Japan tries to fix a child custody system under fire from all sides

4 days ago 32

TOKYO – Mr Yasuo Hojyo was home alone when his wife and five-year-old son appeared in the doorway. He said the boy seemed troubled. “My son was looking at my wife uneasily. He looked confused,” Mr Hojyo said.

When he returned from work a few days later, they were gone. Inside was a letter from a lawyer saying his wife had filed for divorce.

That was almost a year ago. Since then, Mr Hojyo, 49, has been living alone in the two-story house in Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, stewing over being unable to see his child, who has since turned six. He said he’s become so distraught that he avoids going to a local park.

“It’s really painful to see children close to my son’s age,” he said. “It’s hard to breathe.”

Mr Hojyo is seeking custody or at the very least visitation. But under Japan’s current legal system, his prospects are limited. He’s one of almost a dozen parents of Japanese children Bloomberg spoke with, both men and women, who not only lost access to a child after a separation, but are caught in the gears of an opaque family law system shaped by more than a century of contradictory priorities.

In Japan, child welfare in divorce often turns on single-parent custody, where one parent can be largely excluded from a child’s life. It’s an outcome that makes marital breakups all the more fraught in a country where getting divorced is relatively simple and the power of family courts to enforce visitation orders is limited.

Among Group of Seven nations, Japan is alone in not recognising the legal concept of joint custody, or “shared authority”. While the majority of Japanese divorces settle privately or are successfully mediated, courts take over when spouses can’t agree, eventually awarding the equivalent of full custody to one parent if there are children involved.

Parents secretly moving out and taking children with them isn’t unheard of – in fact, it’s often viewed in Japan as justified, in part because of instances where domestic violence is alleged. Such unilateral separations are legal in Japan, but if the other parent attempts to take the child back, that can be considered an illegal removal.

When custody fights do reach the courts, the mother generally wins full custody (in Japan, the custody concept is split into physical custody – defined as day-to-day care – and a type of legal custody that ...

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