by Danica Joan Dockery, M.Ed
Yasuo Hojyo, a 49-year-old resident of Saitama Prefecture, had his world turned upside down almost a year ago. He returned home from work one day to find his wife and 5-year-old son gone, leaving behind only a divorce notice from her lawyer. Since then, he has lived in solitude, yearning to see his now 6-year-old child.
Hojyo’s plight is shared by many Japanese parents, both men and women, who have lost access to their children due to a complex and opaque family law system deeply rooted in Japan’s history. Unlike most Group of Seven nations, Japan does not recognize the legal concept of joint custody or shared authority in divorce cases. Instead, the Japanese system often results in single-parent custody, effectively excluding one parent from the child’s life. This situation adds emotional turmoil to divorce proceedings in a country where divorces are relatively simple to obtain, and family courts have limited power to enforce visitation orders.
When custody disputes do make their way to court, it is typically the mother who is granted full custody, both in terms of day-to-day care and decision-making authority regarding the child’s well-being. The losing parent is often left with minimal visitation rights, sometimes restricted to just a few hours per month. This scenario may soon change, as a significant proposal to overhaul Japan’s child custody system, including the possible introduction of joint custody, cleared a major hurdle in November. However, this reform remains a subject of debate, particularly concerning cases involving allegations of abuse.
While proponents argue that these reforms could address deep-seated issues within Japan’s legal system and offer broader social and economic benefits, opponents are concerned about the potential consequences, especially for situations where abuse claims are raised during divorce proceedings. Regardless of this disagreement, both sides agree that greater state intervention is required.
Japan’s child custody system has evolved significantly over the years. In the early 20th century, fathers were typically granted custody, and divorced mothers were pressured to return to their original family homes. However, after World War II, a shift toward placing children with primary caregivers resulted in the current sole custody system. This transition was accompanied by a rise in “salarymen” with demanding jobs, which often discouraged women from working full-time and led to an increase in maternal custody. Still, many of these mothers struggled due to weak enforcement of child support laws.
In recent years, the sole custody system has faced growing criticism, as more separated parents seek greater access to their children through group lawsuits. The traditional acceptance of parental estrangement post-divorce has waned, and people are increasingly advocating for change.
In November, Japan’s Family Law Subcommittee, tasked with addressing these issues, proposed joint custody as a potential reform, along with considerations for mandatory child support and streamlined asset-seizure processes. While these changes may not align with practices in other developed nations, in Japan, they would be a significant step forward.
However, critics argue that reforming custody laws alone will not suffice; financial support for single-parent families must also be expanded. Currently, many single mothers struggle to receive adequate child support, contributing to high relative poverty rates in single-parent households.
Economists believe that implementing joint custody could benefit Japan’s economy by improving living standards and education outcomes for children of single parents. This change could help mitigate the economic and emotional damage caused by the current winner-takes-all approach in custody battles.
One critical issue is the potential impact on children who lose contact with one parent after divorce. Research suggests that children subject to joint custody arrangements often have better psychological and physical health outcomes.
Despite these potential benefits, Japan’s reluctance to intervene in family matters has hindered progress. Enforcement of custody orders is limited, and parents who remove children from the other parent’s custody are often difficult to pursue legally. This lack of enforcement contrasts with practices in other countries, where such orders are readily upheld.
Moreover, allegations of domestic abuse are a central concern in custody disputes. While joint custody is generally supported in principle by the Japanese public, critics argue that allegations of child abuse are not thoroughly investigated before custody or visitation decisions are made. This raises concerns that joint custody could expose women and children to abusive situations.
In response to these challenges, some foreign-born parents have challenged Japan’s custody system. Catherine Henderson, an Australian expatriate, faced difficulties after her Japanese husband left with their children and refused her access. Despite her efforts, custody was awarded to her ex-husband, leaving her with no contact with her children for three years.
Japan’s journey to reform its child custody system is ongoing, and the disparity in treatment between Japanese and foreign-born parents highlights the complexities and challenges involved. While change may be on the horizon, parents like Yasuo Hojyo continue to grapple with the emotional toll of being separated from their children. The desire for reform is clear, but the path forward remains contentious, as policymakers grapple with the need to balance parental rights with child welfare and safety in a rapidly changing society.
Danica Joan Dockery is a certified family mediator, anger management/domestic violence specialist and co-parenting expert, the author of “A Happy Child Co-Parenting Course” a court ordered family stabilization course for parents who are navigating the challenges of co-parenting after a breakup. She is also the founder of Kids Need Both, Inc and co-creator of the Hope4Families.net platform, a collaborative community that provides education, support and resources to families.