normally when we speak of genes we are referring to the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of a cell nucleus. There is mitochondrial DNA, which is “The genetic material of the mitochondria, the organelles that generate energy for the cell.”[4] Mitochondria contain the DNA of a nucleus and its own DNA. During the fusion of two nuclei, female and male genes combine by donating a half of each. However, since a cytoplasm[5], apart from the nucleus, comes from the female the mitochondrial DNA is given by only the female. For this reason, any research in biological genealogy studies and compares mitochondrial DNA. This means that a biological genealogy follows the female lineage, not that of the male. Male lineage cannot exist in the biological world.

In this perspective, biology does not agree with Hoju-Je. Rather, it could serve to emphasize women’s important biological role over men in families. However, since both contribute to sexual reproduction and the making of a family, it is better to realize that the two sexes stand on the same level of significance, but play different roles.

Theological Analysis

In this paper, it has been shown that the law of Hoju-Je, in which gender roles are decisively determined, cannot be supported by arguments of tradition or biology. Historically, Hoju-Je is an institution which was derived from colonial efforts on the part of Japan. Biologically, men and women are both essential in sexual reproduction, so that children of a couple must be considered to be equally belonging to both. In this sense, women and men should have equal rights and responsibilities to toward their children.

In addition to these approaches, it can be argued that Hoju-Je poses a theological problem. Gustavo Gutiérrez, emphasizing the importance of “critical reflection on Christian praxis”[6] in theology, believes that it should address current societal issues and be willing to criticize them when necessary. In order to make this argument for Hoju-Je, two assumptions must be made: that women and men are created equal, and that unequal treatment which would be harmful to one or both parties is something from which all people must be liberated.

The equality of men and women

There is a long history in the Christian church of viewing women as inferior to men. There were many who believed that women were not full human beings. Thomas Aquinas felt that, “the female was a defective instance of a human being.”[7] Pope Pius XI reacted against co-education by suggesting that the two sexes were created to be different and that the abilities of the two were not equal and that, therefore, there was no reason to educate them equally.[8] This type of reasoning that was accepted in the past has given way to a more egalitarian belief that although men and women have biological differences, both are fully human and neither is innately inferior to the other.

Mary Aquin O’Neill, in her article entitled “The Mystery of Being Human Together,” addresses the fact that the creation story of Genesis is often used to illustrate that women are inferior to, and should be submissive to, men. O’Neill explains that, “The text reveals that the subordination of women to men is a result of sin and not part of the created order portrayed prior to what has become known as the Fall.”[9] The argument made by O’Neill affirms the natural equality that should be present in relationships among women and men, and that only because of a perversion of the created order does there exist inequality.

Liberation theology

Although the liberation theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez focuses primarily on the liberation of the poor, liberation is a goal to be obtained for all persons, both the oppressed and the oppressors. As Lucien Richard explains, “Liberation theology in its many various forms is a theology that formally addresses the question of suffering caused by injustice.”[10] Gutiérrez suggests that liberation needs to be brought beyond socio-economic justice to include a more personal freedom. The problem faced by the men and women of Korea under Hoju-Je is one of more social than economic importance, but it is also a matter of inner freedom for these people. Both parties are being forced to submit to roles imposed upon them by the government and are therefore not free to participate in completely equal relationships with one another.

Salvation is of utmost importance and Gutiérrez would argue that already in the act of creation God was initiating a history of salvific works. Creation and salvation are closely linked in the Bible; for example, God is often referred to as both creator and redeemer in the same phrase.[11] In mentioning this fact, Gutiérrez would like to show that it is natural and anticipated, from the moment of creation, that God should act in a salvific manner. This can help to explain why action should be taken when the created order of God has been damaged. This can give people the validation and motivation they need to change their situation. If Koreans find that Hoju-Je is something that goes against the created order, which it does by denying the inherent equality of women and men, then it is natural that they should seek salvation from this law.

Sin is the element from which all people are saved and liberated through Jesus Christ. Gutiérrez, speaking in the Latin American context, describes sin as more than simply a personal problem, but one that is present in society as a whole. Sin is an element that has been shaping history from the beginning and has been present in every situation where injustice and oppression have taken place. He believes that human responsibility must be taken in the face of sin, so that a sinful institutional system should be challenged and repudiated.[12] The source of sin in the case of Hoju-Je is best associated with the institution itself, because it is from the institution that both men and women are in need of redemption. Hoju-Je itself, in the fact that one family member represents the family, is not essentially wrong. However, when it is applied to the relationship between men and women it can become injustice since it brings inequality. In other words, the idea of the law itself would have no structural evil if it were reformed to give equal treatment to men and women.

The hope found by Christians is that sin does not have the last word, because Christ has been offered to humanity as a gift who, “By his death and resurrection he redeems us from sin and all its consequences.” This is a great hope for those under Hoju-Je because, if we admit that the law is a sin, it means that Christ can liberate them from it and its consequences, such as the psychological effects it holds.

The Trinity

Another theological argument against Hoju-Je can be found in Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s interpretation of the Trinity.[13] She refutes a patriarchal idea of God and begins by opposing the terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ as names for God. Mentioning that the image of God is not patriarchal, she claims that there are three equal components of the Trinity, so that the ‘father’ component should not be at the center. This idea is closely related to the wrong root of Hoju-Je. In the system of Hoju-Je, the key idea is male-centeredness. Since the starting point of the Trinity is viewed as the ‘father’ and as the relationship of Trinity is interpreted according to the relationship with the ‘father’, Hoju-Je also defines the relationship of family members according to a male figure, the Hoju. As the Trinity that LaCugna interpreted consists of the three independent substances, the Hoju-Je should be reformed according to the concept of Trinity of LaCugna. In other words, as each of the three substances of Trinity has its own character and function, but hold a close relationship with the other substances, Hoju-Je should be renewed as follows: each member of a family should have his or her own Hojeok and become a Hoju respectively. This means that they do not need to be subordinated under the Hojeok of a male. This would not mean the dissolution of a family but would allow each family member to have his or her own right to be legally independent.

As the Trinity becomes perfect by interacting with other substances as independent one, each family member constitutes one perfect family only when they are considered and treated as complete human beings. By imitating the reinterpretation of the Trinity, Hoju-Je can be reformed. Women become legally equal to men. They do not need to depend on males and are no longer treated as subordinated to males.

The new interpretation of LaCugna about Trinity liberates not only the female but also the male. She points out that God was considered as the monarch, the origin and cause of everything[14]. This idea is found in Hoju-Je. The male in Korean society is considered as the main provider and the family member who is totally responsible for everything in the family. The concept of stress and burden cannot be applied to God when the meaning of origin and cause are dealt with, but when that concept is applied to human being, especially male, it essentially entails stress, pressure, strain and burden. This is because the human being cannot afford to carry the concept that is only applied to God. Therefore, this idea about ‘origin and cause of everything’ becomes a yoke to male in Korean society. By being given the same amount of burden, which also entails rights, women can gain an independent position. Giving the same rights to females also means removing the same amount of burden from the male. By applying LaCugna’s reinterpretation of the Trinity to Hoju-Je, women and men can retrieve their position and meaning and can function as independent human beings in society.


Hoju-Je is a unique civil law that exists only in Korea. It negatively impacts both males and females by taking rights away from females and by imposing a great deal of social stress and burden on the male. The inequity of this civil law, however, does not have any historical, biological, or sociological foundation. Rather, if one were to look solely at biological or sociological perspectives, it would be more logical if Hoju-Je gave preference to the female.

Employing the ideas of O’Neill and Gutierrez, Hoju-Je can be interpreted as a social sin that ruins the created order and equity. Hoju-Je should be reformed according to the interpretation of LaCugna about the Trinity in order that both males and females have equal legal rights, while being able to maintain a coherent family.

Currently in Korea, there are many positive activities of social groups and NGOs to abolish Hoju-Je. However, there are still as many pro-Hoju-Je people as anti- Hoju-Je people. This means that in the matter of civil law Korea has not yet restored the created order of God. Moreover, they do not even recognize the social sin that still destroys God’s created order. There remains hope that through the efforts of those who are opposed to Hoju-Je that Korean society will come closer to a more natural order aligned with God’s will.


Bretzke, James T., S.J. “Moral Theology out of East Asia.” Theological Studies v. 61:1 March 2000.

Choi, Jae-choen. Men wear make-up when the age of women comes. Seoul: Kungree, 2003.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1993.

Lee, Li-Hsiang (Lisa). “Sharing the Light.” Philosophy East & West v.50:1 Jan 2000.

O’Neill, Mary Aquin. “The Mystery of Being Human Together,” in Freeing Theology, The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Online Medical Dictionary.

Richard, Lucien. “Liberation Theology and Suffering: The Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez,” in What are they saying about the theology of suffering? Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992.



[1] Li-Hsiang (Lisa) Lee, “Sharing the Light.” Philosophy East & West v.50:1 Jan 2000.

[2] The On-line Medical Dictionary explains, “The developing female gamete before completion and release. The female germ cells in stages between the prophase of the first maturation division and the completion of the second maturation division.” “”

[3] Jae-choen Choi, Men wear make-up when the age of women comes (Seoul: Kungree, 2003), 103. He explains that since women invest on reproduction more than men do and therefore, women has more decision-making authority.


[5] The protoplasm of a cell exclusive of that of the nucleus, it consists of a continuous aqueous solution (cytosol) and the organelles and inclusions suspended in it (phaneroplasm) and is the site of most of the chemical activities of the cell. “”

[6] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973), 11.

[7] Mary Aquin O’Neill, “The Mystery of Being Human Together,” in Freeing Theology, The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective by Catherine Mowry LaCugna (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 148.

[8] Ibid., 149.

[9] Ibid., 142.

[10] Lucien Richard, “Liberation Theology and Suffering: The Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez,” in What are they saying about the theology of suffering? (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1992), 91.

[11] Gutiérrez, 87.

[12] Ibid., 102.

[13] Catherine Mowry LaCugna, Freeing Theology (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1993), 85-87.